When are rituals perceived to be effective, and what in them initiates change? Answers to these questions are often uncovered by asking which parts of rituals can be varied and which cannot. In spring 2022, remarkable news emerged of thousands of baptisms in the United States declared invalid on the grounds that the Catholic priest administering them had announced ‘we baptise’ instead of ‘I baptise’, the correct expression for priests serving as substitutes for Christ.
“In rituals, it’s important to do everything accurately and correctly, even if the participants cannot explain why something has to be done in a certain way,” Jutta Jokiranta muses.
This is also evident in early Judaism, where increasingly specific rules were introduced, for example, for observing the Sabbath and complying with the rules of purity. Furthermore, increasing attention was paid to the functioning of certain rituals. With danger close by, it is important for a blessing to be effective and for the recipient to know that they are the object of a blessing, not a curse.
Religious texts contain references to rituals
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the Qumran Caves in the Judaean Desert near the Dead Sea in the 1940s and 1950s. The collection encompasses nearly a thousand manuscripts written on skin and papyri. The religious texts contain direct references to rituals and ritual activities, including a large number of previously unknown prayers and hymns of praise, and also prayers to drive away evil forces, and blessings and curses.
The Qumran manuscripts are dated approximately to 250 BCE–70 CE. The texts were conveyed by a Jewish movement or group active at the time. This movement presents an important experimental venue for investigating religious communities, but also for explaining the behaviour of human communities more broadly: what kind of activities do communities consider necessary to ritualise and make distinct, and how does this happen?
At the beginning of the Common Era, a topic of debate was the observance of the holy day of Sabbath, a key symbolic marker of Judaism in relation to gentiles. What do the prohibition of work and the sanctification of the day of rest mean in practice?
“Can I have sex on the Sabbath? Can I take my animals to pasture? What tools can I use to rescue someone from a well?”
The sabbatical provisions were clearly cumulative: one regulation produced a number of additional questions, for which appropriate guidelines were sought. Detailed (and perhaps even theoretical) policies resulted in different groupings when they wanted to demonstrate appropriate adherence to Judaism.
Jokiranta finds it interesting that not all central rituals show similar signs of ritualisation. For example, there is no evidence of the ritualisation of circumcision in the Qumran dataset, even though this ritual, targeted at the male body, lay at the core of Jewish identity. Rather, circumcision is associated with spiritual metaphors, as in ‘circumcision of the heart’.
Rituals create cohesion
Ritual activities have often been approached from the perspective of yearning for connection. From the late 19th century onwards, the significance of rituals has shown in the fact that communities have to come together from time to time and renew themselves. Only through ritual action – by worshipping something that symbolises the community, a totem or deity, but that is still something greater than the community – does human consciousness form and retain the idea of community and the relations needed for the preservation of the community and society. The ‘turmoil’ or ‘turbulence’ of ritual energises the group so that its members feel that they are part of something bigger.
These days, such energisation is familiar from, for example, major sporting events, concerts or parties. During the pandemic, people were greatly concerned about whether to hold family or other celebrations.
“I’m interested in the extent to which such a feeling of togetherness is preserved, or whether it applies specifically to certain people,” Jokiranta says. “Social cohesion, a connection, does not come about and survive only by people coming together.”
Overall, cohesion is difficult to investigate: is it a subjective experience of the participants or does it make the group, for instance, function more effectively? There is some evidence of effectiveness, but also some of a positive sense of belonging. Cohesion is a kind of positive bond, but there are many other things that can take place in rituals. For example, rituals are used to identify leaders or reliable members of a group, in which case cohesion is not equal for all members.
It is useful to distinguish between planned turmoil (generated by synchronised movement, marching, music, accessories, etc.) and unplanned effervescence, as well as to identify forces that do not encourage such turmoil.
“I’m looking for new ways to explain the Qumran manuscript version of a key ritual where membership in a covenant was reaffirmed. Because of hierarchy, curses and the seriousness of the ritual, it does not directly support unity among all members.
“At most, unity could be felt by first-timers or those on hierarchically the same level.”
The agency of priests in rituals
In Judaism, just like in Christian baptism, the priests have a key role in certain rituals, such as temple offerings. However, the Qumran movement distanced itself from the Temple in Jerusalem. In this context, what was the role of the priesthood?
“The covenant ritual may have been a concession to the priests of the movement: they were given a prominent role in administering a priestly blessing upon those entering into union, and in cursing the children of the darkness and charlatans.”
At the same time, the law of the Torah was fulfilled, according to which priests, the descendants of Aaron, were to favour Israel with this blessing. While the Qumran movement is often considered priestly on the grounds that the texts betray an interest in priestly matters (temple, interpretation of the law), it may be it was not always the priests or only the priests who were in charge, but rather other scholars.
“Today, we are discussing what future churches should be like: whether membership is determined by place of residence or whether members should be able to choose the kind of church they belong to and attend. In such cases, the leaders, that is the priests, often establish the profile of the church. At times, they are primarily symbolic figureheads.”
According to Jokiranta, all observations point to some kind of covenant ritual having been a practice. Of course, it is also possible that the description of the ritual in the text is entirely literal.
“In this case too, the text has most likely been read aloud and performed. You might ask which of the effects on the audience would be about the same in a longer liturgy with embodied performance.”