Thoughts on Judaism

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Irrelevant customs

In the previous post, I mentioned irrelevant customs followed widely in chareidi and Chasidic world. Usually, these are defended as having “spiritual” relevance. I cannot speak to that, but many are just customs that made sense at one time, but do not make sense today. There is a deep aversion in the Jewish world to say that anything is outdated, because then critics will expand the charge to all of Judaism. However, those charges are generally expanded on speculation. For instance, critics claim that pork was forbidden because of the danger of trichinosis. There is no evidence and perhaps counter evidence that this was behind the prohibition. After all, other animals are forbidden in the same verses and very general rules are given to identify kosher animals, none of which has consistent connection to trichinosis or any other disease.

However, there were later customs that had clear reasons associated and those reasons no longer apply. Are they the only reasons for these customs? I do not know. They are the only stated reasons, and they were not forbidden in the Torah before the rabbis forbid them, so I have no information to say otherwise. I like to go by transparent sources, meaning those which were available to every community, rather than some source from a particular rabbi in some corner of the world. There was a school that began kabalah in Tzfat, which was responsible for the spiritualization of some very practical measures as well as plain old syncratism. Many of these customs irk me, and modern rabbis, “poskim” and even “gedolim” are too weak and pusillanimous to examine them, by their own admission.

1) Kaparos using live animals – All evidence shows that this primitive custom began in the Ashkenazic world as a non-Jewish practice of magic. It was forcefully rejected as such in the rational Sephardic world of rishonim in strong terms, and revived without transparent source by endorsement of the kabbalist Sephardic group in the Middle Ages, so it has spiritual street cred, even though most lay scholars are familiar with its sordid history. The strictest practitioners today use a separate chicken for each family member, hens for girls and roosters for boys. In the ultimate fence around the magic, pregnant woman use a hen plus another of each sex, for the baby, even if the baby’s sex is known by modern means. Sympathetic magic meets rabbinic OCD, anyone?
2) Avoiding Kiddush between 6 and 7 – This is not even internally consistent, nor consistent with the sources, as I discussed before. Its ultimate source is non-Jewish astrological religious superstition, and even quoted as such. It is so nonsensical, in fact, that there are no rational explanations for the custom or even how it is supposed to be practiced. In Chabad today, the custom is practiced prolifically, based on each individuals understanding of the strange internal inconsistencies, even though it has no clear basis in Chabad custom. It is only mentioned in the SA-SZL as a custom that some people had.
3) Chalav Yisroel – In more agricultural times, it was profitable to mix unsalable milk from a non-kosher animals with milk from kosher animals to increase the volume without increasing expense. These products had to be made quickly into cheese or butter, as there was no preservative methods that would maintain liquid milk to market. According to the sages, the non-kosher milk would not congeal and easily separated from the cheese at that point. Therefore, they forbid Jews to drink any milk they might be able to obtain, unless a trusted Jew had supervised the process to make sure it wasn’t bulked with non-kosher milk. Non-Jewish cheese or butter was OK, because any rennet used was nullified in amount and taste, and non-kosher milk would not congeal. In the time that this custom was invented, there was no great inconvenience, because people did not buy and sell milk at market, and only traded it in small private transactions, if at all. Milk became a staple in the US with prevailing methods to make milk safe and preservable. Thus, in the last 100 years or so, it became an issue. One of the primary rabbis of the 20th century, Rabbi Moshe Feinshtein, allowed people to use milk for their children as it became a widespread complaint, based on the fact that it is no longer profitable to bulk milk with non-kosher milk, given other better methods of bulking and the fact that such practice was regulated by the government and a violator would risk fines, making it further unprofitable for a commercial dairy to do.

Today, people keep chalav yisroel out of adherence to these old taboos of a yesteryear economy, even cheese and butter, which the sages permitted. (The Sifsei Kohen also brings an objection that milk from treif cows might be mixed in and that might forbid all cheese and butter as well. However, AFAIK, mashgichim are not examining each cow today.) In communities outside of big cities, milk products are difficult to obtain and far more expensive than their counterparts. There are many more products that use dairy today, and thus it is far more inconvenient than the rabbis ever dreamed of when they instituted this rule. Today, all candy and baked goods, all products with cheese or cheese flavoring, and many other products that people would use daily are disqualified. Worse yet, kashrus issues stemming from exposure to non-chalav yisroel, like using dairy equipment, even if the food itself is not dairy, is also disqualified. Defenses for the custom range from defenses that it is still applicable somehow, and that RMF only allowed it narrowly etc. to full spiritualization. It needs to be revised for the modern world, if not dropped altogether, especially in the US.

4) Pas yisroel and bishul yisroel – The laws that bread must be baked by a Jew or that staple foods must be cooked by a Jew were instituted to prevent fraternization with local non-Jews, and possible intermarriage. People made baked goods from their homes, as they did not preserve well to market, and the law was aimed at sharing with the neighbor. By the times and places where there were commercial bakeries in city centers, places that had them allowed people to patronize them, with stipulations, since a professional baker was selling a product, rather than fraternizing. IOW, they recognized the increased inconvenience of the custom and the fact that its reasoning did not apply to them and they allowed it. (This would counter the spiritualization and “other reasons” claims.) Bread is always considered a staple. Cooked items, though, can be differentiated based on their importance. Obviously, if the goal was preventing intermarriage, the foods affected would be those that were impressive to a guest.

Today, almost all baked goods trade is done from commercial bakeries. However, all manner of products are available for sale, as well. What was viewed as a mechanism to keep separation in a shtetl now forbids people from using any local bakery or buying staple products off the shelf. Pas Yisroel, when available, is far higher cost for the same products. Many processed goods are cooked and marketed now, something that did not happen with great regularity on the old days. In response, in the Ashkenazic world many centuries ago, some modifications were made, such that even a small addition, the lighting of the fire by a Jew or the stirring of the pot, was enough to permit the food, since it thwarted the reason for the prohibition (an unsupervised kitchen), with minimal inconvenience for commercial enterprises. In the realm of cooked foods, there are those who forbid potato chips and Cheerios without the bishul hechsher. These are clearly out of the original intention of the law, as it uses the term “presented on the table of the king”, to describe how important it needs to be to fall under restriction.

5) Drawing water for Mayim Shlanu at shkiah – The water that is used for shmurah matzah must be as cold as possible to allow the greatest protection from becoming chametz. According to the Gemorrah and later halacha sources, this time is sunset. The reason is that all day the sun is above us and warming the earth and then at night it goes under the earth and warms the water from beneath the earth. The proof for this is that one can see steam rising from the water in the morning, showing that the sun made the water very hot all night from beneath. Therefore, the best time to draw water when it is perfectly cold is sunset. Nuf said.

6) Black hats and coats – Chabadniks and others today require a black fedora and a suit jacket with a special ceremonial belt to pray. This is because one should dress for prayer as if you were going before the king. This is, in fact, formal dress … if you are a European living in 1930 or one of the Blues Brothers.

7) Rabainu Tam tefilin - Rashi, Rabainu Tam, Ra'avad and other rishonim had different ideas about the arrangement of the parhios in the hand and head tefilin. The SA specifies the way of rashi, but there were various spiritualist rabanim in later times who wore several pairs, some at the same time. In Chabad, this has evolved into everyone wearing Rashi with a blessing and Rabainu Tam without.

Pesach requires its own post.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

How can this guy walk?

The Rebeljew brass pair award goes to Mosab Hassan Yousef.

If we could produce 3 of this guy, Hamas would give up and disband. He will probably reproduce children made of solid steel.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Making Peace

Continuing on the theme of the earlier post, I would have to say that making peace with your place in Judaism, or any philosophy is the key to making it work as a positive in your life. As I sat at a Purim Seudah, I truly enjoyed what was going on. Previous years, I had approached many things with a trepidation. I know I am going to have to endure bromides for hours. At best, it would not be as bad as I expected. However, I have finally exorcised the demons of needing live according to what is meaningful to others.

Peace began for me as I sat once listening to a rambling speaker discuss Judaism's opinion on some social issue, when one of the audience asked a halacha question on something philosophical he had said. His response was that "you would have to ask a rav" if one were allowed to believe that. Then, it finally struck me clearly. Why should I have to ask someone what I believe or don't believe or "am allowed" to believe. I did this to myself. Once I came to that conclusion, that I would not delegate my right to decide what I believe and what I do not believe, everything fell into place.

Someone asked me how I was able to believe in Torah mi-Sinai, given my abhorrent idea of taking responsibility and ownership of my own belief system. A fair question with a simple answer. I believe in TMS for the same reason that I do anything else Jewish, because I am convinced that it is essential to Judaism. I have no real overriding reason to believe it from scientific disciplines, history or even parallel mythology. So do I believe it like our zeides did, because I am required to? Doesn't this violate my principle? Here is the difference. I must admit to myself that I am taking on this belief to make my connection with Judaism work. But I am the one who makes that choice. That is how all of our beliefs develop. In the face of inconclusive knowledge or even mounting counter evidence, we make a choice of what we believe and amble cautiously down that path. The truth is that I don't "know" that it happened or swear that it happened in any intellectual way, nor does anyone else have any better answer. None of us were there (bromides aside), at least in the sense that we remember anything that happened from direct experience. I accept that believing it makes everything else in the Torah's story work, and so I table the question with the legal presumption that it is true.

For example, I have never put much stock in "kavana", perhaps because it is contrived by its nature. Davening with clenched fist, bouncing up and down vigorously at the waist with face turning purple from stress is not my idea of getting closer to G-d. If that floats someone's boat then more power to him but it does nothing for me. I daven out of obligation, because I have chosen to do so. I do not feel G-d's presence when I do so, I do not have any indication that anyone is listening up there, I do not feel that I am "drowning" and struggling for life (as the first Chabad Rebbe put it), and I do not even fully understand all of the words or why we say them. I suspect that most others have a similar experience. So, I say the words written in front of me. I am at peace with these words, or any part of them that I choose to say or think about. And there is no reason to babble stuff that is entirely incoherent to you, unless you are doing for the public benefit. It is doing nothing for you. For me, the words say that I can't do it alone, and that I need to admit that I need help with many basic things. I am sure that G-d likes to be praised and by me no less, insecure creature that He must be and as concerned as he must be about my opinion of Him, but I do not spend a lot of time or mental energy in these portions. Rather, these praises can only be of value in convincing me of the nature of the One from whom I need help. Seriously, paragraphs in the siddur have nothing to do with my opinion or feeling about G-d or anything else. I did not write them. I did not vote on them. I do not even fully understand them. How much "kavana" is G-d expecting? Nor will I ask a rav how to have "kavana". The term means "intention". I would be asking someone else what my intention is in saying particular words. What is wrong with that picture? And what SHOULD my intention be? That is even less for someone else to answer. But for each person, answering it is the key to making peace with davening.

There is a famous chabad story where a shliach is instructed by the rebbe to encourage a particular ba'al habos to grow a beard. After several discouraging attempts, the shliach said something that inadvertently revealed to the baal habos that the rebbe had given the instruction. So, dutifully, the ba'al habos grew a beard. When the rebbe saw the man with the beard, he told the shliach, "I wanted HIM to grow a beard. This is MY beard." (Presumably, the rebbe knew all that had transpired through his super rebbe powers. Or maybe the shliach told him, it is not clear.) The teaching is sound. We need to make every aspect our own, or it is valueless. Doing things because we are told they are meaningful, is not the same as doing meaningful things. And let's face it, nowadays more than ever, if aspects of religion aren't meaningful to us, why spend any real mental energy on them? As the Gemorrah agaddah relates, "In what was you father most careful?" IOW, not everything carries the same meaning and importance to every person, and that is not only acceptable, that is the way it is supposed to be.