As many of my readers know, I moonlight as a graduate student at Northwestern in the Religion department. Last quarter I took a course on ritual theory. While initially I didn’t expect it to be highly germane to my overall interest in the development of religion and Jewish life in higher education, I wound up writing a paper analyzing the Martin Luther King Day Vigil at Northwestern as an act of civil religion in the university. In the course of my work I learned much about various theoretical approaches to ritual from anthropology, psychology, sociology and religious studies. (A good book to read, if one is interested in a primer is Catherine Bell’s Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions.)

The reason I mention this is that in both the Torah reading this week (Tzav: Leviticus 6-8) and in the Passover seder we will perform next week, ritual plays a central role. Tzav details the way in which certain sacrifices are to be performed, and documents the elaborate initiation ritual for Aaron and his sons. In case one loses interest in reading these dense parts of Leviticus, remember that all of the clothing, motions, gestures, language and sacrifices have significance in a ritual. Think of it like a play rich in symbolism–which has the effect of pointing us beyond the immediately present to a world of additional meanings. When we read a ritual this way, we can ask questions like, “What is the significance of putting blood on the right ear of Aaron and his sons?” or “Why are they not allowed to leave the Tent of Meeting for seven days?” In the simplest sense, then, seeing an act as a ritual means that we imbue it with meaning. We see it as representing something larger than what it immediately appears to be.

Yet ritual does more than that. According to the influential Jewish theorist Emile Durkheim, ritual enacts the values of a community in action. It attempts to influence the morals and behaviors of individuals by bringing them into a larger frame of reference, a totality larger than themselves. That is certainly the case in the sacrifices and rituals in Tzav, which take place on the grand stage of national drama. But it is equally true for the Passover seder, which takes place on the more intimate yet equally powerful stage of home and dining room.

The seder–as connoted in its very name, which means order–is a paradigmatic home ritual. It aims to bring its participants into a larger narrative: “In every generation one is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she personally left Egypt,” says Rabban Gamliel in the Talmud and the Haggadah. We engage in a ritual, an act of theater, with symbolic foods and even a script, all in the attempt to understand our own lives in the context of our larger story, to braid our story with that of the Jewish People throughout time.

Yet the seder, as a particularly educational type of ritual, invites us to improvise and thereby renew the ritual every year. We are told by the Rabbis to create midrash, to come up with our own readings of the story, and to ask questions about it, to interrogate it. The ritual of the seder is thus not meant to be a stifling ritual, one that establishes a fixed meaning for time immemorial, but rather one that engages each and every individual in the question: How is this story my story? In that process, each of us becomes a stakeholder and a writer of Jewish history.

Shabbat shalom.

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