Minding the Ritual Gaps

Hillary Chorny
14 min readSep 18, 2023


The year our daughter turned two, we traveled to England for a summer vacation. What was the highlight of the trip? Corgis. Have you met corgis? Those dogs are irresistible. We spent a week near the castle at Windsor where a whole royal stable of corgis spends the day just waddling around. Afterwards, at a nearby souvenir shop, our daughter spotted a salt and pepper shaker set in the window: the Queen of England and her corgi companion. We agreed to buy the set, which became the centerpiece of our dining room.

A couple years passed, and then, one Friday evening, just as we finished the blessing over the grape juice, I turned to our son and asked him to lift the cover off the two loaves of challah. He was two by then, and for no particular reason he playfully reached for the corgi and “barked” at the cover, whipping it away from the bread. We all giggled. The next day, when we got to that moment between blessing the grape juice and uncovering the bread, our daughter reached for the corgi salt shaker. She shouted, “Woof!”

A ritual was born.

My life is saturated in ritual. Jews naturally ritualize. We walk through a doorway and kiss a mezuzah. BAM — Ritual. Pause before we take a bite of food or a sip of a drink, and say a blessing. Ritual. Our airplane takes off, we say the traveler’s prayer. Ritual.

We have collected a thick menu of Jewish rituals that apply to many occasions. Birth and death; marriage and funeral; coming-of-age and moving into a new home and even finishing a sacred text.

And then there’s everything in between. Liminal times that punctuate the everyday and cry out for ritual to mark the moment but those rituals have yet to be invented or tried or performed. What is the ritual for an infant’s first steps; for losing a tooth; for getting a driver’s license; for miscarriage; becoming an empty-nester; menopause; giving up a bad habit or addiction; for beating cancer?

We don’t have a boilerplate congregational email for the events on this list. These don’t have a go-to, curated ancient response even though people have been losing teeth and mourning pregnancies and growing old since the dawn of time. Even though children will always leave the home and disease does not have to be a lonely experience. For all these reasons and more, ritual beckons to us: stretch me, use me, take what has been created and give it life beyond.

I do not limit myself to prescribed rituals. I love those rituals, but they are not enough. Life is full of moments that beg for discerning pauses — moments ripe for ritual attention. These are the ritual gaps, the moments in our lives that are charged with ritual potential. The ritual blank spaces. They beg us: Mind the ritual gap. With your imagination, your soul, and your vision.

These are the ritual gaps, the moments in our lives that are charged with ritual potential. The ritual blank spaces. They beg us: Mind the ritual gap. With your imagination, your soul, and your vision.

Some ritual gaps are lighthearted and sweet. There was the family who wanted to change their kid’s name at her bat mitzvah because, thirteen years later, they thought they’d “picked the wrong one”. Other times, ritual gaps emerge out of purely practical communal need, which happened many times during the pandemic: Take for example the creation of “virtual sh’mirah,” where the recently deceased was not left alone but rather guarded by virtue of an online sacred council. But most often ritual invention is a tender, private exploration, a kind of wondering how to fill a ritual gap that is painful and challenging.

I recall a funeral intake earlier this year with several nephews and nieces of a man in his nineties. His siblings had all passed before him, but the children of those brothers and sisters had cared for this man until his death. Sitting together the night before the funeral, one nephew asked: “Rabbi, what is done when the last of a generation dies?” I had nothing to say, nothing to offer. So I said, “I don’t know, yet. But you’re right to notice. And we will do something.”

And then there was Erit. Erit was sick. That’s what the email said. Or rather, she was told that she was about to be very sick and therefore she needed serious surgery. When we connected by phone, Erit brought her mama’s spirit to the call, which is to say that her mom had died a few years earlier but she hovered with the comfort of a heavy robe. So she was there with us, her mama, this graceful soldier who had fallen in a battle against Stage IV Appendix Cancer. She sent me a picture of the two of them, a long arm wrapped around her mother, the two of them smiling up at me from my computer screen as we talked about suffering.

Erit had inherited this suffering, the way she inherited her mom’s dimples and passion for serving children. There were two versions of Erit: the tall, strident businesswoman and the one who woke up each morning to debilitating pain in her midsection. The time had come to prepare herself for surgery. There were late-night phone calls with her closest friends, and lots of therapy. She also wanted a ritual: a before and an after to move her from the version of her that might have one day produced another generation with her body to the version of her body that she would hopefully live in for many years, doing with it different generative things. And she wanted her mom there in spirit.

To create a ritual, you first have to know what a ritual is not. The Hebrew word for ritual — well, there really isn’t one. Ritual resides in a word desert in Hebrew. A ritual is not necessarily a tradition: A tradition is passed down from one generation to the next, and all rituals start sometime, with someone, and they are authentic even when performed in their first generation — even when they are invented by you — so a ritual is already a ritual even before it is a tradition. And rituals are not necessarily customs: customs can be as broad as the clothing we wear or the food we eat, where rituals have specific tools and order and prescribed steps.

At the Stanford School of Design in the last decade, several social scientists founded a Ritual Design Lab to test the definitions, impact, and efficacy of ritual in the sacred and secular realms. Their four-part definition of ritual is the one that guides my thinking as I dissect existing rituals and invent new ones:

#1 Rituals have a magical, je ne sais quoi factor. You can’t put your finger on it, but a ritual will not feel like an ordinary moment. If it does, it’s not yet a ritual. Rituals are mystical. Kind of inexplicable.

#2 Rituals are done with intentionality, with the person tuned into this being a special moment. Jews are familiar with this construct: kavannah. Bahya Ibn Pakudah taught: “Prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul.” Ritual without intentionality simply isn’t ritual. It’s routine, it’s mindless; it happened but you weren’t really there for it.

#3 A ritual carries a symbolic value, that gives a sense of purpose and that’s beyond the practical. What I love about this principle is that it includes practicality but not practicality alone. Think of netilat yadayim, hand-washing. Is it practical to rinse my hands before eating bread? Sure. It’s not a bad idea. But that is never its only purpose.

And #4 A ritual evolves over time to better suit the people and the situation. Rituals are not static. They evolve and grow.

Eventually, our corgi saltshaker broke. I know: it was very sad. No, we did not hold a funeral for the corgi, though I did briefly raise the idea. But we got a new set of saltshakers, little bright red birds, so now we tweet at the challah cover! All rituals have this tendency to evolve.

In the year 1973, during the height of the Havurah movement, a couple named Michael and Sharon Strassfeld published the first modern baby-naming ceremony for a Jewish girl that paralleled a bris or brit milah. This marked an era when we were at peak American Jewish self-assuredness about our ability to invent ritual. Back in 2007, Rabbi Dr. Vanessa Ochs wrote an extraordinary book called, “Inventing Jewish Ritual” that rightfully won the National Jewish Book Award. It examined the boom in ritual exploration and expression throughout the last quarter of the 20th century. I stand on the shoulders of Dr. Ochs’ excavation of how we got to where we are today with modern Jewish ritual: not just what women’s seders are, but why women’s seders came to exist.

One of the great gifts Ochs leaves us in her book is a guide for authenticating Jewish ritual. One great subversive aspect of ritual is that it’s authenticity does not come from its vintage. In other words, the legitimacy of ritual does not necessarily grow through time. Ritual magic can be instantaneous. One of my favorite stories about ritual authenticity and the passage of time comes from Erica Keswin’s book, “Ritual Roadmaps”. She wrote about a freshman at Northwestern University who just a few years ago who came up to his provost in tears at the end of orientation week. The young man expressed gratitude that he had been able to participate in the “March Through the Arch,” a dramatic ritual in which he passed through a space on campus marking his official status as a college student. He said that he felt connected to so many generations of Northwestern students. The provost didn’t have the heart to tell the student that the March Through the Arch was created in 2009.

So if the passage of time doesn’t make for an authentic ritual, what does? Dr. Ochs describes a Jewish ritual toolbox. She says that if at least one of these three things is present — and more than one may be — we have authenticated a Jewish ritual:

A sacred text

A ritual object or action

A core belief or value

These are obviously present in the rituals that we know and appreciate as part of our inherited canon. Lighting candles on the eve of Shabbat, for example, involves the first two tools from the box: the sacred text of the blessing, and the ritual object of the candlesticks — and perhaps the candles themselves. We might even stretch to say that the core belief that this is the very moment in which we accept Shabbat, that is present as well.

That same sense of authenticity is at the heart of new rituals, too. When that group of nieces and nephews asked me how to mark the death of their uncle as the last of his siblings, we started from the shared assumption that we would mark the close of a generation at the graveside. What stood out for this particular burial was the act of shoveling dirt as an non-repayable kindness. This became the cornerstone of our new ritual.

Once we had shoveled enough dirt to cover the casket, the oldest niece in the family stepped forward to add seven additional shovels full of earth. With each shovel, she called one of the seven names of the generation now gone. Then I recited the text: L’dor vador nagid godlekha, ulnetzakh netzakhim kedushatekha nakdish: I translated it two ways: From generation to generation we will speak of your greatness, that is, the greatness of our parents’ generation, and also the greatness of the Holy Blessed One, and forever and ever what is sacred about you, we will make sacred. Each sibling took a small stone to place on their own parents’ graves to let them know that they had done the mitzvah of ensuring that their uncle was properly cared for until his last breath and buried with dignity.

The ritual worked. There was a ritual gap — no existing ritual for the last of a generation to be buried — and we had filled that gap.

When a ritual “works,” what it accomplishes depends on the needs of the creator and the participant. Erica Keswin writes in her book “Rituals Roadmap” that firefighters who cook and eat meals together before they go out on a call objectively save more lives. That is ritual working in a concrete, tangible way. Ritual works in so many other ways, as well: It can decrease anxiety; support through transitions; help with group motivation and bonding; increase creativity; improve the quality of an experience; release you from addictions; and increase your feeling of control.

That last one motivates me more often than I usually admit: Ritual is a means of exerting control where I otherwise have none. I’ve sat with people in that place of powerlessness and wondered with them what now and what next. I had a congregant who worked on a trial for more than eight months. They poured their entire life into that trial — gave up family time, let their mental and physical health slip a bit, really threw themselves into it. And then they lost. That was on a Tuesday. And Wednesday they were supposed to show up at the office and go to work. Just… go to work, like they were okay. And they weren’t okay. That was a moment in need of ritual: something to help this person walk back into their office as a whole professional after a crushing blow. So they tore two pieces out of the old brief. On the back of one page they wrote, I am but dust and ashes. And on the other they wrote, The world was created for me. They stuffed each in a pocket, and like Reb Simcha Bunem, they walked into their office knowing that they could pull out each slip of paper as they needed.

Ritual does not belong only to recognizably religious moments. Just as ritual has power in lifecycle it also has power for those firefighters, and that lawyer who lost at trial, and also in moments like welcoming a new roommate and moving a parent into a care facility for the first time. Nor does ritual demand the hand of a clergy person in its design. Each of you is capable of scaffolding meaning into the everyday. During COVID, I taught the first course of ritual invention here at Beth Am and I asked participants, “What ritual gap are you experiencing right now? What is missing in big moments?” For one participant who was in the year of saying kaddish for her father, she felt that she missed his face. So she created a kaddish scrapbook, one word per page opposite one picture of her sweet daddy. Yitgadal. Dad holding her as a baby. V’yitkadash. Dad, when he had so much more hair. Shmei rabbah. My favorite picture of the two of us together. I didn’t make that scrapbook. She didn’t need me. She conjured the power of ritual like a sweet, enveloping blanket, a force that was hers to claim.

Photo by Rirri on Unsplash

Others do want clergy guidance and in that case, it’s an honor. Back when Erit was facing catastrophic surgery, she wanted to design a ritual hand in hand with me. We built a ritual around a visit to the mikvah and an immersion in those living waters. She wore a robe that still smelled of her mom all these years later. And she brought two other objects with her. One was a book about daughters that her mom gifted her at the age of thirteen, and between each dunk one of her accompanying friends would read a poem from that book. The other was a necklace that had once belonged to her mother. After her mikvah dip, Erit brought the necklace into the water to dunk as well, a symbolic transformation into a vessel of good luck that she would now wear around her neck.

Ritual begets ritual. As we share ritual stories like this one, the spirit of creativity grows. Last year, a family whose fourth child was approaching bat mitzvah asked what we might do to mark the occasion of a final bat mitzvah in that generation of the family. This sparked a joyful project that culminated in the creation of a new art piece for our Torah scroll. Each family whose last child is becoming bat or bar mitzvah is given a square to sign with a fabric pen on a cover for the Torah scroll that reads, And you shall teach them to your children. On the day of the bar or bat mitzvah just before we return the Torah to the ark, we bring the family forward, the parents standing across from all their children. We conjure a midrash of our ancestor Yaakov and his children, and the parents recite with their children words of affirmation in the form of the Shema.

Each time I look out on the congregation watching this ritual take hold, I have enormous hope for the creative future of ritual. And I hope, too, that I am giving you a name for a feeling and an experience that is deeply human: the ritual gap. I urge you to grab hold of transitions and willfully slow time and grab hold of these times with the tools of text and action and objects and core beliefs. I challenge you to reach for ritual in moments when you lack resolve. You have permission to do so without any rabbinic supervision. Really. And I am always here and eager to be your guide.

This year, I’ve offered and continue to offer courses on ritual invention and innovation. The next two classes I’ll teach are live at the convening of our whole Conservative movement in Baltimore in December, where I urge you to join a delegation with our Temple Beth Am clergy. And I’ll also be teaching online in January for RitualWell. I maintain a website full of ritual resources — www.reinventingritual.org — and if you write to me after Yom Tov you’ll find that website in my email signature. Last summer I spent time at Harvard Divinity School gleaning material as I wrote the first couple chapters of a book on minding the ritual gap, and I look forward to finishing that book, God-Willing, on my sabbatical next June through August. If you have a story of creative ritual that you’d like to share, I would be honored to hear it and perhaps include it in that book.

May this be a year in which you reach for ritual, both the familiar and the new, boldly and with affection and hope for all the blessings it may bring. Shana Tova.