Episode 5: Leviticus - Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and author of Inventing Jewish RItual, joins us as our guest for this episode. Dan and Lex discuss with her how Jewish rituals work, what makes them authentic, how they might shift in the future, and more.

Credit: Religiousstudies.Virginia.edu

Credit: Religiousstudies.Virginia.edu

Note to Our Listeners, Explaining the Context of this Episode (0:01 - 8:42): To begin the episode, we provide a brief note to define a couple of terms, "bubbe" (Yiddish for grandmother) and "tallis/tallit" (Yiddish/Hebrew for prayer shawl), that are used later in the episode, so that all our listeners will understand those references. We also put the interview in the context of our mythic framework of the books of the Torah and draw a connection to the book of Leviticus. Our guest, Professor Vanessa Ochs of the University of Virginia, articulates explains why she chose to title her book Inventing Jewish Ritual. [1]

Unpacking "Material Culture" (8:43 - 15:29): Professor Ochs discusses two different ways of understanding Jewish ritual items. What is it that makes particular items special? She contrasts the framework used by scholar Samuel Heilman with her alternative framework of "explicitly" and "implicitly" Jewish ritual objects. 

On Jewish Knowledge (15:30 - 29:50): Intuition suggests to certain people that individuals with high levels of Jewish knowledge and familiarity with the Jewish community would be those that are best positioned to lead the Jewish community forward into the future. In this section we discuss unique skills and capabilities that individuals with less Jewish knowledge might bring to the table, along with some of the reasons that they have the potential to be skillful Jewish innovators. [2]

When Rituals Work, When They Don't, and What Makes Them "Authentic" (29:51 - 47:16): To close the episode, Professor Ochs helps us take some of the theory we've discussed and apply it a bit more concretely. She outlines some specific examples where rituals have succeeded [3], when they have not proved enduring, and how we should understand the nature of Jewish authenticity. 

[1] Inventing Jewish Ritual discusses many of the issues raised in this podcast episode, but also much more. We highly recommend that you give it a read, and it is available on Amazon here.

[2] In this section, there was a lively conversation about holiday observances (Purim especially) that some Jews observe on days other than the actual Jewish calendar date. For a related discussion about how this has manifested on Passover in many communities, check out this Washington Post article.

[3] Professor Ochs mentions an instance where artists were invited to build outside-the-box, creative sukkot as a fascinating ritual innovation (Jewish ritual booths that are used on the holiday of Sukkot, which is named for these huts). Check out the amazing sukkot built for the 2015 "Sukkahville" contest (like the image on the right of this screen) here