Thursday, October 6, 2011

NJPS, Jewish Holidays, and Ritual Retention

My second midterm is finished! One meeting tonight (for Active Minds, a new club at Clark that aims to remove stigma related to mental health) and then I'm done with school things/midterms until Wednesday. Woo-hoo, my first time returning home to Portland since the school year began!

Today during my sociology course (SOC 203: American Jewish Life) we began talking about different branches of Judaism. The U.S. Census is not allowed to collect data on religion because it presents a fear that the information may be used against people in a discriminatory manner. So the data available to be examined is somewhat controversial; the NJPS (National Jewish Population Survey) collected data in 1990 and 2001 using random digit dialing. But the controversies stem from how complicated the questions must be: who is Jewish? How do we define a "Jew"? How would this data be skewed by increase of cell phone use? Would random digit dialing even be an accurate portrayal of the national Jewish community at this point in time?

So, yes, the information available is not necessarily an accurate portrayal. Which is unfortunate, because religion, particularly how it changes over time, is an interesting thing. But in general, some basic concepts were gathered from the survey results; that is, which holidays are celebrated the most?

A student in class suggested that Yom Kippur, Passover, and Chanukah were the major Jewish holidays, celebrated the most.

But as it turns out, these are not defined as the most major of holidays in Jewish tradition, despite them being presented as such in American society.

So then we began to wonder: what makes certain holidays become "major" in American society, despite other holidays being more relevant and important in Jewish tradition? For example, Shabbat, one of the most significant observances, is often not recognized as such.

Thus began the discussion of an article by Marshall Sklare. The five criteria for ritual retention, as suggested by Sklare, are:
1. The ritual is capable of re-definition in modern times (e.g. Passover, the miracle of the parting of the sea, and the overall concept of freedom portrayed)
2. The ritual does not demand social isolation or a unique lifestyle
3. The ritual uses Judaism to fit into a greater religious community - it provides a "Jewish alternative" (e.g. Chanukah & Christmas occur around the same time, and Chanukah rituals have adapted some things originally seen as a part of Christmas (such as gift-giving))
4. The ritual is centered around a child (e.g. Chanukah, or Passover, where the child is a central part of the seder)
5. The ritual is not too informal; Shabbat, as an example, occurs weekly. Generally, this would cause it to be seen as too "informal" to be viewed as a "major holiday" in the eyes of American society

And there you have it! A summary of the speculations for why some holidays are viewed as major, whereas others are not.

I'm hoping to continue along these same lines when I start working more on my final project for the course - I'm going to trace circumcision and baby-naming rituals over time throughout American society; hopefully I'll be able to delve more into the topic of why this ritual has shifted from a symbol of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and is now more of a medical custom occurring in hospitals as opposed to on the eighth day after birth.

That's all for now - I hope everyone has a lovely weekend! I think it's supposed to be a bit warmer, which is great, because right now I'm so cold that I've reluctantly started utilizing my zebra-print snuggie (I won it in a raffle during my sophomore year here! It was practically forced upon me. It's nice and cozy though).

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