Every once a while life offers a profound experience. Or, perhaps more accurately, every once a while a life experience you have touches you profoundly. Today I had such an experience witnessing a Bar Mitzvah ceremony for the first time for my son’s best friend.
That Jewish traditions are anchored in community, storytelling, scripture and deep traditions, was known to me. While I am by no means an expert on this tradition, my search as an architectural educator for ways to teach students about designing different cultures and religious experiences had led me some years ago to offer design studios and projects that connected to Jewish traditions. One of them was offered with a colleague, a design project for a full-scale sukkoth. Others including design of diverse places of worship (including Jewish places of worship), and the design of a tzedekah box were taught solo. (Of course, some would argue that no one without a deep understanding of a religious tradition should attempt to design for that tradition, or teach about it for that matter but I see the issue differently. If educators don’t train design students to understand and design for different cultures, we continue the historic trend that designers do not have the necessary skillsets and experiences to design for multicultural needs.) Designing for a culture other than one’s own especially needs empathy and humility and one way to understand the world, especially for designers is through the act of design and the research that precedes and goes with it. But I digress.
I know this from the deep traditions of Hinduism that I was raised in and its subset Vaishnavism that I practice, that rituals are powerful. But at the Bar Mitzvah today the power of ritual profoundly impressed my consciousness at a whole new level by the Hebrew reading of the Torah, the lively singing in prayer, the passing of the Torah through the generations of family members present. Rituals recreate and reaffirm commitment to the divine, to family, community and to ancestors and ancestral lands. They mark rites of passage in ways that little else can. Somehow, time and space stand still even as time and space are transcended in remembrance of ancient peoples and lands, as with the Exodus from Israel. The beauty of today’s ceremony was that the young man called to the Torah and the presiding Rabbis skillfully brought ancient stories and questions to present times to issues of social justice today, including the issues of racism, global anti-immigrant sentiment we see in response to refugees, and to the current anti-semitism in the United States.
Perhaps the road to our collective futures rests on us, individually and collectively, understanding our human pasts, through the lens of our various cultures, religions and traditions. This may be key even as we rush to create our futures with a focus on artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and Mars travel. Authentic, past-honoring rituals that remind us who and where we have been may better position us even as we propel ourselves towards who we might be and where we might go!