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Judaism without the “experts”

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Some folks in the Jewish community decry the rise in “privatized Judaism.”

From a Jewish institutional perspective, this makes perfect sense. The bar or bat mitzvah celebration that takes place outside of the synagogue; the wedding officiated by friends of the couple without a rabbi present; couples who create their own wedding ceremony mixing Jewish traditions with their own homespun spirituality–these are all examples of a phenomenon that can make it feel like the role of qualified Jewish guides (rabbis, cantors and educators) and the time-honored institutions of community synagogues will be threatened.

Sometimes I think that the only Jewish communal job that is not going to be privatized any time soon is the mohel, who performs ritual circumcisions.  Not many parents of newborns are vying to privatize that role.

But what about the upside to this trend?

At its best, privatized Judaism is an opportunity for those who see themselves on the sidelines of Jewish life to create their own Jewish experiences.  It can empower them to find the resources, seek out guides, and answer questions about their own life cycle events as opposed to going through the “stock and trade” ceremony laid out before them like a set table.

Another upside to this trend is that privatized Judaism can yield creative new rituals for life transitions that don’t have satisfying Jewish rituals to mark them.

Consider, for example, a young woman I know who recently got divorced.  The traditional “get” ceremony, though necessary for all sorts of reasons having to do with personal status, does not always satisfy the psychological need to mark the loss (and sometimes the relief) of a divorce.  This young woman needed more.  Sitting shiva for seven days, the ritual for mourning the loss of a loved one, seemed a compelling ritual to mark this loss for her.  It also seemed to represent, by opposition, the seven days of celebration after a wedding (the sheva brachot). 

Another idea that helped mark this significant transition in her life was creating a ceremony to remove her wedding ring, to oppose the giving of the ring during her Jewish wedding.

Then there’s a woman who was becoming a grandmother for the first time.  She was called up for an aliyah during the Torah service in the synagogue right after her grandson was born, but the language of the blessing sounded pat.  She felt it didn’t express the awe that she felt bringing another generation into the world, nor the complexity of emotions that she experienced as she witnessed her own daughter transformed into a mother.  After seeking out a Jewish educator with whom she could study, she created a new mi shebeirakh blessing – one that alluded to the complex and heartening relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren exemplified by Jacob blessing his grandchildren at the end of the book of Genesis.

I heard from a first-time mother-to-be, who wanted to mark the stages of her pregnancy in significant ways.  While nine months is a long time to sustain heightened consciousness about the impending birth, seeking out an educator, she created a personal ritual for Friday night after lighting the candles to reflect the kabbalistic notion of receiving a neshama yeteira , an additional soul, on Shabbat.  It marked a time for her to be conscious about the additional soul gestating within her.

Let’s not keep these creative expressions of Jewish identity to ourselves.  Let’s share these and other ideas to make Jewish life resonant with Jewish traditions and reflective of our needs today.

(Dasee Berkowitz is a Jewish life cycle consultant in New York. She can be reached at www.jlifeconsulting.com.)

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