As a graduate of the Israeli rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I am happy I had the chance to study during my senior year of school at our Cincinnati, Ohio campus. I felt it was important for me to experience liberal Judaism where it is not discriminated against and where it is part of the mainstream. I could not attend my ordination in Jerusalem because I was nine months pregnant with my son Noam, and Dean David Komerofsky suggested that I be ordained with my Cincinnati classmates at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati.
A day before the ordination, Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of our seminary, invited all the ordainees for a talk. As we stood in front of the open ark in the college chapel and Rabbi Ellenson asked us to share our thoughts and feelings regarding the upcoming s'michah. We divided into two distinct groups: some thought of the event as a life-transforming experience, "the person descending from the bimah would not be the same as when she approached it"; others maintained that this is merely a formal event, just like any other graduation. Still, we could not predict what we would actually experience; the person who was the most detached in his expectation spent most of the ceremony weeping.
My preordination experience came to my mind as I read Parashat Tzav, in which Moses ordained the priests and prepared them for service (although the Tabernacle service was much more intense than my own). Moses bathed Aaron and his sons in water, dressed them in their priestly garments, and anointed them. At this point the Torah describes a complex ritual, during which Moses placed some of the sacrificial blood "upon the tip of their right ear, and upon the thumb of their right hand, and upon the great toe of their right foot" (Leviticus 8:24). Then, he took parts of the offered animals, the ritual unleavened bread, and the ritual oil bread, and gave it to them, and actually waved them—let there be no mistake—at least according to one possible reading, he waved Aaron and his sons in the air (8:26–27)! Next, Moses took the anointing oil and offering blood "and sprinkled it upon Aaron, and upon his garments, and upon his sons" (8:30). He then instructed them to remain in the Tent of Meeting for seven days and not to leave.
What a dramatic initiation! Sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell—all five senses were involved in the rich process. What Moses, Aaron, and his sons thought or felt about it we will never know. However, the experience was probably etched into their bodies and minds forever. "Actions speak louder than words," and indeed the multisensory initiation was an unforgettable one, both for the participants and for their audiences throughout the ages.
In a way, the priests’ ordination was a rebirth: they were set apart, they were washed and anointed like a newborn baby. Just as birth involves blood, blood played a role here too; just as a baby is carried so were they carried ("waved"). A newborn baby is in mortal danger in his or her first days, and therefore is carefully watched over; so too, the priests had to be in seclusion for seven days. Finally, just as a (male) baby enters the covenant on his eighth day, the priests assumed their office on their eighth day.
The priests thus experienced two births, the first was the biological one and the second was an initiation or birth into a special vocation, a unique and secret one. They were "born" into the priesthood (which, from that point on, would be passed from father to son naturally).1
Classical Reform Judaism viewed these rituals and many others with suspicion if not hostility. Thinkers of our Movement referred to less dramatic rituals and ritual objects, such as the lulav, mezuzah, and tallit, as "fetishistic" objects or pre-monotheistic primitive remnants. They emphasized the importance of rational thinking and cognitively based beliefs. Today, many liberal Jews rediscover the vitality and importance of these tangible rituals and objects, and realize that sometimes, deeds do have primacy over words.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not advocating for cultic sacrifices at our ordinations or at other ceremonies. I do not wish to sprinkle blood on anyone and would not recommend that Rabbi Ellenson wave any of our ordainees. I do not wish to see a less rational approach to our religiosity. But I am asking that we reconsider how we inspire our rituals, and how we acknowledge the importance of the visceral, sensual, and passionate in our worship of the Divine and in marking life changes.
1. In Parashat Sh'mini, we also read that the dedication ceremony went very wrong as Two of Aaron’s sons brought "alien fire" and were put to death by God (Leviticus 10:1–3).
Rabbi Dalia Marx is an associate professor of liturgy and Midrash at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Her new book is Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim: A Feminist Commentary, published by Mohr Siebeck.
Rabbi Marx wisely reclaims the power of ritual in her d’rash on Parashat Tzav. Classical Reform Judaism misunderstood the fullness of human spirituality when it rejected many Jewish practices as too tribal or foreign for the modern mind. Marx describes the power of ritual in a moment of celebration (her rabbinic ordination); I have often seen the profound power of ritual in moments of grief. After the loss of a loved one, particularly a tragic loss, the chaos of mortality invades our otherwise ordered existence. We depend on rituals—such as k’riah (rending of garments), sitting shiva, saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, and the gathering of a minyan—to reorder our disrupted lives, to help us learn to live with loss. Rational lectures about death fall on deaf ears at times like this. Ritual speaks, as Rabbi Marx says, to “the visceral, sensual, and passionate” in a way that ideas cannot.
I have also learned in these moments that the power of such rituals depends in part on the Jewish experience of the individuals involved. To put it another way, mourning rituals don’t function well in a vacuum. They have more spiritual currency when they are part of the mourner’s bigger picture of ritual life. In Parashat Tzav, God instructs the priests to keep the burnt offering on the altar “all night until morning” (Leviticus 6:2) and to maintain a “perpetual fire” (6:6). We might think of our spiritual life similarly. We should experience rituals continually, from our nights of sorrow to our mornings of joy, and during the ordinary moments in between.
Rabbi David Segal is the rabbi at Aspen Jewish Congregation. He is on the board of the Aspen Homeless Shelter and the United Jewish Appeal-Aspen Valley. He also writes a monthly column for the Aspen Times and blogs at http://aspenjewish.blogspot.com.
Tzav, Leviticus 6:1–8:36
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 781–798; Revised Edition, pp. 686–700;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 593–614