Book Review: The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile

The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, by Casper ter Kuile (HarperOne, 2020)

Sept. 3, 2020 – By AURORA MENDELSOHN

How has a non-Jewish graduate of the Harvard Divinity School become this year’s coveted speaker for Jewish organizations like the Foundation for Jewish Camp and Moishe House, and numerous high-profile synagogues?

In The Power of Ritual, Casper ter Kuile, now a “Ministry Innovation Fellow” at Harvard, has tapped into a view of ritual that resonates deeply with a Jewish audience, particularly those who struggle with traditional Judaism yet still seek meaning through observance.

The author sets out to free people to draw on the redemptive power of ritual without necessarily being tied to belief in God, a religion or a religious community. While exploring both religious and secular sources, he examines four aspects of connection that ritual can provide.

The first connection is with ourselves. The ability to connect with our authentic selves is often drowned out in the pursuit of status or money. The ritual described for enabling those connections is familiar: Each Friday at sundown, ter Kuile lights candles, sings, and turns off his phone and laptop for 24 hours. He reads for pleasure or engages in playful and creative pursuits. He does not travel or work. Yes, the first ritual described is Shabbat. His reasons for observing Shabbat are informed by a Jewish perspective and are dotted with references to Abraham Heschel’s classic book, The Sabbath.

Another ritual for connecting with ourselves is engagement with sacred texts, which is also deeply familiar to Jews. Studying Torah and Talmud are integral parts of Judaism, and methods of textual study permeate Jewish thinking. Ter Kuile expands the concept of sacred texts to include any text studied in the correct mind frame.

As a co-host of the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” ter Kuile uses Jewish study techniques like hevruta (paired study) and pardes (a multi-level engagement with text) to seek spirituality in the books of Harry Potter. The result is more meaningful than one might expect, and illuminates the powerful tools our tradition provides for sacred interactions with text.

Ter Kuile highlights two rituals that enable us to connect with others. The first is shared, communal meals that are repeated. This type of meal is the main aspect of Shabbat that many secular Jews observe, often without naming it as a ritual and without acknowledging its importance.

The second is connection through fitness communities like Soul Cycle. The description of people bonding through the vulnerabilities exposed during extreme physical effort seems genuine. But as someone connected to an organized community, I found the connection less reliable, both in the bonds formed and in the long-term viability of communities governed by corporate interests.

Ter Kuile suggests two practices for connecting with nature. The first is pilgrimage, which he redefines as walking with a purpose and focus in mind, and being present in nature. In modern Judaism, we see this practiced in the Jewish Renewal movement and less explicitly in the many Jewish camping movements.

The second is a liturgical calendar that connects people to the seasons, which is part of Judaism and many other religions. Ter Kuile selects from and adds to these to create seasonal rituals that help ground secular city dwellers in their place in nature.

The final chapter offers ways of connecting with transcendence without defining transcendence as divine or supernatural. Borrowing from the themes of traditional prayers, ter Kuile translates adoration, contrition, and thanksgiving into accessible practices the reader can choose to adopt.

What The Power of Ritual has done is unbundle many meaningful rituals from their traditional sources. While ter Kuile’s observance of Shabbat sounds very similar to how I celebrate (minus blessings and shul), hearing about the power of its many aspects from a non-Jewish author grants people permission and legitimacy to create their own versions of Shabbat without feeling obliged to take on the whole traditional package.

What remains to be seen is the cost of that unbundling. The advantage is increased access. But ad hoc rituals and spiritual communities make it harder to a find a single community that addresses one’s changing needs over many stages of life, and to ensure that practices endure in one’s life and across generations.

For both secular people and religious people who struggle with the content of belief, The Power of Ritual is an accessible and potentially transformative introduction to religious observance.

Aurora Mendelsohn
Aurora Mendelsohn

Aurora Mendelsohn is university administrator. She blogs about Judaism, ritual, feminism and parenting at Rainbow Tallit Baby.