Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Before we say good-by to Sukkos, there is one more custom I'd like to discuss, a custom that may shed some light on how customs develop.

The mainstream practice: Halel, on all seven days of the holiday, is recited with the lulav in our right hand, and the esrog in our left hand. When the lulav is waved (or shaken) the lulav and esrog are held together with both hands.

The Chabad practice: Lubovitch hasidim recite halel with only the lulav in their hands. The esrog remains in its box until the time comes to wave (or shake) the lulav. Only then is the esrog taken. After the waving (or shaking) the esrog is returned to its box. Halel continues with only the lulav in hand.

Warning: When you hear how the chabad practice began, some of you will nod your heads, and say, "of course." Others of you will immediately load you email applications and begin composing viscous letters, in which you'll insist that the Rebba had nevuah, and that the Chabad custom is followed by the celestial angles and possibly even God Himself up in the heavenly abode where all of the former Chabad Rabbis take turns leading the service. Nonetheless, I plow ahead.

The origin of the Chabad practice: Towards the end of his life, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn (known to Chabadniks as the "previous rebbe" or der frierdiker Rebbe) suffered a stroke, leaving him too weak to hold the lulav and esrog for the entire halel. So, he left the esrog in its box until it was needed, during the waving, and held the lulav alone for the rest of the halel. His hasidim saw this and, hasidim being hasidim, they copied their Rabbi. (Source: Two lubovitchers from my neighborhood who confirmed this independently on the second day of Yom Tov, 2004. Because both of their fathers knew the frierdiker Rebbe, and can remember when chabadniks followed the mainstream custom, these men have some credibility.)

Surprised? Don't be. It's my hunch that many of our customs can be traced to a story like this. There is always an alpha-male, and humanity, which always follows the alpha-male, advances when the alpha-male is good and wise. Until very recently, mankind didn't trust itself to challenge or question the alpha-male.

This, incidently, is why I have always though it an oversimplification to say that hasidim live the way Jews used to live. The truth is the Hasidim live the way all people, Jews and non-Jews, used to live. Until very recently, most of humanity was relativly isolated, in small groups, or tribes or clans, with each tribe, group or clan, completely under the sway of its respective chief. German principlaities, European fiefdoms, Indian tribes - even the kingdoms described in Tanach - were small, isolated, monolithic, and controlled by the leader. The people, largely, were too timid, too ignorant, too hungry and, yes, too stupid to do anything about it. All that's changed, of course, and for many, many reasons.

Some argue that blind devotion to the leader is essential to Judaism. If so, we have a problem. In our day, blind devotion (except, ironically, among the Hasidim and among the Arabs) is impossible. The Enlightenment has done its work. Mankind has learned to trust itself, and there's no going back. We've retired the kings, and not because we've grown corrupt, but because we're more intelligent, better organized, better fed, and because society is no longer monolithic. Installing a king, to whom blind obediance is owed, would mean undoing all of this first.

In our imagination, the moshiach manages this amazing trick. We believe that when he arrives, all competing customs and practices will, somehow be swept away, and that the Moshiac will lead a unified, monlithic Judaism. He'll be a rebba, a king, a Rosh Yeshiva and a mora d'asra. I think this hope must be re-examined. I'm not challenging the idea of moshiach, only the idea we, at this late date, will happily give up our customs in deference to him, and follow him blindly off into the sunset.

From the perspective of politics and human psychology, I don't see how that will work. We're all too entrenched, too stuborn, too bold. Before Judaism, as a collective, follows anyone, something's got to give

Perhaps the war of gog and magog will be over minhag.

Comments:

The Moschiah problem is simple.

Assume that the coming of Moschiah will be accompanied by a divine miracle that causes all the Jews to obey him.

If the miracle happens, all well and good.

(Of course, if it doesn't happen, is it really Moschiah? . . . well, let's cross that bridge when we come to it, shall we?  

The Frierdiker Rebbe acted as he did not only because he was too weak to hold the esrog, but because he didn't want to risk the esrog getting scratched up by the Lulav held by shaky hands. For him it was an issue of keeping the Hadar (and hiddur) of the esrog.  
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