I have long been a fan of ritual. It is almost worth being religious just to be able to perform the rituals connected with a faith tradition.
The prostration during Muslim prayer, the administration of communion during Christian worship, the devotional positions of Hindu spiritual practices, the choreography of Jewish liturgy – all of these engage the participant in a larger endeavor.
The Jew who waves a palm branch on Sukkot/Tabernacles joins not only with fellow worshippers in seeking salvation but occupies the same space and movement of Jews across time and geography.
The Roman Catholic who genuflects enters a specific point in theological history that is renewed with every such action.
Ritual can be rote behavior, of course. But when community and practitioner alike imbue it with meaning, it adds depth of life and reinforces the values that produced it in the first place.
Such ritual is not the sole purview of religious communities, as I hope is obvious.
For example, the presentation of the national anthem before sporting events is meant to connect the honorable endeavor on the field of play with American values of excellence and fair play. No wonder there is such strong reaction when someone tampers with the practice.
Fans at Baltimore Orioles games have a custom in which they emphasize loudly the exclamation that begins the last lyric (Oh!) as an expression of their enthusiasm. O’s fans love it.
On the other hand, it has become the custom of some professional athletes to take a knee or absent themselves for the Star-Spangled Banner. Some fans don’t appreciate it. Messing with ritual is dangerous and uncertain business.
The most important ritual in American society is voting. Yes, it has a practical function – it is how we elect our leaders – but it also reinforces the message that democracy requires participation.
If they held an election and nobody voted, we would be unable to fill the vacuum. That sounds appealing to some folks these days, but the fact of the matter is that voting is as much for the voter as it is for the, um, votee.
The old guy in me still wishes we had big clunky voting machines and one-day voting. That’s because I love the pageantry associated with showing up at a familiar place transformed for the occasion – a school gym or fellowship hall – and presenting myself to people I know who have been elevated to official function.
I have to state my name, present my proof of identity, carry the sacred card to another citizen-official to receive my ballot and, alone with my conscience, indicate who I think is best suited to make decisions on my behalf.
It was more fun and visceral to flip indicators and pull a big lever to register the vote, but even that little “beep” and LED flash that accepts my paper ballot these days carries with it a satisfaction that I am responsible for the preservation of the Union.
And the validation that is offered by yet a third neighbor-certifier – a round sticker attesting that “I VOTED” – makes me feel as proud as when I didn’t cry during my tetanus booster and got a sticker for bravery.
It is still critical to vote, and maximum participation is important enough that the accommodations for early voting and same-day registrations make logical sense to promote a more representative outcome.
And in these days when voting and mailing a letter have little difference, the importance is not diminished one bit.
But the outcome alone is not the purpose of an election, any more than it was the sacrifice alone that was important in biblical times.
The sense at a particular moment that the infrastructure of meaning depends on the individual is essential in the ritual.
For all the pomp and circumstance, forgiveness is not mine unless I step forward for communion.
For all the recitation of sacred text and witnessing of the moon, the pillars are not strong unless I fast, pray, donate, confess and make pilgrimage.
For all the astronomical dependability of sunrise-sunset, Shabbat does not enter my home unless I light the candles.
Yes, the priest has to take my offering to the altar, but not until I present it to him.
And on Election Day, the entirety of the infrastructure exists for my sake.
I bring what is of worth, something only I possess. Others are awaiting my arrival, preparing my way, accepting my offering, validating my decision.
I have dignity in casting that vote, and for my participation, all previous derelictions of civic duty are excused (well, maybe not felonies).
I think that’s what it means to have sacred meaning. It is not necessarily about something otherworldly or even spiritual. It is about capturing the moment of meaning that cannot be fulfilled without each of us and all of us.
There is an election coming up soon – no matter when you are reading this. However you vote, don’t miss it.
President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi. He is currently serving on Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board.