Thursday, January 20, 2011

Discovering Meaning in Ritual

By Susan Esther Barnes

Often, when I hear people say they are not religious, or they want to explain why they don’t come to services more often, they say they’re not interested in meaningless ritual. That sentiment is certainly something we have in common! What is implied, however, is that they find most, if not all, ritual to be meaningless. I would argue this is a misconception.

Ritual is so much a part of our lives, it’s easy not to recognize it for what it is. Ritual, and its inherent meaning, is more easily recognized when it stops, because that is when you miss it.

For example, I’m one of those people who can’t sleep through the night without having to get up at least once or twice. When my husband and I were first married, every time I crawled back into bed I would find a piece of him – a hand, his head, whatever – sticking out from under the covers, and kiss it.

Then came one very cold night. When I got back into bed, I saw he had the covers pulled up over his head. There was no skin sticking out anywhere at all. I didn’t want to lift the covers off of him to find a place to kiss, because I didn’t want the cold air to rush in and wake him up. “He’s asleep anyway,” I thought, “It’s not like he’s even aware I’ve been doing this.” So I lay down to go to sleep.

Suddenly, I heard a drowsy voice beside me saying, “What, no kiss?” To my surprise, even though he had never mentioned it, he had been aware of the ritual, and he missed it the first time it didn’t happen.

Similarly, most people in the US are used to receiving a cake on their birthday, as well as a chorus of people singing, “Happy Birthday to You.” If, for some reason, this doesn’t happen, most of us would feel disappointed, let down, almost as if the birthday hadn’t really happened.

This is because ritual is meaningful to us. It connects our present to our past, and to other generations. We are hard wired for it. If we don’t have enough rituals in our lives, we will invent some, whether it’s pizza every Wednesday night, or a stop by Starbucks in the morning, or whatever fits the bill.

TV producers picked up on the importance of ritual long ago, and they have never forgotten the lesson. Carol Burnett ended all of her shows by singing, “I’m so Glad We Had This Time Together.” What would the show “Good Times” have been without Jimmie Walker saying, “Kid Dy-no-mite!” or what would happen if the creators of “Survivor” suddenly decided not to snuff out a torch every time a person is voted off the island?

These actions are rituals. On the surface, they may appear to be meaningless, but we know they are not, because we would feel a sense of incompleteness, almost a sense of being cheated, if they were omitted.

Who could have predicted that a particular song, or phrase, or a snuffed torch, could become important to us? We couldn’t know for sure in advance. The first time we experienced each of these things, for most of us, they felt like no big deal. It is only through repetition and familiarity that they grew in importance and gained in meaning.

And so it is with religious ritual. It makes no sense for someone to light Shabbat candles just once and then say, “Well, that did nothing for me, so I won’t ever do it again.” It is only by repeating a ritual multiple times, giving it a chance to sink in and become a part of our lives, that we can start to discover what meaning, if any, it may have for us.

We were told on Mount Sinai, as recorded in the Torah in Sh’mot 24:7, “na’aseh v’nishma” – “We will do and we will understand.” It is the doing that comes first; the understanding doesn’t come until later. When contemplating a ritual that is new to me, I need to see how it fits, through repetition over time, before I can even begin to decide whether it is something that will have meaning for me.

After all, the first several times you try almost anything new, it’s hard not to feel self conscious and awkward. It takes time and repetition before you can relax and actually experience a new thing in its own right without having these kinds of other feelings get in the way.

And while having cake on my birthday is delicious, and seeing a torch snuffed gives me a certain sense of finality, it is only religious ritual which brings me a sense of closeness to God and to something bigger, and more universal, than I get with those secular rituals.

No, I am not interested in the least in meaningless ritual. To the contrary, since I know I’m going to have ritual in my life one way or the other, I want to find the most meaningful rituals I can. That is why I am willing to put in the time and effort to repeat new religious rituals over time, in order to discover what depth of meaning they may hold for me.


  1. Susan, this is a beautiful post filled with a lot of food for thought and connections for me. It's interesting which rituals hold meaning for different people, isn't it? Lovely, as always!

  2. Fantastic post, really. Ritual is the kinesthetic worship and learning.

  3. Great post. I especially liked this:

    It is only by repeating a ritual multiple times, giving it a chance to sink in and become a part of our lives, that we can start to discover what meaning, if any, it may have for us.

    This is true. I only started saying the Amidah daily four months ago, but I also started wearing this thin shawl thing over my head (I will put tzitzit on it when my conversion is all done). I started doing it just to block out distractions, but now it's kind of an integral part of my Shacharit Amidah. Not to mention the fact that I can no longer imagine my mornings without Shacharit either!

  4. Decades ago, some relatives of mine rejected Jewish ritual--and became involved with the Masons, instead. I found that highly ironic. I agree that humans are hard-wired to need ritual, and I've linked to this post.

    Laura, I hope you'll be a Member of the Tribe soon.

  5. Thanks all for the wonderful comments, and thank you Shira for the link!

  6. Forever — is composed of Nows —
    'Tis not a different time —
    Except for Infiniteness —
    And Latitude of Home —

    From this — experienced Here —
    Remove the Dates — to These —
    Let Months dissolve in further Months —
    And Years — exhale in Years —

    Without Debate — or Pause —
    Or Celebrated Days —
    No different Our Years would be
    From Anno Domini's —

    - Emily Dickinson

  7. Carol Burnett would also always tug on her earlobe when she was saying good night at the end of each show in memory of her grandmother.