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.

One of the difficulties presented by the system of sacrifices which we begin to read about in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is that sacrifices run against the grain of some of our key modern sensibilities. They seem a bit magical, as though by killing and burning parts (or all) of an animal, we balance our accounts with God. We can resort to symbolic or allegorical forms of interpretation, but behind the scrim of those approaches lies the observation of philosopher (and former Northwestern faculty member) Charles Taylor, one of the most significant thinkers about religion and modernity today:

Modern Westerners have a clear boundary between mind and world, even mind and body. Moral and other meanings are “in the mind.” They cannot reside outside, and thus the boundary is firm. But formerly it was not so. Let us take a well-known example of influence inhering in an inanimate substance, as this was understood in earlier times. Consider melancholy: black bile was not the cause of melancholy, it embodied, it was melancholy. The emotional life was porous here; it didn’t simply exist in an inner, mental space. Our vulnerability to the evil, the inwardly destructive, extended to more than just spirits that are malevolent. It went beyond them to things that have no wills, but are nevertheless redolent with the evil meanings.

Taylor argues that this distinction, between inner thought and outward reality, lies at the heart of modernity. And there’s no question that, to use his phrase, it marks an inescapable framework of our experience. While our ancestors might have said that God resides in the Temple, that He literally spoke to Moses from the burning bush, or that the ashes of a red heifer literally made someone clean, today we would call people who made these claims crazy. Of course, we have ancient sources–beginning even as early as the book of Deuteronomy–that begin to make the inner-outer distinction. But Taylor would argue that it is in modernity that such formerly marginal thoughts become central, the basic frameworks of our thinking. And that’s what makes Leviticus so challenging for so many.

One of the other places where the ancients were perhaps ahead of their time was in Rabban Gamliel’s statement about Passover: “In every generation each individual is obligated to see him/herself as though s/he personally left Egypt.” As I have written about elsewhere, the key point in this sentence is “as if,” which demonstrates the Rabbis’ awareness of the symbolic nature of the seder. It presupposes historical distance: we are not literally leaving Egypt, we are remembering something that happened a long time ago. Like Civil War re-enacters, we can put on the costume and play for a while, but at the end of the day we will go back to our homes in our own space and time.

This “as if” awareness is instructive for us today. Few of us are likely to become mystics, shedding the idea of separation and individualism so fundamental to our modern situation. But we also don’t have to reject the idea that our relationship with the past, with the world, and with each other is devoid of mystery, either. The feminist Catholic theologian Susan Ross provides a helpful insight in this regard, as she explores the ideas of “expressive ambiguity” and “symbolic complexity.” Both, she writes are “ways of suggesting that symbols be understood in their capacity to open new ways of seeing reality, not so much to close them, to restrict possible meanings.”

The seder, which we will enact in less than two weeks, is just this kind of ritual, with this approach to symbolism. We uncover the matzah, and we talk over it. We use the symbols of the seder plate to open up conversation, discussion, and reflection. While we maintain our historical distance when we eat the matzah and maror, we also move somewhere in time as well. As Ross adds, ““Symbolic thinking is marked by an ability to hold together multiple ideas and meanings without collapsing them into an either/or dichotomy, and a willingness to enter into a world of meaning that is neither purely material nor utilitarian.”

To quote one of my teachers, who I’ve quoted before, “It’s religion, it’s supposed to be spooky.”