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Ritual and Observance as Education


The late Harvard University Professor of Philosophy and Education, Israel Scheffler, purposes that the rabbis saw Judaism's rich symbolic system of ritual and holiday observances as containing educative potential. The rituals themselves are an educational experience for those who perform them. Scheffler says that rituals perform three symbolic functions.

Denotation: First, rituals pick out various events and aspects of life associated with Jewish history and each with distinctive associated values. By repeated occurrence, the rituals and observances bring participants into continual contact with these values.

Expression: Ritual actions, according to Scheffler, have a second function beyond denotation. Just as a painting may express joy or nostalgia while denoting a landscape, a rite may express a feeling or attitude while portraying a historical event. For example, Pesah, brings with it feeling the bitterness of slavery and the joy of redemption. The repeated exposure to such symbolized values shapes the character and sensibility of the participants over time.

Reenactment: Ritual performances allude indirectly to previous performances. Each new Seder calls to mind Seders past. Each Passover Seder, in effect, alludes to previous performances while at the same time portraying the Exodus and expressing the joy of liberation. The repetition of the rites also serves another purpose beyond shaping individual perceptions – that is the development of tradition – the sense that with each repetition of the ritual, we are doing a repetition.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we have an opportunity to experience these days using Scheffler's three symbolic functions as a framework to assist us in making sense of our experiences and tapping further into their meaning. However we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, either in synagogue, performing rituals at home, or together with friends and family, our observances denote specific ideas and values that express feelings or attitudes. As we perform these rituals and observances, we are connected both to the ideas and feelings that lie behind these rituals and to our previous performances of these rituals. Each experience with ritual and observance conveys meaning and connects us indirectly to our past performances

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