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Otherwise than Meaning: On the Generosity of Ritual

Don Seeman

Keywords: Alterity, experience, Geertz, Hasidism, Judaism, Levinas, medical anthropology, ritual theory, Shapira, suffering, Weber


The thought experiment ‘ritual in its own right’ implies a suspension

of dominant interpretive paradigms in anthropological research. This

essay begins by juxtaposing the foundational accounts of Weber and

Geertz—both of whom associate ritual with the quest for meaning in

suffering—with the phenomenological account of Emmanuel Levinas,

who argues that suffering is inherently “useless” and therefore resistant

to meaning’s claim. All three theorists are then juxtaposed with

the Warsaw ghetto writings of a twentieth-century Jewish mystic,

Kalonymos Shapira, whose work exemplifies the tension between

meaningful and useless suffering in a real social setting. Shapira’s

work bears comparison with Levinas’s, and lends support to the idea

that our preoccupation with meaning may stem from a particular religious

genealogy of social theory. Ritual can be analyzed as a ground

of intersubjectivity or transcendence rather than meaning, which

makes it more akin to medicine, in Levinas’s terms, than to theodicy.

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