I was reading an article about how turkeys became the traditional main dish for Thanksgiving.
It turns out that food historians (it’s actually a thing) believe that some kind of waterfowl or pigeons was part of the original Thanksgiving meal. Turkeys were introduced as “official” when Thanksgiving was first proclaimed as a national holiday by President Lincoln, a couple of centuries later.
The bird proved so popular that demand created “turkey drives” (think cattle drives for gobblers) to get fresh birds to market before modern refrigeration.
In turn, at least one town in Texas created an annual festival and parade, presided over by a locally chosen sultan and sultana, based on the idea that there was some connection between the birds and the Ottoman Empire of the same (English) name.
By the way, it persisted well into the 20th century before someone figured out it was both ignorant and racist.
We have a lot of customs at our Thanksgiving table.
Some of them are obvious rituals; until his death, my father-in-law, who presided, insisted that each person declaim what he or she was thankful for. His family grew from five to an eventual 16, not including guests, provoking the eventual rebellion, especially since everyone was grateful for family, country and health.
But there are also less obvious rituals, ranging from who brings the wine to which pies get baked to a post-prandial walk by those still awake to a cousins’ excursion after the lethargy wears off.
The rituals, which began as convenience or habit, eventually acquire and bestow authority and legitimacy.
Some years ago, I discovered a seder ritual for Thanksgiving, complete with a Haggadah, a service guide.
I never tried to introduce it at our table (after all, I didn’t preside), but it did find its way to an interfaith service shared with local churches. You can find its latest iterations here. Ritual begat ritual begat ritual.
The fact is rituals are invented and imbued with meaning by the people who perform them. There is no such thing as a ritual performed for the first time; only meaning and continuity through repetition makes for ritual.
But the longer a ritual is performed, the less flexible it becomes. It acquires an existential momentum that is mostly reassuring for its performers; any variation or compromise is threatening. After all, we’ve always done it that way!
So, I was intrigued by a verse from Leviticus 17:8 that posits the innovation by a non-priest or non-Israelite of a ritual sacrifice.
People try to change ritual all the time. It took years of protest before the half-hour of “I am thankful for my family…” eventually gave way.
These days, except in circles that value continuity over creativity, lots of ritual is under challenge. In fact, in Jewish life, the 100-year war over re-forming or conserving religious life (dismissed entirely by the orthodox), more recently engaged by those looking to reconstruct or renew, insists on using language or continuity to give authority to change.
Biblical literalists dismiss most of it, while scholars of Jewish law admit ironically that custom (which emerges from the people) has more staying power than law (which emerges from a book).
My favorite story about the invention of ritual comes from a story told to me by a Buddhist.
A master owned a cat that would distract students during their meditation. To avoid the problem, he would put out a pillow and a particular shallow bowl of milk before meditation. When the cat heard the bell chime, it came to know that a meal and soft place to doze awaited.
Eventually, the master died. Shortly thereafter, the bowl broke. An exact replica was commissioned. The pillow frayed. An exact copy was stitched and stuffed. And then the cat died. So, the disciples got a new cat.
Were the students foolish?
I am guessing a wealth of stories emerged about the original master and his original cat, all of them true but none of them accurate.
But the students felt connected to something larger than the prescribed practice because of the cat and the pillow and the bowl.
If it led them to a more meaningful and compassionate life, who is to say it is any less authentic than the original insights of the Buddha?
Recently, Thanksgiving takes place without my father-in-law. It falls to those of us who survive him to innovate a practice that will become, with time, a new family ritual.
Yesterday’s children are now parents and grandparents. Yesterday’s babies are now parents, aunts and uncles. Today’s babies will complain in not so many years about the predictability of the Thanksgiving table.
And maybe someone who has never been at the table before – some stranger, like I was 40-plus years ago – will be the source of our new ritual, made up for our collective benefit.
No more turkey drive, no more going around the table, never a cat. But meaningful? Every time.
President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi. He is currently serving on Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board.