Feminism's Stamp on Jewish Ritual
March 2014, "Creating New Rituals"
By Rabbi Roni Handler, for 614, HBI ezine
Ritualwell.org is a website where users can find, create, and share Jewish rituals of all kinds. The website promotes a democratic Judaism where everyone is welcome to submit content and join the conversation. The origins of this project, and creative Jewish rituals in general, lie in the feminist movement; early feminist rituals focused primarily on equality and access to Jewish traditions and, thus, access to Judaism itself. The women and communities using these ritual changes were unusual in the broader Jewish landscape. This period saw women adopting and adapting “men’s” rituals.
During the 1960s and 70s, Jewish women fought for egalitarian communities and for the opportunities to take on the same religious roles as Jewish men. They also identified a need for new Jewish rituals that would more effectively meet their own needs. The rituals created during this time added feminist layers onto pre-existing rituals. Feminist Passover seders added women’s voices to the story of the Jewish people and also provided a home for Jewish women who had become alienated from their former Jewish communities. New rituals were created to mark unique moments in the lives of girls and women. One of the most popular innovations was the simkhat bat, a ceremony for welcoming baby girls into the community. Other additions included egalitarian wedding ceremonies, feminine God language, and recognition of the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs. By the 1980s and 90s, the “new” rituals already felt ancient because they were grounded in tradition and reinforced the impulse to mark the important moments in our lives as holy. What began as a desire to address the role of women in Judaism served to address the role of Judaism in the lives of all Jews.
Ritualwell was founded by Lori Lefkovitz, founding director of Kolot: Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), and Eve Landau, director of Ma’yan, the Jewish Women’s Project. They realized that their respective organizations had become important resources for people who were interested in feminist and innovative Jewish ritual. They fielded regular requests for rituals, most often for baby naming rituals for newborn girls. Lefkovitz recalls, “The simkhat bat was just taking off, but people didn’t yet have templates for it, and it hadn’t entered the rabbinic manuals in interesting ways. We would Xerox them, sometimes personalize them, and snail mail them to people.” Sometimes Lefkovitz would invent rituals if a request came in, go back to old issues of the Reconstructionist, or consult with Rabbi Linda Holtzman [who taught the life cycle course at RRC]. Says Lefkovitz, “Eve then had the idea that we should post the rituals we had on the web (which back then was an ‘aha’ moment!). At the beginning, we posted whatever we had in our file boxes. I vetted and edited every single thing. Then we came up with the categories for Ritualwell and our idea was that people who liked and used the site would post to the site. We searched books and Jewish feminist publications for material and we solicited new rituals from Holtzman’s rabbinical students.”
In 2005, Kolot and RRC took sole ownership of the project. The creation of the Ritualwell website meant that people could access the material any time and from anywhere. Smartphones added a new layer of convenience, and creative Jewish rituals and blessings are now at our fingertips. Today, Ritualwell contains over a thousand rituals, prayers, blessings, songs, and videos from hundreds of contributors all over the world. In addition to the user-submitted content on our site, we connect to our community through monthly emails, weekly blog posts, and daily Facebook and Twitter updates. We have over 100,000 unique annual visitors. Jews from all over the world now turn to Ritualwell for accompaniment through life’s joys and sorrows.
Here’s what I’ve come to fully appreciate since I started editing the site in 2007: Ritual is key to helping people make meaning of their lives and the broader Jewish experience. It is an embodied way of acknowledging the past’s significance, setting our vision for the future, and marking the sanctity of moments of transition. Carefully chosen words and actions can transform people and shape our experiences of the world. Contemporary life is rich in moments for which we have no traditional ritual or prayer, and I love being part of an organization that marks these moments as well as those around which Jewish tradition has long been silent – miscarriages, stillbirths, same-sex wedding ceremonies, and blessings for recovery from personal or communal crises. It is an honor and a privilege for me to help others find the language to make the tradition speak or sing, and to address modern circumstances that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined. When a community celebrates or grieves together, it gains strength as its members grow more tightly connected to each other.