Sermon: Rosh Hashanah – Ritual and Modernity (Cantor Cheryl Wunch)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

The Japanese tea ceremony is a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving Japanese tea, together with traditional Japanese sweets to balance with the bitter taste of the tea.  Preparing tea in this ceremony means putting all of one’s attention into the predefined movements.  The whole process is not about drinking the tea, but it’s about aesthetics, and preparing a bowl of tea from one’s heart.  The host of the ceremony always considers the guests with every movement and gesture.  Even the placement of the tea utensils is considered from the guests’ vantage point.  There are various different steps, words, movements, utensils, and rules of etiquette that are all necessary elements in a proper tea ceremony.  There are even different steps that must be taken depending upon the season.  Serving tea in Japan is considered to be an art form and a spiritual discipline, and the ultimate aim of this ritual is to create a relaxed environment in which deep spiritual satisfaction through the drinking of tea and through silent contemplation can be obtained.

Ritual is a crucial element of both religious and secular life.  There are rituals that pervade every facet of our modern world.  There are dating rituals, engagement rituals, rituals around secular holidays, like Halloween and Valentine’s Day, and even rituals surrounding the monarchy.  In addition to rituals observed by the collective, there are smaller, personal rituals as well.  Many people have their own morning rituals, whether that’s drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, or going for a run and listening to podcasts.  Some people have evening rituals, like taking a bath, or having a glass of wine.  Some people are ritualistic about how they brush their teeth, or butter their toast, and many people have their own rituals regarding what snacks they eat and where they sit when they go to the cinema.  We have ritualistic ways of greeting each other, and of showing our affection.  Athletes, and as I’m learning, particularly footballers have some elaborate and bizarre pre and post-game rituals.  Even our RSY kids have rituals of their own.  Ritualistic behaviour is everywhere in our world.

Rituals serve many purposes – they can bring comfort, or relieve anxiety.  They can help us to feel connected to the people around us, or feel connected to those who have participated in that ritual in years gone by.  Rituals can also be a hindrance to us.  Having to participate in antiquated rituals that no longer seem relevant can stop people from being productive.  Some may argue that there are legal and parliamentary procedures that might fit into that category.  Also, people who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder rely on repetitive rituals to keep them feeling safe and controlled, when in reality, their rituals can take over their lives and prevent them from doing something as simple as walking down the street.  Regardless of the particular purpose, the thing that separates ritual from just a mindless behaviour is that our rituals infuse meaning into our actions, and make the things that we do seem somehow more complete.  A birthday party wouldn’t be the same without the ritual of a candle, a cake and singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and without all of those elaborate steps, a Japanese tea ceremony would just be a regular cup of tea.

As we know, rituals also play a very important role in Judaism.  We have rituals for our festivals, for every stage of our lifecycle, rituals govern how we pray, when we eat, and how we begin and end our days, our weeks, our months, and our years.  Our rituals bring meaning to our celebrations, and bring comfort to our times of despair.  They keep us connected to our heritage and remind us who we are and from whence we came.  We trust in our rituals, and hold them dear.

The rituals that we have today have not always been just as they are.  While a few originate from the Torah, most of our rituals were created by people in the decades and centuries after biblical times, and so there was always a point at which a decision had to be made as to how a particular ritual was going to be performed.  One famous example of this is the lighting of the Chanukiah.  There was a debate in the Talmud regarding the proper way to light the Chanukiah, and it wasn’t until this debate was settled that we began to light one candle on the first day, and increase the light by one candle for each day of the festival, as we do now.  The Kippah, which is now universally recognized as Jewish ritual headwear, was originally worn as a way of distinguishing ourselves from our Christian neighbours, for whom it was customary to pray with their heads uncovered.  Our rituals have all changed and evolved over time, and the beauty of Reform Judaism is that ‘reform’ is an active verb.  It is a perpetual exercise of creation and re-creation.

As Rabbi Mark explained to us last night, our liturgy is constantly evolving.  Just as our liturgy continues to grow and change, so must our rituals.  In her revolutionary work Ritual Theory Ritual Practice, sociologist Catherine Bell says: In the sense of community, ritual is seen as a way to create a collective set of beliefs or ideals.  In an ever changing society, ritual is the bridge between tradition and constant social change.  And so we, as Reform Jews have the unique opportunity to be that bridge, to combine tradition and modernity, to be the progress in Progressive Judaism.

In a recent edition of the Jewish Telegraph, a man wrote an impassioned Letter to the Editor entitled: Time to End Pop Music at Simchas.  He began his letter by saying:

ALL we hear at so many simchas today is American pop and country and western music booming with Hebrew words. The dancing is 100 per cent country and western, but is called simcha dancing to make it Kosher.  How can rabbis allow this to carry on, unless they don’t know about it?


Let me just pause here for a moment to say, yes.  Ok.  I can see what he’s saying.  I’m not sure that he really knows what Country and Western music is, since I certainly haven’t heard any true American cowboy music being played at Jewish events here, but I do know what he’s getting at.  He’s not happy with the infiltration of pop music into Jewish life.  I don’t blame him.  There is something beautiful and moving about hearing traditional Jewish music at a simcha, and it can sometimes be off putting to hear Hebrew text superimposed onto secular music.  We have a strong connection to the music of our ancestors, and for many of us there is a desire to ensure that we don’t lose these musical traditions.  I spent five years in Cantorial school learning all of those ancient melodies for the exact same reason, to preserve our musical heritage.  So, so far, I don’t entirely disagree with this letter.

The letter continues with a brief explanation of what he believes makes a piece of music “Jewish.”  He talks about musical modes, and, unfortunately for him, his understanding explanation of the different scales and modes is significantly lacking, but his main point is still well taken – he wants Jewish music to be more prominent in Jewish life.  Ok.  But then he continues,

There are so many wonderful proper and authentic niggunim that one used to hear, but now are mostly confined to certain shteibls.  We have wonderful compositions from Modzitz, Ger, Chabad, Viznitz, Melitz and Skvere to name a few, so isn’t it time we brought back real divine spirit and put this pop music where it belongs?  We have one exception to the rule in Shlomo Carlebach, whose compositions, as he said himself, are min hashamayim (from heaven).

This is where, I believe, his argument loses all credibility.  The words “proper” and “authentic” are so subjective.  Who is to say what is proper, what is authentic?  What he considers proper and authentic music, are compositions that were written in Eastern Europe in the late 1700s and early-1800s.  Sure, that was certainly some time ago, but for a people who are celebrating the new year of 5775, I’m not sure that going back only 200 odd years can really be from where we claim our authenticity.  All of those melodies were, not so long ago, new, and were once considered popular music.  Jewish music has always evolved out of the music of the times, and has always bumped up against those who thought that new was bad, or inauthentic.  Where this man really loses me though, is when he refers to the music of Shlomo Carlbach as the “only exception to the rule” of modern Jewish composers who created authentic and proper Jewish music.  Yes, it is true that the melodies written by Carlebach sounded a lot like the music from the shtetls, but it was modern.  He played the guitar.  He worked with Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and other folk artists and performed at the Berkley Folk Festival.  Carlebach was doing exactly what this letter writer was complaining about – using musical sounds that were popular at the time to reach out to disenfranchised young Jews.  I don’t see any difference between putting Hebrew text to the folk music sounds of the 1970s, and putting Hebrew text to the pop music sounds of today.  They both provide the same thing – an opportunity for young people to engage in Jewish life in a way that speaks to them and their generation…which is exactly what the Chassidim did when they began their spiritual movement.  The only real difference is the personal taste of this particular man.  This is important to recognize as personal taste, especially when it comes to music, is rather critical.  No one likes all music, and personal taste alone cannot dictate what is proper and authentic.

Leaving Carlebach aside, this man’s argument is that the only proper and authentic Jewish music is that which came from the shtetls.  If this is true, then we must be willing to reject most of our current and traditional repertoire.  Our popular Ein Keloheinu melody was modelled after a German Lutheran Hymn and the melody for Maoz Tzur that we sing every Chanukah was fashioned after a German Battle song.  These songs didn’t come from Sinai, nor did they come from the Hassids in the shtetls.  They came from the popular sounds of the day, and have become a part of our repertoire of authentic and proper Jewish music.  Without the ability to use the sounds of the day, we wouldn’t have any of the beautiful music that we use here at Alyth.  We wouldn’t have Sulzer, Mombach, or Lewandowski, and without them we wouldn’t have Portnoy, Steinberg, or Finkelstein, and without them, there would be no Klepper, Friedman, Maseng, or Nichols.  You might not recognize all of these names, but we sing music from each of these composers week in and week out, and especially now, during our High Holy Day season.  They have all become a part of what we consider to be authentic and proper Jewish music.  We keep the old, we incorporate the new.  That is how a tradition stays alive.  That is how a people can continue to grow and flourish.

So what does this have to do with the evolution of ritual in Progressive Judaism?  Well, ritual, like music, is subjective.  It means different things to different people at different times.  It can be meaningful one day, and devoid of all significance the next.  It can speak to some people while alienating others.  Ritual can keep us connected as a community, and can also show us where we separate from one another.  Ritual, also like music, is constantly evolving and growing.  Our biblical ancestors would barely recognize the Judaism of today.  Kippa, tallit, strict Shabbat observance, Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and observing some festivals for 2 days, are all ritual elements that didn’t exist back then, but are certainly considered proper and authentic today.  Even the Japanese tea ceremony didn’t exist until the Japanese were influenced by Chinese and Buddhist practices.

As we as a people grow and change, some rituals need to be let go.  There was a time when it made perfect sense for us to bring the best of our flock to the high priest as an offering to God.  It’s what we did.  It’s how we connected to our community and our Deity.  It’s what we had always done and there was no reason to question it… but after the destruction of the Temple, sacrifice no longer served the same purpose.  And so we changed, we evolved, and we left that particular ritual behind.

As progressive Jews, we have to be able to recognize which rituals we need to carry with us, and which no longer serve us.  Through this evolution, we find that we can continue to observe our festivals and religious ceremonies in increasingly more meaningful and relevant ways.  We do not need to get rid of all of our rituals in order to be in line with the times, nor do we need to continue to practice rituals that just don’t work anymore.  What we do need to do is be open to trying.  Every one of our traditions was once a new ritual, just like every one of our beloved melodies was once a new song.  It is not just repetition and familiarity that makes something an authentic ritual, but it is purpose and meaning.  There are moments in our lives that are important and worthy of ritual recognition, but our tradition doesn’t have anything to offer.  So do we simply allow these moments to pass us by?  Of course not.  We do as our ancestors did and create rituals that work for us now.  New rituals are being created all the time.  For centuries, our marriage ritual has only been relevant for the legal marriage of a man and a woman, but now that our modern society has recognized that love and marriage can transcend heteronormative paradigms, our Jewish rituals have begun to evolve as well.  There are new rituals for sending children off to university, and new rituals for honouring retirement from professional life.  There are also new rituals that are meant to help us through difficult times.  Up until recently, families who suffered miscarriages were not able to express their sadness in a Jewish ritual, but the recent innovation of creating mourning rituals for the loss of pre-term babies has brought some level of comfort to people in their most painful moments.

As we continue to move forward into 5775 and beyond, we as a movement and as a congregation will need work together to experiment with new music, with new liturgy, and with new rituals.  It is our job to do this thoughtfully and with purpose.  The whole point of ritual is to remind us through our actions, of our connection to the Divine.  Performing rituals keeps us mindful of all that we have, and all that we can be grateful for.  We need not lose the rituals that we love, but we do need to ensure that the rituals we do perform are meaningful and worthwhile, and this is a process that we can all undertake together.