David, an old high school friend, sent me a link to a web posting by the Moon Mamas Rosh Chodesh Group in the Bay Area and their innovative "transition ritual" (though the subject heading in David's e-mail was a succint 'oy vey!'). Here's part of the ritual:
Begin by having friends and family line a path for the individual marking the transition to walk through. Each individual holds a jar/cup filled with water. The transitioning individual begins at the start of the path holding an empty jar/bowl and states the following:
The transition I am about to honor is ___________
She/He continues stating each of the following:
I am leaving behind _________
I fear _____________________
I need ____________________
I hope for _________________
I welcome _________________
As she/he makes each statement, the family and friends repeat:
She/He continues walking as each statement is made. As the individual marking the transition makes her/his way through the path, each person she/he passes pours water from their jar into hers/his (representing support and giving). At the end of the path the individual marking the transition bows or pauses. The last person in the path then takes the jar/bowl from the transitioning individual and pours the water over the hands of the individual marking the transition.
The ritual testifies to a lot of things: to the powers of community, the continued need for ritual in an ostensibly secular world, and the persistence of, for lack of a better word, the 'spiritual.' But the ritual that grows out of the Moon Mamas group seem to assume that tradition and creativity are opposites--that to be authentic one has to throw off the rituals of the past, and supply new ones. True, the Moon Mamas acknowledge--with the very turn towards ritual--that spirituality needs some kind of vessel, but instead of embracing those traditions and practices sanctified by time and practice of generations of Jews, they create their own.
But does adhering to ritual and tradition necessarily mean the abandonment of creativity? Does being 'orthodox,' as so many people have told me since graduate school, really mean giving up one's authentic creative self? If you want to be yourself, Joseph Campbell-style (remember him? he was that anthropologist from that PBS special years back), you have to "follow your bliss." Is the only recipe for finding such bliss the kind pursued by the "Moon Mamas"?
It's common to think that being traditional means blind submission to the past or mimicry of the practices of others, and that creativity its opposite. So in the Jewish world, there are those who believe that authentic Judaism means either giving up subjectivity entirely (with everyone in the same mold), or, at the other extreme, the pursuit of individual 'bliss' independent of traditions (and the creation of new rituals and liturgy). But there is another route: I take the traditions, customs and laws, and I make them my own. Not through uprooting them, but through investing them with myself, they become new and distinctly mine.
In my travels giving lectures, I am the beneficiary of lots of hospitality; as a result, I get to see many Jewish families in action. A few months ago, I was at the house of the Kohls of New Hempstead in Monsey--master parents and educators. It's a custom to say over words of Torah at the shabbos table; the Kohl family had a particular way of making this custom their own. Right before dessert, the kids took out a huge box of candy, and from the different shapes, sizes, colors and brands available (tons of different kinds of kosher candy in America!), they spelled out in acrostic from--though often in cleverly complicated fashion--different verses from the weekly Torah portion. I couldn't guess them at first (I wasn't, for example, able to follow the manifold connotations of different sorts of laffy taffy), but their parents did, and the kids were exhilerated by the activity.
I thought to myself, I have to try this at home! But it wasn't long before I lost my resolve: in my house, it would never work. Forget about the fact that the local candy store doesn't boast the same variety of candy, but my wife would never countenance candy during the meal (for good reason: our kids would probably eat the whole box). But then there was that moment, when the resignation yielded and I realized I could make it my own. My kids love to put on shows, so I transformed the candy acrostic into what I coined 'Parsha Pantomine'--mini skits acting out Torah verses. At the outset, I was the director: in the first scene, two of the girls took their seats on the imaginary 39 bus, initially not noticing me walking down the aisle of our fantasy bus, but then, in the end, yielding their seats ('on behalf of an old person, you should stand'). That was an easy one. When they got the hang of it, they directed another 'play': one of the little ones was blindfolded; an older sibling placed a footstool in her path; and another of the kids--just at the crucial moment--came to the rescue, pushing the obstacle away: 'do not put a stumbling block before the blind.' All this, with the rest of the family guessing, and thinking of possible skits for the next verse.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, one of the great sages of the eighteenth century, writes: "At every moment that a person is working and cleaving to the words of the Torah, the words rejoice as if they were given from Sinai." Revelation is not limited to a particular time or place: but when we are truly engaged in Torah study, the process of revelation repeats itself. When someone produces a genuine new insight into Torah, the words themselves rejoice as if they were given at Sinai. Simcha, joy, is the linked by our sages with the experience of renewal: the words of the Torah themselves feel simcha--joy--because Sinai is renewed in a new and contemporary context. So it is true in our practices: at the moment that we fill the vessel of ancient rituals with our creative energies, we show a side of Torah which--now revealed for the first time in our homes, with our children--has its origin in the revelation of Sinai. This is not Campbell's bliss, but the simcha that unites past and present, the ancient and the modern--the new joy of a creativity which links back to Mount Sinai.