Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tradition for Tradition's Sake?

So, tradition…

These days, when someone asks me to define myself religiously – i.e., put myself into a category – I usually tell them I prefer not to. I mean, I can’t call myself Orthodox in good faith anymore.

But am I Conservative? Conservadox? Well, not really…

If pressed, I’d probably say I’m Traditional. I like it because it’s not a category that most people use on its own when talking about Judaism – although there are a few synagogues that bill themselves simply as “Traditional.”

But also, I like it, because it’s the closest thing to the truth. I’m an agnostic, I definitely don’t buy into the idea of Torah Min Hashamayim, nor do I buy into the importance and/or infallibility of rabbinic law.

That said, Jewish traditions mean something to me. I’ve never really been sure why – maybe because my parents raised me in a house where Judaism, Shabbos, and the holidays were beautiful things, maybe it’s because of some idea of cultural heritage… I’m not sure the “why” matters, though. It’s just the way things are.

But there are limits to my traditionalism. That is, where aspects of the tradition seem immoral to me, or seem to uphold values that I see as immoral, I can’t be okay with it. Rather, I’m as traditional as possible within certain limits, but I’m not an advocate of “tradition for tradition’s sake” when such a policy holds back social progress or justice. In fact, even if tradition simply contradicts a belief that I have, I can’t stand behind that tradition.

In other words: for me, tradition is a luxury, not a necessity. I stand behind specific traditions because I find them valuable. Where a specific tradition ceases to have meaning – or begins to have an offensive meaning – I’m not interested in perpetuating it.

A few weeks ago, Product and I had a bit of a back-and-forth about the blog entry I’d written on my Christian friend’s wedding. He couldn’t understand why I’d be offended or uncomfortable with Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremonies.

In an e-mail to me, he wrote, “I don’t have a problem with marriages done the Orthodox way. You see? So many things we do are rooted in historic customs, principles, and beliefs we no longer believe in, but we continue doing it anyway.”

Here, to a certain extent I agree with him. I try to make Jewish holidays special, to celebrate them in ways my ancestors celebrated them. So do I eat matzah on Pesach because I believe that God took the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and they left in such a hurry that the bread didn’t have time to rise? No. I eat it because my grandparents ate it, because I grew up eating it. I eat it for a similar reason (though on a deeper and more significant level) that I watch fireworks on July 4th. Because it means something to me. Because it feels good. Because some of the lessons from the Passover story – the value of freedom, the horror of being persecuted – have value for me. And yes, finally, because being from a line of Jews who’ve done these things for centuries means something to me. In a cultural heritage sort of way.

But that doesn’t mean that when a tradition comes into conflict with my values – as does an Orthodox wedding ceremony – that I will just accept it because it’s tradition. On the contrary! I do think the Orthodox ceremony has some nice symbols – the chupah, for example. And I would like to see a perpetuation of those traditions. But in terms of the silent women, the enforced passivity of the women involved – I am not okay with that. Sure, if the people getting married feel that those customs reflect their values, they should keep it up. But for so many of us, it’s completely contradictory to how we see the world, even to how we see marriage.

Product made a point in a blog post* he wrote on the subject that, in Orthodox Judaism, women are consecrated to their husbands but not vice versa. I know this to be true and it’s a problem. Even if it’s only a technicality, it’s a technicality that has practical implications (think agunot).

Regarding my post, again, Product questioned my critique of the reading given during the Christian wedding. I had called the passage (at least in the way it was excerpted) misogynist. He felt I needn’t be offended by such passages (an aside, the groom was as well) because when they were originally written, they reflected the values of the time, and nobody was offended.

In his email to me, he elaborated: “I recently watched the Godfather series; I think it was shot in the 50’s. In Godfather I, the Godfather calls all colored people animals and in Godfather II, Michael is rebuked for trusting a Jew. Was I appalled? No. Neither should the black folks be offended. We all know that at the time Anti-Semitic and racist statements were acceptable. I’m not worried, because I know such lines would be censored from today’s movies.”

His supposition of when the movies were made is wrong (they were made in the ‘70s), but let’s just assume for a moment that they were actually shot in the ‘50s and that the values expressed within the movies reflected those of the societies around them (I don’t think it’s quite that simple even if they had been made in the '50s, but I’m making a hypothetical case). In such a case, I think it’s true that one should be able to watch such a film without being offended (the way, for example, I can read 19th century texts about women’s “proper roles” without being offended. In fact, I’m not really offended when I read sexist remarks in the Tanach – it only serves as evidence for me that it’s a biased, human-written text).

However, watching these films is not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about choosing that specific quote to read aloud in a modern day context. That is, imagine if someone stood up at a Jewish benefit and read the anti-Semitic section of the script from Godfather II. Unless he/she was doing so as part of a speech on the history of anti-Semitism, the attendees would all be appalled, and rightly so!

Tradition and traditional texts, by extension, have their limits. When they're quoted or referred to as a way to uphold sexist/racist/anti-Semitic values in modern day society, it is not okay.

Ultimately, Product closed his email by expounding upon what he saw as the “fundamental problem with Reform Judaism.” That is, that “[r]eligion practices the word of God, whether you believe in it or not. A religion that claims to be man-made is not a religion. When you start to accommodate religion to suit contemporary beliefs, you pull the floor from underneath your feet. Instead, let religion be the original that it is, and you have three options. You can take it, leave it, or throw it away. You can practice it, leave it in synagogue and visit whenever you feel like it, or hate it and reject anything that resembles it. The point is, don’t change it or you will mess the whole thing up.”

While not a proponent of Reform Judaism, I respectfully disagree with Product’s opinion here. I don’t think you compromise the whole thing by changing pieces of it. Not that this is relevant to my life – but even the most extreme brands of Orthodox Judaism don’t claim to be fully the word of God. In fact, most of the things I find to be in conflict with my value system don’t claim to be the word of God (there are, of course, exceptions to this rule). The reason for that is because Judaism – yes, even Orthodox Judaism – is an organic, evolving thing. The rulings of rabbis, even as they try to stay as close as possible to the original texts, have always been informed by the societies around them. How else to explain Rav Gershom’s edict against polygamy? This one instance is more obvious than some others, but if you look closely, these outside influences become more and more clear.

Obviously, the happenings within Orthodoxy are less relevant to my life now that I’ve (sort of) made the decisions that I have. But really my point is that I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong or threatening about adapting traditions. And I do think there can be harm done by simply valuing “tradition for tradition’s sake” without any critical analysis. Perhaps more on this another time…

*Yes, Product's blog is in Yiddish, a language which I don't understand. However, he sent me a translation of the post and it's really very interesting. Perhaps he will post that translation on his blog?