Dipping into Religion, Just to Taste

The Atlantic has an interesting piece about what it calls “the commodification of orthodox Judaism”, i.e. non-Jews, or at least non-orthodox Jews, paying to sample the ancient rituals as tourists, observers, one-time participants. You can do this in the U.S. as well, buying an invitation to a shabbat dinner or a chance to immerse yourself in the mikva, the cleansing ritual bath.

Two perceived qualities of Orthodox Judaism—authenticity and ancientness—are enticing people outside this religious tradition to pay for the chance to sample it. In Israel, secular citizens and foreign visitors willing to fork over $20 to the tour company Israel-2Go can embark on a trip to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where they’ll watch men in black hats and women in long skirts buying challah bread from a kosher bakery while a guide narrates the scene. They can also pay to take a tour of the menorahs in Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways during Hanukkah; eat a five-course Friday night Shabbat meal in the home of an observant family; or hear a lecture about the different nuances of the black-and-white garb worn by men from various ultra-Orthodox sects.”


Proponents of what I might call “ritual tourism” say that it offers a secular world a chance to re-fashion ancient rituals apart from the stifling context in which they are usually practiced, and is done by people in search of meaning for their lives. “Cafeteria Catholics”, those who consider themselves part of the faith but pick and choose what to apply to their lives, have been doing this for some time.

Opponents say that making religion a commodity is disrespectful and disingenuous. You don’t get the benefits of ritual practice without adopting the religious context in which those practices have unfolded, often without much change, for centuries.

I’ve been part of seders, always clearly as a guest, and have enjoyed the experience. I wouldn’t pay to go to one — the benefit for me has been sharing a ritual celebration with people I care about who are observant, at least to a degree. I have no desire to pay to enter a mikva. For me, the idea that a ritual bath would do anything apart from the religious tradition in which it is practiced sounds like magical thinking.

How about you? Would you pay to be part of a ritual untethered from a belief system? Have you ever? What was the experience like?

2 thoughts on “Dipping into Religion, Just to Taste

  1. Ritual bring meaning to life and spirituality is an essential part of culture. Living in a multicultural society, we live among those whose traditions differ from ours. Some traditions blend. Members of my family adopted the use of the houppa (covering for the bride and groom) and entree procession (both parents accompanying groom then bride) .I and many times to Hannukah dinners with family and friends. All were beautiful. Culture is now “smeared across the world”. I think this is a good think. The more we are exposed to the rituals and beliefs of others the greater understanding and, hopefully, tolerance we will all have to appreciate culture as a “mosaic” rather than a “melting pot”.

  2. for Katie: Agree with all of that — but would you pay for a “tour” of someone else’s religious customs, thinking it might do something for your own spirituality? That’s the curious question. I lean against the commodification or monetization of religious customs, although I can’t give a good reason why.

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