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Rites of Passage
While the focus of rituals of reenactment is on re-experiencing the foundational stories of faith,  rites of passage  mark a time when a person reaches a new and significant change in his/her life  These rites or ceremonies are held to observe a person's entry into a new stage of life and can be anything from a high school graduation ceremony or a birthday party, to a funeral. The basic life changes are birth, puberty, marriage, and death. In many cases, transitions from one status or stage or life to another can be a confusing and disorienting time. People are pushed into new roles that are unfamiliar and often are uncertain of their new status. Most rites or passage help people to understand their new roles in society. They can also help others learn to treat people in new ways after they experience certain rites of passage.

The term "rite of passage" was first used by Belgian anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep. In his classic work, Rites of Passage,  he identifies three phases associated with a rite of passage: separation, transition, and incorporation

The separation phase is marked by  symbolic actions that emphasize the separation or detachment for the individuals participating in the rite from a previous status. In a literal or symbolic way, the participant is taken away from his/her familiar environment and former role and enters a very different and sometimes foreign routine that they are forced to adjust to and become familiar with.

 

The transitional or liminal phase prepares the person for the new status that she or he is to assume. This is the time that the participant learns the appropriate behavior for the new stage they are entering. This phase can include the time when a person becomes engaged to be married. At this time, they are learning about the new stage of life they will soon enter -- marriage. They are also adjusting and preparing for it, or making a transition. The transition phase may also include the time that children enter adolescence and leave their childhood behind. This is the time when people learn and grow and prepare to be an independent adult in the real world.

The last phase, incorporation, takes place when the participant is formally admitted into the new role. Marriage is a good example of a rite that would take place in the incorporation phase. After people are married, they have taken on a very new and different role, having prepared for it in earlier transition and separation rites.

One should not always expect to find all three of these phases to be equally prominent in every rite of passage.  Some rites emphasize one phase over the others.


Like all rituals rites of passage can be secular or religious (or a mixture of the two).  What makes a rite of passage religious is once again the "religious context." Rites of passage associated with religion surround and  encompass the transition with a sacred context. In other words, a religious rite of passage seeks to interpret and makes sense of the transition in light of what is perceived to be Sacred Reality.  What does the faith tradition say about this transition? How does this transition conform to sacred reality? What does our understanding of sacred reality (the ways things ought to be) say about what one should do in these situations? We should also note, that rites of passage almost always relate to the individual's status in the community.  If that community is a sacred community (one that exists as a response to or manifestation of sacred reality) then the rite of passage assumes a religious meaning.  We will be considering sacred communities in the next unit. 

Most studies of religion identify three main rites of passage: birth, initiation, death and mourning. In the section that follows, we will look at these rites of passage in more detail in Judaism.