Ritual is not something that modern people like us think about very much. Indeed, like the word, “religion,” the word “ritual” has a bit of a negative connotation in many people’s minds these days. And yet, listening to an interview with Dan Senor, the co-author of a recent book entitled, The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World, got me wondering if we need to rethink our neglect of ritual. To be clear, Dan Senor and his co-author, Saul Singer, wrote their book before the start of the current war between Israel and Hamas, and I have not read the book, but in the interview, one of the factors to which Dan Senor pointed as a basis for resiliency in Israeli society despite all that divides that nation is a regular, commonly practiced ritual—the weekly Sabbath. Friday evening, in Israel, things shut down and across the religious spectrum of Judaism, folks across Israel share to some degree in the Sabbath ritual. In contrast, in the United States, Mr. Senor pointed out that we have many fewer similar rituals each year. However, according to Mr. Senor, one that we do have is Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a ritual that most people in the United States share.
Of course, there are major differences between the United States and Israel, one being that while Israel is an avowedly Jewish state, the United States is founded on the principle that the government should not establish any religion. That principle has yielded a society with a diversity of religious faith that I think is absolutely beautiful. But still, I wonder if we need to rethink ritual. And I wonder if we need to try to hold onto the few that we actually have, like Thanksgiving. Oh, I know that around Thanksgiving, given the traditional linkage of our celebrations with the Pilgrims, there are voices that call us to the important task of grappling with the reality of how Native Americans have been mistreated, but in truth, it seems to me, Thanksgiving is not really about the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving is about the Macy’s Parade and football. It is about gathering around tables with those we love. It is about giving thanks for all the good that we have experienced this past year. And it is about knowing that, despite our differences, most of us are celebrating Thanksgiving, performing this ritual together, all across this flawed but incredible country. Happy Thanksgiving!
–Pastor Don Steele