Go Ahead and Change the Rituals
If Jewish traditions aren’t personally meaningful, it’s our obligation to alter them rather than to fake it.
By Michelle Cove
There were many times when I questioned whether I was doing Judaism wrong. Mostly, it was when doubts sprang up, such as, “Is there really a God listening to our prayers?” “I don’t think I buy Moses parting the Red Sea.” “Am I supposed to believe there is a ‘Book of Life,’ or is this symbolic?” I didn’t express my doubts until I was an adult, when I learned that questioning is not only tolerable in our religion, but encouraged; it means we’re thinking and engaging with Judaism. Why hadn’t any one told me this earlier? I wouldn’t have felt like such a Jewish fraud. Another lesson I learned only recently is that it’s okay to tinker with the rituals of Judaism in order to make them meaningful.
Case in point: My 9-year-old daughter, along with millions of other tween girls, is right in the heart of watching her body change as early puberty descends. It is a little bit exciting for her; but mostly she just wants to fit in and look like her friends, who are not going through these changes yet. This means endless decisions to make – should she shave her armpits so she can wear tank tops, or not pick up a razor because her friends aren’t shaving? Should she wear a training bra? Walk around with “just in case” protection in the event she gets her period? She is trying to love and accept her body, but it’s hard in fourth grade, and I’m doing everything I can to help her appreciate her whole self, inner and outer. Sometimes I just hug her. I remember all too well how emotionally fraught this time was.
This year for Rosh Hashanah, I got an idea. We went to the nearby reservoir to follow Jewish tradition and throw breadcrumbs into the water. But rather than “casting off our sins,” as we are instructed to do, I told her we were going to cast away the dark thoughts we’d had this year about our beautiful bodies. She looked skeptical at first, rolling the bits of bread between her fingers and tossing them into the water, but she eventually got into the spirit. I could see the barely perceptible smile on her face as she tossed away negative messages about her body, and I felt proud.
Part of me wondered if I’d altered the ritual too much, gone too far. But, assessing sins is just not where we are at this particular point in time. My daughter is struggling enough this year without having to repent for bad deeds. She is also more compassionate than anyone I know (including myself), a fact I want to celebrate. She is no angel, mind you, but my priority for this year is to continue to help her build a positive body image and find peace with all these transitions that are out of her control. So, I changed the ritual, and I’m good with that.
I know there are Jews who might say that I made an Oprah moment out of a Jewish experience, or even butchered the tradition. If Jewish rituals aren’t inherently meaningful, however, I believe it’s our obligation to find a way to make them so, rather than faking it. You don’t get points for simply going through the motions. I believe Judaism (and all religions), at its best, helps guide us to being our best selves. So my proposal for the 614th commandment is that we open up with one another about how we may shift Jewish rituals to make them personally significant, without judgment and with a mind open to possibilities.
About the Author
Michelle Cove is the editor of 614. Additionally, she is the author of I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms (Seal Press, 2012) and I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You: A new understanding of mother-daughter conflict (Viking, 2012), as well as the filmmaker of “Seeking Happily Ever After” and “One and Only”. Visit michellecove.com.