The Meanings of Ritual: Comparisons

Abraham Kaplan

Abraham Kaplan, “The Meanings of Ritual: Comparisons,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 37–56.

Whatever else religion is, it is rejoicing and celebration. And in the ceremonial inclusion of God in every act of life, Mormonism finds itself close to Hassidic Judaism. The master of this movement was the seventeenth-century charismatic figure Baal Shem Tov. Through Tales of the Hassidim, a kind of “Lives of Jewish saints,” philosopher Martin Buber has popularized this remarkable movement. Some forms of Hassidism deny that there are two disparate realms—this world and the “realm beyond”—affirming instead a continuing extension of one. In this and in the insistence that God needs man as man needs God, there is the rootage for a common understanding of ritual, or what Mormons call ordinances. Joseph Smith proclaimed, “Being born again comes by the Spirit of God through ordinances.”

Abraham Kaplan, an outstanding exponent of the Hassidic tradition, presents here an analytic paper, more philosophical than theological, on the role of ritual in authentic religion. His essential thesis is that typical reductions of ritual—psychological, sociological, anthropological—are misleading. The religious function of ritual, which is the essence of many forms of Judaism, is the symbolic expression of a way of life. Kaplan’s is the one paper in this series that does not attempt to make explicit comparisons between Mormonism and his own area of expertise. The results are nevertheless clarifying of the Mormon position.

T. G. M.


For some centuries Jewish liturgy has included the psalm, “Out of the depths I cried out” (Psalm 130:1). Men cry out and, unlike the Psalmist, hear no answer. There can be some sort of response if not an answer—at least from other men who share the perplexities expressed in the cry. Certainly there should be a response from those—I mean the philosophers—who, since Kant, as you remember, have set their minds to determine how far reason can carry us in our perplexities and what is to be done when we are driven beyond. Much of contemporary philosophy, alas, rather than responding, addresses itself only to the pitch and intonation of the cry. Nowhere is this more evident than in the philosophy of religion.

Philosophers, like people trained in other disciplines, suffer from corresponding trained incapacities. They deal with words, and the outcome of their dealings is verbally expressed; eventually it becomes hard for them to see anything but words and the meanings which words convey.

In religion, words and what can be adequately articulated in words are, I believe, of relatively minor importance. Judaism, for instance, recognizes 613 religious obligations. Maimonides classifies these into fourteen groups, of which only one has to do with religious beliefs, while seven concern matters of ritual.[1] Of the 613 commandments themselves, fewer than 5 percent are verbal—dealing with vows and prayers as well as doctrine. Over 60 percent deal with ritual.

Ritual can be regarded as a language, and I am using the word in its broadest sense as a symbol in action. “In seeking to understand ritual we are, in effect, trying to discover the rules of grammar and syntax of an unknown language.”[2] But language is not constituted by a grammar and syntax alone; it must also have a semantics and be a carrier of meaning. I ask, What categories of meaning are appropriate for the analysis of ritual?

Maimonides, like other rationalists, offers a utilitarian explanation for ritual: “One should seek in all the laws an end that is useful.”[3] In his view no ritual is purely religious in significance; or, rather, religion is not encapsulated from life. Not only does religion give point to our doings, but all our doings reveal the significance in religious practice. The dietary laws, for instance, he says, have a medical basis: “All the foods which the Law forbids constitute an unhealthy diet” (III, 48). Philo of Alexandria, also concerned with the point of ritual requirements, accounts for the dietary taboos by holding that the forbidden foods are delectable symbols of the sensual life, to be rejected by those devoted to the life of the spirit. Between them, the two philosophers make these foods either too good for the Jews or else unfit for human consumption.

The utilitarian explanation cannot lightly be dismissed as a rationalization. The question is not whether observant Jews eat only kosher foods for reasons of health; this formulation of the issue confuses the point of the ritual with the intention of performing it. The question is whether health is the significant end served by the religious requirements. For in such requirements, distinctions are characteristically made between the community of the faithful and those outside the faith; between the priesthood and the laity; among various castes; between men and women. It is implausible in the extreme that such distinctions always correspond to presumed differences of utilitarian significance.

In many rituals there is an incidental utility which can be readily acknowledged, comparable to the “secondary gains” of neurotic symptoms. A festive meal is in fact nourishing, periodic fasting may in fact serve to allocate scarce resources, and ritual washings may actually cleanse the worshipper. The dirt removed is real, but it is not the dirt which is significant in the rites of purification. The incidental utility is not the point, and in general there is no more than an incidental utility.

It is often argued that, even if a ritual has no utility, at the time and place of its origin it did have utility, or was thought to have. Rituals are often given a historical explanation. A distinction must be made between the actual historical origin of a ritual, to the best of our knowledge, and the origin presented in the ritual itself, which I call the source. Rituals not uncommonly include narrations of their own source. These may provide clues to the origins, but are scarcely decisive. Though historical method has its place, it is of limited use in accounting for the significance of ritual; for even when it explains the meaning of the ritual it may throw little light on the point of performing it.


History may obscure meanings as well as explicate them. The Kol Nidre prayer, in modern times perhaps the most solemn of the Judaic liturgy, is a prayer for release from vows. History suggests that its importance dates from the period of the Spanish Inquisition, when many Jews (Marranos) overtly converted to Christianity while secretly adhering to Judaism, so that the prayer was for forgiveness for apostasy. Such vows are not what was meant in the prayer in the preceding centuries or is meant today. As a matter of modern history, the Kol Nidre probably has come to be so important because it is the opening prayer of Yom Kippur eve, the one occasion of the year when Jews who are scarcely religious at all are likely to come to the synagogue; the prayer thus serves as a symbol of national or ethnic identification. This is not its religious meaning, however, and certainly not its point.

The historical explanation of ritual easily succumbs to a categorical mistake, confusing causes with reasons. Describing the origin of a symbol or practice is mistaken for specifying its point; there may be a connection here with the genetic fallacy of supposing that origins determine validity. The historical circumstances which brought it about that a prophet said certain things may explain why he said them and in just that way. It does not explain why generations of subsequent worshippers accepted them as prophecy, nor does it explain just what they were accepting. For example, Moses might have been deeply influenced by Egyptian politics and the radical theology of Ikhnaton, but that he was raised as an Egyptian is scarcely central to his significance in Judaism.


Internal explanations of religious symbols are those made in the symbolism itself—for instance, by reference to their source (as distinct from their genesis). The lighting of the Channukah lamp is internally explained as symbolizing the cruse of oil in the liberated Temple miraculously remaining lit for eight days; the Passover matzos are internally explained as the “bread of affliction,” baked in haste at the time of the Exodus (indeed, the whole seder of Passover is an extended internal explanation of the rituals and symbols appearing in it).

A large part of the internal explanations of religious symbolism can be explicated with the help of a single unanalyzed term—the term Power, used in a sense close to that of the anthropologists’ mana.

Magic also involves Power. I believe that the difference between religion and magic can be simply stated: Religion is the institutional invocation of Power as the basic integrating force of individual and social life. Magic is the use of Power as a dissociated force for the attainment of limited and personal ends.

Objects characteristically or at least originally functioning in worship may be and often are used magically instead—for example, the cabby’s mezuzah or St. Christopher’s medal used as an amulet to ensure road safety (especially when both are worn simultaneously). In the so-called “practical Kabbalah” the names of God and verses from Scripture were also used magically. Such magical uses are not always easy to distinguish from religious uses. Protective symbols are meant to counter evil effects of Power, whether emanating from the Power itself or produced by intentional misdirection of the Power.

Protective symbols and rites have Power themselves and can be used magically. Augmenting symbols, exemplified by fertility rites and rain dances, are common. Uses on the borderline between magic and religion characterize revealing symbols: oracles and prophecies concerning secular matters, like the outcome of battles; procedures for locating lost or hidden objects; rites by which to identify the guilty or to establish the guilt or innocence of a suspect. Divination, after all, is from the same root as divine; the carnival fortuneteller was once a priestess.

Those who have faith in such ilk are heeding false prophets; in relying on the magical Power of symbolic objects, they are worshipping idols.

The function of an image is magical rather than religious whenever it is responded to as itself a locus of Power, and not a symbol of a Power which in fact may be elsewhere or omnipresent. For all their proliferation of images, neither Hindus nor Roman Catholics worship idols; but in all faiths, religious symbols are often vulgarized to magical uses. The devil not only quotes scripture; he can also wear a prayer shawl and phylacteries.

That religious symbols may have nonreligious and even irreligious uses has long been recognized. Maimonides (I, 61) speaks of the “vain imaginings” of writers of charms, and Thomas Aquinas condemns amulets unless they are used to express veneration for God and the saints and are thus evidence of faith rather than objects in which to have faith.[4] A mezuzah, the Jewish ritual object put on the doorpost, is used religiously only when it is on a door; it is nonreligious when it is worn as a symbol of identification; it is irreligious when it is worn as a protective amulet.

Religious ritual has been interpreted as a counterattack of religion on magic, or on earlier religious practices later seen as forms of idolatry. Saadia Gaon explains the dietary taboos as meant to undercut animal worship (though one might then expect veal rather than pork to be prohibited);[5] Maimonides (III, 39) explains that garments of mixed linen and wool, and the practice of shaving the head, are prohibited because these were the fashions worn by idolatrous priests. There may be a confusion here between origin and source, meaning and point. The neurotic symptom of compulsive hand-washing may originate in a sense of guilt for unconscious death-wishes; the symptom is not explained until the washing is understood as a symbolic cleansing from sin. What is the content of rituals?

Powers are dangerous, just because they are powerful; personified, they are more dangerous, for they may be hostile or angry. There are preventive rites in religion, according to the internal explanations, as propitiations of the Powers. Tertullian, in the third century, explained that this is the point of fasting and other ascetic behavior.[6] Preventive rites differ from protective symbols in doing their work not by magic, but by exerting moral pressure. In religious ritual, symbols are not a locus of Power, as in idolatry, but serve to put the worshipper into communication with Power.

With rites of purification, religion shades off into magic once more. Disregarding or not recognizing Power (for instance, by breaking a taboo, even unintentionally) defiles the wicked or unwary. Most common in the rites of purification is the use of water—by sprinkling, ablution, bathing, or immersion. On this, Diogenes the Cynic commented, “Know you not that as you could not wash away a mistake in grammar with a purification, neither can you wash away a mistake in living?”[7] The religionist might retort that defilement is a matter of sin, going counter to Power, not of mistaking the powers in things and actions. It is not a matter of immorality except in that this is sinful, and it is certainly not a mistake in living, in the sense of imprudence. Defilement is precisely that which can be washed away.

The essence of magic, rather than of religion, is to attribute to symbols a causal efficacy; in religion, symbols provide reasons rather than causes. When rituals are taken to be effective in themselves rather than by way of what they express, they are magical even when they are performed in religious contexts and perspectives.

Internal explanations of ritual give it significance in terms of the communicant’s relationship with the Power with whom he is in communication by way of the ritual. Things are not holy because they are taboo—a seat of Power. This endows them only with magical rather than with religious significance. Things are taboo because they are holy—vehicles by which Power communicates other itself or the will by which it is directed. Internal explanations in theocentric religions say: All Power is from God. Rites are based on the will of God; we acquire merit by performing the ritual in obedience to God’s will.

Theocentrism provides another internal explanation of ritual: it serves as a reminder of God’s governance of the world. Religious symbolisms “express dramatically the same truths which theology wrestles with intellectually.”[8] The Sabbath, for example, commemorates the Creation and the Exodus, as is declared explicitly in the kiddush, the sanctification of wine with which the Sabbath feast begins. Passover, as detailed in the Haggadah, the book of the ritual seder, symbolizes the role of the divine in attaining salvation from human bondage.

Ritual symbolism is a reminder; performance of the ritual testifies to acceptance of God’s governance. The ritual is a symbol of acceptance, however, not a sign conveying a well-defined message, [ . . . ] the emblem “I Gave” displayed during a charity drive. Ritual expresses a way of life. Its content is not a matter of morality distinguished from religion, for no such distinction can be drawn. What makes it a symbol rather than a sign is that it expresses a [ . . . ] style as distinguished from particular acts. Ritual symbolizes cosmic harmony; it also symbolizes the harmony between the communicant and the encompassing world. It expresses his rapport with the Powers, and celebrates the peace and security resulting from this rapport.

Sacred images and other symbols serve as intermediaries between the Powers they represent and the worshipper employing the symbolism, who is like a fan cherishing a photograph of his favorite actress or athlete. Images of deities are often found on objects of daily use—clothing, tools, vases, even weapons—so that the user will always be near to his gods; stylized tattoos may make him literally inseparable from them. Ritual may serve to unite men and gods. The Hebrew root which gives the word for glue or adhesives is also the root of the word signifying attachment to the divine (dvekut). Ritual feasts are occasions and settings for such unifications—that is, communion; the Sabbath table, for instance, according to the Lurian Kabbalah and similar doctrines, is graced by the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. The participant in ritual, these internal explanations imply, can thereby “feel himself lifted up into the higher world and in this feeling taste the glory of the super-sensuous.”[9]

Another internal explanation—for instance, by Philo of Alexandria—takes ritual to symbolize religious virtues in general, like repentance. Ritual not only symbolizes the spirituality already attained, but helps make the communicant spiritually inclined. Aquinas declares that “the ceremonial precepts are determinations of the moral precepts by which man is directed to God.” [10] This is also the view of his contemporary, Nahmanides, according to whom rituals remind us of miracles, help us to know God, and raise our minds to prayer. On these explanations the point of ritual is to awaken holy thoughts, strengthen holiness, and instill and sustain the love of God. We might call this the instrumental view of ritual, a view shared not only by the religious thinkers just cited but also by such others as Saadia Gaon, Judah Halevi, and Hasdai Crescas.

Noteworthy among those of contrary opinion is Spinoza, who states flatly (Treatise, V) that “ceremonies are no aid to blessedness.” Quite orthodox religionists have also challenged the instrumentality of ritual. There is always the danger that means come to be treated as ends in themselves. Such transformations of the point of ritual may be called ritualism, prizing ritual for its own sake, so that it becomes the be-all and end-all of the spiritual life. This danger underlies the recurrent condemnation by the Prophets of “vain offerings,” “solemn assemblies,” “appointed feasts,” and the rest (Isaiah 1:13–14, Amos 5:21, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:6, etc.). Theirs is not the secularist rejection of religion on behalf of morality which is familiar today. It is a rejection of ritualism (not of ritual itself) on behalf of religion.

Ritualism is not to be confused with formalism: this is the insistence on strict adherence to the established form of the ritual. The ritualist insists on prayers in the schools. The formalist insists that the prayer must be recited in just such and such formulas. Some degree of formalism is essential to ritual, distinguishing it from secular ceremonies and from religious custom, both of which show much more innovative freedom and local variation than religious ritual does.

In short, internal explanations of ritual view it, when it is not magical, as a declaration of the participants’ faith, symbolizing the existence of a divine governance of the world, and testifying to and strengthening their acceptance of this governance as the most basic integrating principle of their lives. Such explanations, however, even if they are “correct” in some appropriate sense, do not really explain, as historical or utilitarian explanations do when they are correct, because expressions like “God’s will,” “spiritual purification,” and “union with the divine,” are as much in need of interpretation as the rituals they purport to explain.

Internal explanations of ritual commonly manifest a characteristic circle of interpretation, the presupposition that the expressions typically used in the explanations are already sufficiently understood. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines ritual as “a prescribed order for performing a series of rites.” Rites are then defined as “traditional performances to which conventional symbolic meaning is attached by those who believe in them.” Together the two definitions state that rituals prescribe an order for traditional performances in which people who take the performances seriously find an unspecified meaning.

A more helpful definition is this: “Religious ceremonies are ordinary social customs and forms transferred to dealings with supernatural powers.”[11] The circle of interpretation here consists in the circumstance that expressions referring to “supernatural powers” and to “dealings” with them are just the sort of symbols which analysts of religious language seek to explicate.

Internal explanations made by philosophers may be just as much caught up in the circle of interpretation as those made by religionists. Consider, for instance, the following definitions by philosophers of “sacraments”: Augustine defines them as “visible forms of the invisible grace . . . as the words we utter are the signs of things”;[12] Aquinas defines a sacrament as “the sign of a holy thing so far as it makes men holy.”[13] For Thomas Hobbes, a sacrament is “a separation of some visible thing from common use; and a consecration of it to God’s service, for a sign either of our admission into the kingdom of God . . . or for a commemoration of the same.”[14] From these definitions, we would understand very well what is meant by a “sacrament” if only we understood “grace,” “holiness,” and “the kingdom of God.” That a sign has systemic meaning, to be understood only in terms of the whole system of signs of which the given sign is a part, is a common feature of other modes of signification, including scientific discourse. The question is whether the system has any anchorage to reality, so that circles of interpretation can somewhere be broken by experience.

For Philo, neo-Platonism, the Kabbalah, German romanticism, and similar streams of thought, everything in nature is symbolic of the spiritual world. In these approaches the search for the subtle meaning (invan dak) of ritual succeeds only too well: if everything in experience is a symbol, nothing remains for it to symbolize. There is certainly nothing left with which to explain the symbolism.


Internal explanations often use the idioms of psychology, although they are concerned with the spirit rather than with the psyche. This is especially true of instrumental explanations, that the point of ritual is to produce religious feelings—like piety and faith. Scripture speaks of “signs and wonders” (otot u’moftim), significantly justifying symbols and their psychological effects. Some rituals, like fasting, are often practiced for the explicit purpose of producing special psychological states, such as those conducive to seeing visions.

In psychological explanations proper, ritual is interpreted in terms of effects which, unlike those invoked in internal explanations, can be explicated in naturalistic terms. For instance, ritualistic treatment of the dead might be naturalistically interpreted, not as consisting of protective rites against Powerful spirits but as meant to instill reverence for life. On this view, we honor the dead to reaffirm “Thou shalt not kill!” Psychological explanations see the point of ritual in the causal efficacy in a psychological context of the meanings it conveys.

As causes, rituals would have an acceptable place in the natural world. The position taken, by and large, in the Enlightenment—for example, by Moses Mendelssohn—was that the ritualistic side of religion serves to evoke what the eighteenth century called “sentiment.” Typical of the period is David Hume’s account of the Roman Catholic defense of their ceremonies that

they feel the good effect of those external motions, and postures, and actions, in enlivening their devotion and quickening their fervour, which otherwise would decay, if directed entirely to distant and immaterial objects. We shadow out the objects of our faith, say they, in sensible types and images, render them more present to us by the immediate presence of these types, than it is possible for us to do merely by an intellectual view and contemplation.[15]

Significantly, Hume cites this defense of ritual in the context of his analysis of the association of ideas.

Such explanations of ritual may prove too much. As Harnack remarks, “What is there that cannot be used for fostering piety in this or that person?”[16] Ritual is distinguished from other causal agents in doing its work by way of the meanings it conveys. Moreover, the meanings are not merely signified but symbolized, so that the communicants can experience participation in the doings represented in the ritual. The Haggadah enjoins each participant in the seder to regard himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt. Ritual is a reenactment of events which religion endows with significance. If ritual is a matter of psychology, it is closer to depth therapies than to behavior modification. It is closest of all to psychodrama.

Joseph Karo, best known for his codification of religious law, was also adept in the Lurian Kabbalah. In his defense of the use of amulets in the treatment of illness, mysticism gives way to an unpretentious naturalism: even if faith in the Power of the amulet has no basis in fact, use of the amulet can nevertheless soothe and comfort the patient.[17] Every religious practice, from voodoo to transcendental meditation, might be given the same justification. The question is how religious symbols work to make people feel better; what is the relation between our feelings and the content of the symbolism?

Psychoanalysis argues persuasively that to answer this question we must look deeper into both feeling and symbol. Rituals are not performed lightly, unless they are matters merely of habit or conformity. Symbols, unless they have lost their significance, are not merely vehicles of transparent meanings. The scrupulous formalism of the ritual, combined with the obscurity of its content, strongly suggest that powerful but unconscious psychological forces are at work.

Psychoanalysis attempts to uncover these forces by applying the genetic method. Ritual is to be explained by reference to its Psychological genesis (as distinct from its historical origins and from the sources presented within the ritual). Genetically, ritual is viewed as a structure of symbols homologous with neurotic symptoms, especially the obsessional ones. Both serve to release hidden tensions by way of the compulsive projection of repressed emotions.

The psychoanalytic thesis is simply stated by Theodore Reik. Ritual actions “directly serve the breaking-through of forbidden impulses for whose far-reaching protection they were originally instituted.”[18] For example, the fast on Yom Kippur is “an act of self-sacrifice which includes self-punishment for the killing and eating of the totem.”[19] Freud confidently says of circumcision, “I think there can be no doubt that . . . it is an equivalent and replacement of castration,” meant as an expiation for incestuous desires.[20]

It is not clear why the atonement is made only vicariously, because it is the father, not the son being circumcised, who has the desires to be expiated. The ritual can scarcely be a prepayment for the infant’s future sinful impulses. Perhaps, however, the vicariousness is only apparent, marking the result of symbolic processes by which the child has become an extension of the parental self. This would also help account for another important characteristic of ritual, its transmission by tradition.

Criticisms of psychoanalytic explanations have been made both on empirical and on logical grounds. Empirically, the claimed universality of the Oedipus complex has been seriously questioned; the speculative anthropology of Freud’s Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism is too flimsy a structure to bear the weight of interpretation of the vast range of ritual in the world’s religions.

But objections on logical grounds are more forceful. Remote origins are not to be confused with present functions. Killing and eating a totemic animal does not account for fasting on Yom Kippur by people who have never killed an animal, totemic or otherwise. The psychic mechanisms at work might be the same as those involved in such killing, but the purported explanation must itself be explained. Why should the process be ritualized at all? What is accomplished by the symbolism?

Here sociologists take over. A simple but basic datum is that “ceremonies, like language, are the product of social thought, and are themselves essentially social.”[21] This is especially true of religious ceremonies. As Malinowski points out, “Most sacred acts happen in a congregation.”[22] The celebration of a ritual is the public performance of a ceremony; one of the senses of “celebrated” is to be famous. A ceremony is a formalized display or spectacle, something put before a public. The public may be limited to a special audience—one consisting only of true believers, for example. There are secret rituals but no private rituals; even diaries written in a private code depend on an underlying social medium of communication. For ritual, a group of observers, whether participant or passive, is essential; rituals are public ceremonials.

There is no doubt that rituals can serve social ends. For instance, they may be used to reinforce authority—symbolizing its presence by flags, regalias, and the like, or validating its claims, as when the king is anointed and crowned with religious solemnities. Machiavelli had good reason for his counsel that “those princes or those republics which would endure uncorrupted, must above all keep religious ceremonies intact and hold them always in veneration.”[23] But seeing the point of ritual in such uses would be another instance of utilitarian explanation, like seeing the point of dietary taboos as protecting health. Social explanations of ritual find social content in the meaning of the ritual, not only in the point of performing it.

That the manifest content of ritual usually relates to the general welfare—like protection of the group from drought, epidemics, or from human enemies—is not in question. The argument is that the latent meaning is social regardless of what is being overtly signified. The formula that Israel and its Torah are one makes explicit what is implicit in all religion. It conveys more than the commitment of a people to a creed and the dependence of the survival of the people on that commitment. The creed is not only the faith of a people, it is a faith in the people. Religion may see itself as a binding together of man with the Powers; what is beyond dispute is that in fact it binds the faithful to one another.

Conspicuous in the definitions of sacrament formulated by the several philosophers quoted earlier is their omission of any reference to a social element. But a sacrament is a communion among members of a group. The village atheist of Jewish folk-humor explains why he is always to be found in the synagogue together with the devout: “My friend Chaim goes to the synagogue to talk with God; I go to talk with my friend Chaim.” But Chaim could talk with God anywhere; the fact is that Chaim, too, wants to be among his fellows. To be a member of a minyan—a quorum for congregational prayer—means literally to be counted; one could say, it means to count as someone.

Ritual feasts extend family affection—like the agape of the early Christians—to the wider community. Eating and drinking together are everywhere a seal of friendship, and not least in the religious context. In addition to being formally enacted, they are often symbolized, too, in religious language. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” Isaiah cries; the Passover seder begins, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Ritual gives expression to the bonds uniting the community of the faithful.

Communion not only expresses community, it establishes community. It is communication—making something common—in a way which engages the passions. The great political importance of language communities—in Eire, Bengal, or Quebec—shows the power of linguistic patterns to demarcate group identities. The deeper symbolisms of ritual are correspondingly more effective to the same end. Ritual can continue to unify a group when its symbolism is no longer understood, as even a rationalist like Mendelssohn saw. Performing a ritual is not a matter of processing information simultaneously being transmitted through a multiplicity of individual channels; it is participation in a social drama.

The unifying force of ritual derives from a shared formalism, a commonality in the structuring of significant experience. It derives even more, according to the sociological explanations, from a content which expresses and celebrates the commonality. Ritual symbolizes and justifies social norms. It provides, says Durkheim, symbolic representations of social relationships; according to Malinowski, it gives precedents and sanctions for social patterns and moral rules; Radcliffe-Brown details the functions of ritual as sustaining social norms.[24]

There is a strong element of compulsion in ritual, manifested in the sense of obligation to perform it and to do so in accord with established forms. Psychoanalysis makes this feature the ground of its comparison of ritual with the symptoms of obsessional neuroses. Sociological explanations of ritual are more plausible on this score: the compulsiveness in ritual reflects the force of social organization. How things are done in a society is how, in its own perspectives, things should be done; morals everywhere derive from the mores.

Ritual transmits and preserves traditions—the Haggadah makes explicit the merit in retelling, reenacting rather, the redemption from bondage. Ritual is an observance of significant events, real or legendary, in the history of the group—as on Passover, Purim, Channukah, and Tishah B’ Av, or on Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. Rituals are still in the making, or are being reshaped, in reference to contemporary events like the Holocaust and the rebirth of the state of Israel.

Ritual is not only conservative; the myths current in a society may also express criticisms of social organization.[25] While the priest concerns himself with the scrupulous preservation of ritualistic forms, the prophet gives new content to ritual in keeping with his revitalization of the spirit. It is not only interpretations of established symbols which are changed thereby. Group life takes on new directions as the social order is reformed or reconstituted by reference to the cosmic order seen in the prophetic vision.

In sum, sociological explanations find in ritual what Durkheim describes as the outward expression of inward social patterns. Its content is society’s awareness of its own structure and functioning. Ritual is significant because it addresses itself to social necessities as a particular culture perceives them. Ritual is a symbolic dramatization of the fundamental needs of society.[26]


Explanations so far considered fall into two classes, internal and external. Internal explanations do not explain but interpret ritual either as spiritual allegory or as instrumental to the attainment of spiritual ends, both of which involve locutions as obscure as the symbolisms they interpret. External explanations—historical, utilitarian, psychological, or sociological—do explain many important features of ritual, but they leave one out of account: that ritual has something to do with religion. Either essential meanings remain unanalyzed, self-contained in a circle of interpretation, as in the internal explanations, or else, as in the external explanations, essential functions are overlooked, attention focusing on concerns more significant for the theoretician than for the performers of the ritual drama.

A way out of the impasse is promised by another type of explanation, which emphasizes the distinctive mode of signification of religious symbols and their distinctive meanings. Both internal and external explanations assimilate religious language to modes of signification which cannot accommodate either the meaning or the point of ritual. But symbolic explanations of ritual differentiate symbols from other signs.

The adequacy of symbolic explanations of ritual hinges on their conception of a “symbol.” The lines followed are mainly those opened up by Ernst Cassirer and developed by Susanne Langer.

Two features of symbols must have a place in any account. First, symbolic meaning is intrinsic—it is experienced as a quality of the symbol itself, in a sort of physiognomic perception also characteristic of the apprehension of meaning in the arts. What is symbolized and the vehicle by which it is conveyed are not discriminated in the experience. A symbol is “a thing which, in some kind of way, really is what it signifies.”[27] No mystery is intended here, certainly not in the theological sense of “mystery.” The symbol concretizes an abstract meaning, providing a local habitation in the name. It focuses the significance of remembered and anticipated occasions on what is given in the present.

Second, symbolic meaning is expressive, contrasting with “the profanely clear.”[28] Symbols are rich in nuances and levels of meaning; symbolized content, as compared with what is merely signified, is relatively unstructured.

Symbolism, especially in religious contexts, has been persistently misconceived in our time by the prevailing dualistic semantics of “cognitive meaning” and “noncognitive” or “emotive meaning.” If these categories must be used, the meaning of ritual will have to be subsumed not under the emotive but under the “cognitive.” Its significance does not lie in its capacity to produce an effect but in its content, whose apprehension produces the effect. Sacraments, as Susanne Langer urged (ocit.), are “a form of ideation, an expression of concepts,” though, in contrast to other modes of sharing the products of ideation, the concepts are here conveyed by what she calls “purely presentational metaphor.”[29] More generally, religious symbols express and celebrate “the mutual confirmation of metaphysical beliefs and established norms.”[30] To speak of ritual as “merely symbolic” or as having “only emotive meaning” is to risk confusing meanings with their effects, and reducing the point of the performance of ritual to the evocation of feelings dissociated from any reality which alone makes the feelings appropriate.

The concept of danger, for example, presupposes something to be protected; what is at issue may be whether it is worthy of protection or whether it is really threatened. We can distinguish between more or less objective answers to either question. Ritual embodies objective answers to both questions, answers which are as objective as is allowed by the degree of realism and rationality of the performances.

In its meanings, then, ritual celebrates the integration of man and nature, individual and society; by symbolization it mediates discursive knowledge and direct experience. Its unifying force is what puts ritual in the service of religion as comprising the most basic and pervasive perspectives in which we find significance. Here we see the intimate relation between ritual and art, adumbrated in Kant’s third Critique, where the esthetic moment of experience is analyzed as mediating the domains of knowledge and value, thought and action. If the mind is the lawgiver to nature, ritual is not the promulgation of the law; it is the public celebration of life in such a regime.

Ritual expresses the human significance of everything in the world. Yet man himself is not everything; he is only a part of the whole. Man is not for that reason wholly insignificant. But neither is he, in any realistic view, all that matters, even to himself. What man proposes may well be disposed of otherwise. In a word, man lives in an objective world. Without action, wishes are fulfilled only in fantasy; even the greatest efforts might not prevail over recalcitrant materials—the objective, Dewey has said, is that which objects. “A man’s heart plans his way, but God directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). In explanations of events, “God’s will” has no doubt served, in Spinoza’s words, as an asylum of ignorance. But to bow one’s head and say “Thy will be done” is not to offer an explanation. These are symbols of what Spinoza himself emphasizes as man’s finitude; they express a recognition of the dependence of all our fulfillments on a natural order not subject to our own will. Ritual symbolizes the predicament that we live in a world we never made.

Ritual symbolizes this predicament in such a way as to convey that we need not for that reason live as strangers and afraid. Ritual marks the transformation of predicaments into opportunities. It is justly described as an instrument of vision, revealing powers and possibilities inherent in the nature of things. In ritual, bread and wine become nourishment for the soul as they take on the meaning of the necessities of life and its enrichment. Ritual celebrates present consummations while reaffirming future potentialities of the good.

Ritual strengthens our commitment to action on behalf of our ideals; this is what internal explanations call “righteousness.” A contemporary analyst has it, “A religious assertion, for me, is the assertion of an intention to carry out a certain behavior policy, subsumable under a sufficiently general principle to be a moral one, together with the implicit or explicit statement, but not the assertion, of certain stories.”[31] Hobbes makes the same analysis in much simpler terms; the sacraments, he says, are “as it were, the solemn oaths we take of our allegiance.”

What is central to symbolic explanations of ritual is that the “stories” in question here are not fables, infantile fancies lacking grounds for belief. To call them stories is to say that they have a symbolic character, by which they give texture and color to the perceived world, and intelligible form to our commitments in the light of what we perceive. They are not “mere” symbols but a type of high art. Like art, ritual has the significance of the greatest expressions of the human spirit, but only in so far as it answers to what experience discloses with regard to our aspirations as we take action for their fulfillment. Jane Harrison, in her classic Ancient Art and Ritual, reminds us that the Greek word for ritual was dromenon, things done. Ritual is a dramatization of what we find most worth doing.


All this is at some remove from the current idioms of “emotive meanings” and “stretched senses.” Such idioms are inevitable if religious symbolism must be subsumed under preestablished semantic categories, developed out of a focus on the discourse of science and mathematics. It may be that senses are stretched only because they were first contracted. Carnap’s principle of tolerance might be broadened to apply to all the modes of signification; every kind of language has its own rules. Ritual must be understood in terms of its own syntax and semantics, however far these might be from what parochialism is accustomed to and prejudice insists upon.

Among empirically minded students of ritual, reductionist and emotivist positions might be seen as survivals of the Levy-Bruhl school of attributing a “prelogical mentality” to the “primitive mind.” In the history of ideas, the “modern” view often turns out to be quite old-fashioned. Present data and the conceptualizations they invite, support instead cognitivist approaches like that of Claude Levi-Strauss. Myths “pertain to the understanding, and the demands to which it responds and the way in which it tries to meet them are primarily of an intellectual kind.”[32] Rituals and related symbolisms allow for “a science of the concrete,” of what permits the embodiment of general and abstract ideas in directly perceivable specific and concrete realities. Though it is an “undomesticated science,” it is logically sound, and epistemologically valid.

What is needed is an analysis of the differences in the logical structure—syntactic and semantic—of the languages of the various religions. Even more promising is attention to differences in the style of what is most commonly conveyed in these languages. Ritual is the expression, by way of symbolic styles, of a style of life.


[1] Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, III, 35.

[2] Edmund R. Leach, “Ritual,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. XIII, 524.

[3] Maimonides, op. cit.

[4] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, quest. 96, art. 4.

[5] Saadia, Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, III, 5, i–iii.

[6] See Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma (Dover, 1961), vol. II, 132.

[7] Quoted in Diogenes Laertius, VI, 42.

[8] Joachim Wach, Sociology of Religion (University of Chicago Press, 1958), 140.

[9] Harnack, op. cit., vol. IV, 279.

[10] Aquinas, op. cit., quest. 101, art. 2.

[11] C. H. Toy, History of Religions (AMS, 1970), no. 880.

[12] Augustine, City of God, X, 19.

[13] Aquinas, op. cit., quest. 60, art. 2.

[14] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, III, 35.

[15] David Hume, Enquiry, sec. VI, pt. 2, no. 41.

[16] Harnack, op. cit., vol. III, 244.

[17] Joseph Karo, Yoreh De’ah, chap. 179.

[18] Theodore Reik, Ritual (Norton, n.d.), 202.

[19] Ibid., 217.

[20] Sigmund Freud, General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Tenth Lecture.

[21] Toy, op. cit., no. 103.

[22] Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (Anchor, 1954), 40.

[23] Machiavelli, Discourses, I, 12.

[24] Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life; Malinowski, op. cit.; A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society, 1952.

[25] John B. Noss, Man’s Religions (Macmillan, 1966).

[26] Clyde Kluckhohn, “Myths and Rituals,” in William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, eds., Reader in Comparative Religion (Row Peterson, 1958), 151.

[27] Harnack, op. cit., vol. I, 212; vol. IV, 202; and especially vol. II, 144.

[28] Ibid., vol. I, 207.

[29] Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Harvard, 1942).

[30] Clifford Geertz, “Religion: Anthropological Study,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. XIII, 406.

[31] R. B. Braithwaite, An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief (Cambridge University, 1955), 32.

[32] Claude Levi-Strauss, Totemism (1963), 104.