Judaism in Practice: Rites of Passage
Alanna E. Cooper
Throughout their history, Jews have structured their religious understandings and beliefs around their sacred texts. This shared canon has been a critical vehicle for their maintenance of Judaism throughout their age-old, far-reaching diaspora history. Nevertheless, the text has always stood in a complex relationship with the contingencies of the social, political and historical context in which Jews have found themselves. Jewish practice, in other words, has always been shaped both by the written word, as well as by the particular cultural, political, economic and social circumstances that Jews have faced – wherever and whenever they lived.
Using rites of passage as a framework – with a particular focus on life-cycle rituals - this course examines the inalienable and persistent aspects of the religion, alongside those aspects that have been open to flexibility and change. Each segment of the course will be devoted to a particular rite of passage (birth, circumcision, baby-naming, bar/bat mitzvah, wedding, conversion and mourning). We will examine (1) the rabbinic texts that prescribe and dictate the form and content of each ritual, (2) historical texts, which highlight the way these practices evolved during the middle ages and early modern history and (3) ethnographies, which illustrate the variety of practice in the contemporary Jewish world.