In May, New York’s MediClub, a non-religious group that gathers for weekly meditation, sponsored a “Shabbat-inspired Friday Feast” together with the fast-casual restaurant chain Sweetgreen. The event’s 80 tickets sold out within a day, said Lauren Bille, a MediClub founding partner. Bille discussed the weekly Torah portion and, in place of the traditional Friday night Kiddush, people offered blessings from various cultures over the wine.
“Millennials are hungry to come together in meaningful community,” Bille said. “It just needs to be unattached to religion. More ‘inspired’ by religion.”
Most Orthodox rabbis probably wouldn’t view such a meal, with its eclectic remixing of ancient rituals, as authentically Jewish. But that raises the question of what really counts as authenticity. People who engage in these practices are implicitly challenging the premise that a ritual’s authenticity can emerge only as a function of an ancient rabbinic seal of approval.
“They are not concerned about whether or not something is ‘authentically’ Jewish, but rather that the individual practice has something to offer them,” Thurston said. “Authenticity is often measured vis-a-vis the effectiveness … Even when they are taken into new contexts, as long as they still feel meaningful, rituals maintain some aspect of authenticity.” In that sense, the “authenticity” is a function of consumer satisfaction, rather than of “ancientness” or of “official” approval.
For some, the traditional rituals of Judaism have the sheen of authenticity because they are unfamiliar and usually inaccessible, according to Miller. “There are all sorts of communities, churches, synagogues all around us looking for new members,” he said. “But when something is harder to access, it presents itself as a rare opportunity and it stands out as authentic.”
The mikveh—the ritual bath that Orthodox Jewish women dip in following their menstrual periods—is one such ritual now sought after and paid for by the non-observant, as some organizations are making the experience more accessible. There is typically a suggested fee for using mikvehs; as institutions sustained by donors, they aren’t for-profit enterprises, but they do illustrate the widening appeal of Orthodox rituals. Both women and men are immersing in mikvehs—not according to Orthodoxy’s rules about sexual purity or for conversion purposes, but to mark transitions like new jobs, the beginning and end of cancer treatments, and milestone birthdays, said Carrie Bornstein, the executive director of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh near Boston. Mayyim Hayyim offers classes and tours for both Jews and non-Jews to learn about the history of the mikveh as well as its contemporary uses. Immersion itself is limited to Jews, however.
“It is really taking off,” Bornstein said. “We have reclaimed the ritual. And I think what makes it really compelling for people is the choice: knowing that I can do it on my terms, I can do what I want, say what I want, bring with me whomever I want to.”