Don't Call the Rabbi, Make Your Own Rituals

From Ketubah to Funeral, DIY Judaism Is More Satisfying

By Jay Michaelson

Published September 08, 2011, issue of September 16, 2011.
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When I was in day school, we were taught that one of the differences between Judaism and Christianity was that we Jews needed no intermediary between ourselves and God. Christians had Jesus, of course, but also priests and ministers, and in some cases entire church structures who interpreted God’s word, conveyed prayers and generally acted as go-betweens for the Almighty.

Taking Control: Being an empowered Jew means figuring out rituals for yourself. That is more satisfying than outsourcing it to a rabbi, writes Jay Michaelson.
Kurt Hoffman
Taking Control: Being an empowered Jew means figuring out rituals for yourself. That is more satisfying than outsourcing it to a rabbi, writes Jay Michaelson.

Jews, in contrast, had an express line. We prayed directly to God, not to saints or Jesus or Mary. We read the Bible ourselves and, while we were constrained by rabbinic precedent and law, questioning and independence were valued. We were each responsible for our own religious lives.

In practice, however, only a small minority of non-Orthodox Jews live this way — and much to our detriment. Were we to take what has recently been called “empowered Judaism” seriously, our communities and our lives would be much richer.

I’ve been thinking about “empowered Judaism” seriously these last few months, as I’ve planned my own wedding, officiated at the funeral of a family member and created rituals and liturgies for the communities in which I live. At every turn, I’ve found it enriching and fulfilling to follow the DIY — Do It Yourself — ethos. I wrote my own ketubah, in language that I crafted based on the traditional form but adapted for a same-sex, egalitarian couple. I created a funeral service that ditched alienating (and, to my relatives, irrelevant) talk of judgment in favor of an appreciation of life’s passages, while maintaining traditional biblical and liturgical language. And so on.

All this has felt great. I feel like a participant in the Jewish tradition rather than a consumer of it. I’ve found space within Jewish literature and culture for the life I live, rather than try to either shoehorn myself into a form that doesn’t fit or ditch the form entirely.

And I’ve found a harmony between my Jewish life and the rest of my life. Writing nedarim (vows) for our wedding service feels as natural as creating our own invitations on my computer. Crafting a sex-positive and body-positive alternative to the erusin (betrothal) blessing goes hand in hand with finding unusual, local, organic and gluten-free desserts (shout-out to Babycakes NYC).

This is so because DIY is a lifestyle, an ethos. It’s a way of living as a competent human being, rather than a passive consumer of pre-fab goods usually produced by faceless corporations. It’s the difference between Burning Man — a cooperative community with no vending, cash or performer/spectator dichotomy — and a corporate-sponsored music festival, with $8 Cokes and vendors hawking their wares to “customers.” I don’t want to be a customer, a consumer or an audience member. I want to be a participant, a co-creator and a co-owner of the world I inhabit.

This view is hardly unique to me, of course. It animates much of what is vital in today’s urban and alternative cultures, from the Brooklyn food movement to indie music in the age of the iPod, Spotify, etc. Obviously, it’s not for everyone; craft culture is a niche phenomenon that, to some extent, exists in deliberate contrast to mass culture. But in terms of cultural creatives — that small percentage of folks who are responsible for the lion’s share of innovation and creativity — it’s arguably a predominant view today.

Yet when it comes to Jewish life, few of my contemporaries could have the same kinds of experiences I’ve had this summer. Why not? Usually, the complaint one hears against empowered Judaism — the term was coined by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer in his book of the same name — is that to be empowered just takes too much work. To write a ketubah, for example, one must know Hebrew or Aramaic; one must know the legal construct of a Jewish marriage and egalitarian alternatives to it; one must have a command of liturgical language and symbolism and, I guess, one ought to have good penmanship, too. This, we are told, is a tall order.

But I don’t buy it. Yes, all the above takes effort, but so does brewing your own beer, making your own paper or recording your own music on Garage Band. Craft takes skill, which is a big part of why it’s worthwhile to pursue. No — the difference isn’t the amount of content one must master to be an empowered Jew. The difference is one of attitude.

Our mainstream institutions largely exist to cater to the lowest common denominator of disengaged Jews, and in so doing they immediately turn off anyone interested in more. Prayer services are dumbed down in the name of “inclusivity,” and whenever a lifecycle event comes up, someone calls a rabbi. American Judaism has created a class of professional Jews, notably absent in Israel, who sing our prayers, learn our scripture and perform our rituals for us. It’s infantilizing, and it’s alien to the very notion of Jewish religious responsibility.

What if projects like Haggadot.com, Open Source Judaism and Empowered Judaism existed on a mass scale? What if navigating the treasure troves of resources at Ritual Well, MyJewishLearning.com and other websites was taught at Jewish camps and supplementary schools? What if our first instinct was not to call the rabbi, but to take ownership of our Jewish lives and create them for ourselves?

Sure, rabbis will always be important. But we should utilize them as we might turn to a copy editor or a graphic designer: for specialized advice. When it comes to ordinary desktop publishing, not only do we not need an expert, but calling one is disempowering and counterproductive. Every family can create and lead its own funerals, for example, and doing so will ultimately be more fulfilling for everyone. (In the case of the funeral I led, the deceased’s husband, who had died a few years ago, had had a cookie-cutter funeral conducted by a clueless young rabbi who had never met him. The result was alienating and disrespectful.) You don’t need a rabbi to get married, have a bar mitzvah or even conduct a bris — though, admittedly, a mohel is usually a good idea. In an empowered Jewish world, rabbis could focus on providing pastoral care, nourishing their own spiritual growth and inspiring their communities rather than constantly trudging off to yet another lifecycle event. Believe me, the rabbis I know (and I know a lot) dread this part of the job anyway.

But empowered Judaism is good for all of us, not just overworked clergy members. A mediated Judaism, in which some ringleader stands between you and your Jewish experience, leads to a Jewish community of apathetic, undereducated and spiritually lazy consumers. A Judaism of participants rather than spectators, on the other hand, is one of active, engaged co-creators of sacred spaces and times. That’s a Judaism that will endure and thrive.

Nor is it the case, as some have claimed, that empowered Judaism siphons off the committed, engaged Jews, leaving everyone else to rot. Every empowered Jew has a not-so-empowered extended family and circle of friends, whom they impact by their example. Raising the bar creates a standard worthy of our aspirations. Anyway, synagogue congregants shouldn’t be treated like sheep in need of a shepherd. They should be inspired to be adults.

The resources are already out there. Websites like those I mentioned (and dozens more) already offer all the raw materials you need for lifecycle events, prayer services, book groups and everything from visiting the mikveh after surgery to building your Sukkah in October. What’s needed is not more information but more willingness, on the part of laypeople and clergy alike, to stop leaning on “professionals” and instead to DIY — Do It Yourself.


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