One of the most influential theorists of religion in the twentieth century is the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In a 1966 essay called “Religion as a Cultural System,” Geertz (famously, to those of us who study this stuff from an academic point of view) proposed this definition of religion:
Religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
You may want to read the definition over again, and maybe one more time after that. An essential element of Geertz’s approach is that religion, like language, is a symbolic activity. Geertz is a symbolic anthropologist, and he follows in the tradition of earlier structuralist thinkers who saw human life as fundamentally about making meaning of nature and experience. So Geertz’s definition of religion sees the elements of religious life as symbolic, suggesting something beyond themselves. What makes religious symbols so unique–different from, say, a billboard we might see on the highway–is that they feel particularly immanent or real to us. The connections we have with them, the associations they arouse, are uniquely rich.
Geertz’s approach is very useful for many of us today, who see religious activity as fundamentally about meaning. When we read the original commandments of Passover in Parshat Bo this week, in particular the words, “And you shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I went out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8, an approach like Geertz’s makes a lot of sense. Indeed, it seems perfectly aligned with the words and practice as outlined in the Mishnah and the Haggadah, namely that when we say these words we point to the shank bone (in memory of the Paschal sacrifice), making the symbolic food meaningful. As I have written in many other places, the Haggadah invites us to play with history, to recognize that we are in the time and space that we live in, but to imagine ourselves into another time and place. And, at Passover, we aim to do this just as Geertz says: with such an ‘aura of factuality’ that it seems ‘uniquely realistic.’ In other words, our imagination should be so powerful that we can really feel ourselves leaving Egypt.
One of the important critiques of Geertz, however, comes from a contemporary anthropologist named Talal Asad. Asad’s major point is that not everyone engages in practices deemed religious because they’re searching for meaning. In Geertz’s formulation, the quest for meaning is primary (it’s what all human beings try to do), and religion happens to provide a powerful vehicle for meaning. But if other avenues were more promising, people would choose those. Asad points out that many people in the world aren’t necessarily looking for meaning—they’re simply doing what they do, and the motivations for doing so can be extremely varied. As Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist influenced by Asad writes, “Tradition… is not a set of symbols and idioms that justify present practices, neither is it an unchanging set of cultural prescriptions that stand in contrast to what is changing, contemporary, or modern. Nor is it a historically fixed social structure. Rather, the past is the very ground through which the subjectivity and self-understanding of a tradition’s adherents are constituted.” In other words, it’s not that I’m looking for meaning, and that doing the seder provides me with meaning. Rather I am a Jew, and doing the seder is what Jews do. When I enact the seder, I am doing nothing less (and nothing more) than being a Jew.
There is something important and deeply resonant in this critique. In my work in Hillel, I often find that we focus on the word “meaningful.” We feel a need to make everything meaningful, which leads us to want to make meaning explicit, to teach and tell folks, “Here’s what this ritual means.” But I have often felt that perhaps the word we should be equally if not more focused on is “memorable.” We should be helping people engage in memorable Jewish experiences. Memory is a different creature than meaning. It’s something we inhabit, something a bit more porous. Meaning posits that we stand outside of our experience and analyze it; memory opens up to the possibility that we fuse with our experience, or that it fuses with us. It is more elastic, and it can even incorporate meaning.
I have long been preoccupied with Rabban Gamaliel’s statement in the Mishnah, which we repeat at the Seder: “In every generation each individual is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he personally left Egypt.” To me, the key word in this formulation has always been “as if,” which acknowledges our historical distance from the events of the Exodus and also invites us to get as close to them as we can. To me this one Hebrew word, k’ilu, “as if,” marks what Clifford Geertz and Talal Asad spend hundreds of pages unpacking.