Friday, June 26, 2009

Faux Judaim (guest post by rejewvenator on DB's)

Here's the original.

Here's a good chunk of it:

" . . . so much of Jewish practice today happens not in the real world, but in some strange, disconnected, halachic [Jewish religious law] bubble. For example, Judaism has long benefited from a tradition of fastidiousness, and we've got lots of washing rituals that served to keep us healthier than the people around us. Today, however, we moderns have better means for keeping clean, like anti-bacterial soap. When it's time for dinner, I wash my hands with soap, and then I perform a 'faux' hand-washing, a netilat yadayim, so I can say a bracha [blessing]. Its value is purely symbolic, and has no meaning, outside of metaphysical or kabbalistic reasons. The notion that cleaning up before I touch food is a Godly one gets completely swallowed up. But no Orthodox Jew would suggest that I could make a bracha on washing my hands with soap!

Faux Judaism is the divorcing of Jewish practice from reality. It's living in an imaginary sphere of halacha [Jewish religious law] that is only tangentially connected to the real world. It's liviing in a world where so many of your actions or deviod of Jewish significance. Collecting your spare change every day and giving it to tzedaka [charity] is just tzedaka. It's not Peah [the corners of one's field.] Maybe you got the idea from Peah, but it's not Peah. We're not allowed to make that leap. Once upon a time our leaders were able to say that Tefillah [prayer] is Korbanot [sacrifice], for example, but we don't have that right, or maybe we jsut don't have the courage to make those kinds of changes.

Our Judaism has turned from a very practical religion whose rituals carried both pragmatic and symbolic meanings into a religion where nearly everything is only symbolic, and thus kind of fake. In the meantime, values like democracy, equal rights, or environmentalism find no real home in our Jewish life, or at best, get strung onto a handful of pesukim [verses], with no real halachic expression or force of mitzvah [commandment] behind them, even thought they resonate strongly within us as true, and good, and important. Our davening [praying] has turned dry and distant from our hearts, our Torah has turned into halachic acrobatics and midrash-style apologetics, and the world does not look to us as an example for how to treat your fellow man.

Maybe it's time we dusted off both our traditions and oursleves, and started living once again in the world of the real."


Anonymous Miami Al said...

It is frustrating that we used to have leadership that took practical concerns and made them holy. Cleanliness prevents disease, and if we spiritually believe that Hashem grants disease and health, then taking actions to be healthy is holy. Our modern leadership is either devoted to absurdities and made up issues (Chareidi), kissing up to those that are absurd (MO), or violating Torah (C/R). The Reconstructionist ideal appeals to me, but the practice appears to be simply placing a Jewish "feel" on Gentile practices, which feels as intellectually honest as the Jews for Jesus (not claiming a similarity in practice between the Baptists recruiting Jews and the honest efforts by the Reconstructionists, just suggesting that I find their actions equally intellectually dishonest).

That said, traditions help form our culture and keep us distinct. Shabbat rituals are no less important to a Jewish home than fish on Fridays and Sunday dinners are to an Italian Catholic family maintaining it's heritage.

However, the "real world" practice of Orthodoxy, "we wash before bread and bensch, which is annoying at a BBQ, so we'll eat burders/dogs without buns" absurd, as is the "we'll call everything Mezunot to avoid washing," ignoring the fact that Sephardic Halacha follows Mezunot when bread is made with juice, Ashkenazi law does not.

However, the Friday night ritual: Kiddush, Wash, Motzi, eat, Bensch is critical for small children, and small children are still a huge part of Orthodox live (4-5 children, 2-3 year spacing, means that you often have toddlers in the home for 10-15 years)...

At the Passover Seder, my son at 1 1/2, was excited when we washed and called out Challah, and we explained that no Challah, Matzah. A year later, he was excited again, and asking about the washing before greens.

The Passover Seder's rituals are important because they are DIFFERENT from Shabbat/Chagim, while being the same. Those differences raise questions, questions I didn't understand as a child because we didn't do Shabbat/Chagim.

So those rituals are divorced from reality, but the set of rituals is brilliantly interwoven to transmit our Mensorah to another generation.

I'll give you another example, "why do we cover the challah on Shabbat?" Two answers are given in the Mishnah Beruah... 1, under order of Brachot (blessings), you make Hamotzi (blessing over bread) over Borei Pri Hagafen (blessing over wine), and Kiddush (sanctifying Shabbat) can be made for either Borei Pri Hagafen OR Hamotzi, so if you have bread on the table, you would Wash/Kiddush/Hamotzi without the Bracha on the wine, and a Shabbat Seudah involves wine, bread, and meat, therefore you want to Bracha the wine. 2, bread is normally the Bracha during Chol [normal days] (if you have wine with dinner, you make Hamotzi, which covers the entire meal), and on Shabbat we bless the wine first, and we don't want the bread to get jealous.

Answer #2 is a fun way to explain the situation to children, and Halacha often anthropormorphysizes (sp?) objects to rule via analogy, and is absolutely a technically real answer. However, answer #1 actually explains the Minhag via Halacha, and is important for adults.

That mindless ritual amuses children and raises questions if you have SOME education, and gets children interested in our heritage. However, if you don't Hamotzi during the week, the issue never comes up.

Chazal shows wisdom in these matters, I hope that one day we will merit leadership with wisdom instead of rote memorization.

Fri Jun 26, 11:24:00 AM 2009  
Anonymous rejewvenator said...

It's funny you should bring up the Seder, as it was an example I ultimately left out of the original post.

The story of Pesach is meant to be told in Q&A format, as per the verses in the Torah that say that your children will ask you about the Paschal sacrifice. But rather than having those questions and asnwers come about organically, we instead have a Hagaddah, with its ritualized set of four questions. These are not 'real' questions, but they serve the purpsoe of fulfilling some kind of obligation to do a Q&A.

Highly ritualized ceremonies are important, and I don't actually have any quibbles with the 4 Questions (which is why I eliminated the example from my original post), but so does real-world relevance. People have strayed from ritual not just because it's difficult or annoying, but because it has no meaning.

If, at a BBQ, it was acknowledged that Purell was a substitute for washing, you'd see a whole lot more washing! And a much more sanitary, and thus holy, experience!

Anyway, thanks to the Ba'alat HaBlog for re-posting my thoughts.

Sun Jun 28, 10:32:00 AM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Miami Al and Rejewvenator, I think that, since rituals differentiate the holy from the ordinary, and help create and maintain Jewish identity, the trick is to find a decent balance between rituals that are divorced from reality and rituals that are meaningful whether reality-based or otherwise.

Personally, Rejewvenator, I'm a great fan of actually answering the Four Questions, once a child is old enough to understand the answers. While rituals can be meaningful in themselves, and a young child can, initially, be proud of the simple ability to recite the questions, "We were slaves" is not a comprehensible answer to a child of six, and I don't see any good reason to avoid giving a straightforward answer. It's chinuch (education), which is the point of the seder.

Sun Jun 28, 02:56:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

rejewvenator, something I never encountered until my first Orthodox seder, was the asking of questions. Open discussions, questions formally posed to the leader but open to the table, etc. are the mainstay of an Orthodox seder. Only outside of Orthodoxy have the four questions been institutionalized as the only questions. The seder serves to make it comfortable for all to ask questions and discuss.

Sun Jun 28, 05:15:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous rejewvenator said...

Yeah, the Seder is actually the best counter-example to my thesis. In the Orthodox world it is perhaps the most vibrant tradition, and the most pliable one.

I think that in the non-Orthodox world people need help in learning how to facilitate a seder. Instead of having all of these communal pre-seders, synagogues and other institutions shuold hold prep classes for how to lead a vibrant seder with questions and discussions.

Sun Jun 28, 10:35:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

rejewvenator, I'd add Sukkot to the list. Everyone, including the least handy, takes time BEFORE the holiday to construct a sukkah. The children decorate them. We eat in them, entertain in them, learn in them. It's a tremendously active holiday that concludes the holiday season with Simchat Torah which is just raw "fun."

Growing up R, there was no fun in Judaism.. it was just something sucky you did a few times a year. For all the restrictions and frustrations in Orthodoxy, there are a lot of rituals we engage in that are just plain fun, enjoyable, and communicate to our children how different we are.

I'd like a little more Jewish pride outside of Orthodoxy. How different would the world see us if Jewish professionals in fields that work Saturdays worked Sundays instead, making it clear that we are different and all honor our religious.

The gentiles that take their children to Church on Sunday would really respect that.

Mon Jun 29, 10:32:00 AM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Amen! Let's hear it for a joyous Judaism!

My own experience with sedarim/Passover seders is that there are three kinds. There's the standing-on-one-foot seder--everyone just wants to rush through the early part, eat, and go home. There's the "learning" seder, with lots of comments, commentary, questions, special readings, and/or singing--my favorite kind. And there's the child-oriented seder, with less commentary, but lots of explanation, questions, activities and singing specifically geared to keep young kids involved. The latter two are cool. The speed-reading version is a wasted opportunity to actually enjoy Judaism.

I've never had my own sukkah, but I've eaten in many of them. Not that he'd admit it now (sigh), but I think our son quite a kick out of eating in different sukkot when he was young.

Mon Jun 29, 08:54:00 PM 2009  

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