Sunday, October 17, 2004

The idea that the practices and rituals we call minhag constitute an essential part of Judaism which, at all costs must be maintained, is untenable. Even a cursory reading of Jewish history militates against this way of thinking.

This subversive thought came to me on Simchas Torah soon after my brother-in-law told me the Jews, Jewish boys anyway, once had the minhag of burning sukkahs on Shmini Atzeres. You read that correctly. The minhag was to burn sukkahs. The Maharil records it, adding "my father forbade me to do it."

One can only imagine the uproar in the Maharil's neighborhood. "Oh that man," the pious neighbors would have intoned, referring to the Maharil's father. "He is so modern, keeping his son from participating in our venebale custom of sukkah burning."

The custom, of course, no longer belongs to Judaism, yet Judaism survives. In fact, the list of lost minahgum goes on for pages, yet Judaism survives.

The reason for this, I must insist, is that Judaism is larger than the sum of its customs. The customs add color. They warm the heart. They invoke nostalgia. Otherwise, they are meaningless. Say "bonu" is you like, or say "bunee." During Ellul, blow the shofar at the end of davening or in the middle. Shake the lulal like the Rama, or shake it like the Ari. All the matters is that you shake it; the manner of the shaking matters only to the Lilliputians (and yes, I've been guilty of this.)

When I offered this idea to a fellow congregagnt, he gave me a witty reply that neatly summed up the minhag fallacy. He said, "If it was minhag in our shul to sit quietly during davening it would be followed without argument. Unfortunately it is Jewish law, and not minhag, that requires silence, and therefore people talk."

That's it in a nutshell. Minhag, in our day, matters more than law. And to our detriment: As PsychoToddler has observed, the small, insignificant details of custom divide us, when instead, our many more, and many more important simmilarities should be a source of untiy. My neighborhood has two shuls, simply because silly customs prevent the RNs and the OMJs from praying together. Wouldn't it be better for us all, in countless ways, if the two shuls were to merge?

NB: As Yisroel Salant is said to have remarked at the end of one of his famous lectures on morality, "If what I've just said has an impact on even one person, it was worth saying... even if that one person is me."

Attention: Please feel free to comment. I've received too many emails from people who say that "don't feel comfortable" adding their thoughts. Please, get over it. If you have something to say, say it. There is no reason to be silent. If you disagree with me, I want you to tell me why.

Comments:

...Prepare for the onslaught....

nicely said, Adam

(My son came up to me in shul and asked me, "Some kid asked me why I wear my hat straight instead of 'up.' What does that mean?" "It means that he's a moron.")  

You and psycho belong together being that you're both total traitors to your heritages and ancestors. How can you possibly say that the customs are "meaningless?" That's the announcment of someone who doesn't care anymore about his judaism. Also, maybe you fell on your head because only last week you were yelling because of the Rabbi who said to give up the Rama lulav shaking minhag. Now you are changing your mind which is a flip flop.  

To the grammar-impaired commenter:

I like furious comments. Really I do. But you don't seem to have understood my original post. If Psycho's Rabbi agreed with my view (ie: minhags are not important) he never would have asked Psycho to give up his minhag.

"Not important" cuts both ways. I means that no one - not congregants, and not rabbis - should allow them to become a divisive issue.  

Adam,

There are two shuls in your neighborhood because the hat wearers are too snobby and too holy to be seen in public with the non-hat-wearers. It has nothing to do with minhag.

YL  

I love it when blog writers aregue with all the great rabbis. Who are you to say that minhag is meaningless? Al lthe rabbis who have ever lived going back ot the begining of recorded history disagree with you so maybe you should think twice.  

The literature abounds with examples of Rabbis -great and small - who put the law ahead of customs. There are also many instances when Rabbis ruled that forgotten ideals, ideals such as kovod habriyos (human dignity) or chisaron kis (finacial loss) or tarcha d'tzibur (troubling the community), were more important than minhag.

Today minhag trumps all of that. Today we happily and piously embaress people, cause monetray loss, and trouble the community -- all for the sake of minhag. I am arguing for a return to the day when this was not done.  

Your post fails to distinguish between various types of minhagim. The term "minhag" covers a wide variety of practices, as Prof. Sperber points out in his introduction to Minhage Yisrael. Some are very deeply rooted, and one changes them at one's peril. Others, such as eating kugel on Shabbos, hardly deserve the name "minhag" at all.

Also, since minhagim are local or regional, rules are needed to resolve the conflicts that arise when people with different minhagim need to co-exist, as happens often in our mixed-up Jewish world. But the fact that such conflicts arise is no reason to disparage the concept of minhag.  

You and Mr. Grammar Impaired (above) are making the same mistake. I am not impugning the idea of minhag. I just don't think its worth fighting about, and certainly, it is not a reason to divide a community. (The achronim were unaninous: minhag, ie: nusach is no reason to divide a shul. In other words, break-away minyanim for the sake of nusach were forbidden.)

Keep your minhag. Honor your minhag. Rejoice in your minhag. Teach it to your children.

But please remember to teach your children not to disparage people who don't follow your minhag, and also, please remember to teach your children that many things are more important than minhag, as our sages have taught.

My issue isn't with minhag. It is with people who put minhag ahead of everything else.  

I'm with you. It seems the long list of bayn adam lichavero obligations get set aside for a lot of things. I bought Rabbi Abraham Chill's book on Minhagim a long time ago, but never read it. Guess I have to take it down and read it so I can say something at least remotely approaching intellegent. Maybe by Pasach.  

What about certain religious movements that throw out their own ancestral customs, replace them with new "improved" ones copied from a geographically distant community, and then go around telling their local relatives to switch to the new ones too because they're 'better'?

Would you say that changing your own minhag is fine, but telling someone else to is crossing the line?

Steg (dos iz nit der ┼íteg)  

Steg,

I was careful. I said minhag should not trump law. In the case you described (and I guess you mean the hasidim) law was in some cases thrown out for the sake of minhag. I don't approve.

In general, I don't think people should change their minhagim. People who change their minhagim usually do so because of outside preasure: the rabbi, the community, the spouse. I think that preassure is wrong, and it is a result of people wrongly thinking that minhag is more important than law.

My own community is divided by minhag. The law (lo sisgodidu) was thrown out because people could not abide each others minhagim.  

Adam, your original post spoke of the minhagim of your ancestors, and the desire to pass them on to your children. I'm a baal tshuavah. My immediate ancestors did pretty much nothing. They'd be pretty amused to hear people call me a traitor because I put aside a lulav dance that I learned in one shul to follow a different one that I learned in another.
I agree, halacha is important. But this other stuff..whether you wear your hat up, straight, straw, felt, fur...what does this accomplish other than to divide an already exceedingly small people?

BTW, Adam, you might actually like our shul. We have the whole gamut here. And we have to live together because there's nowhere else to go. It's entertaining to see the Litvak's at the Rebbe's Tish.  

PT,

Would you like me to delete the post that calls you a traitor? I will if it disturbs you.

I do want my kids to follow my mihagim. I don't want them to be bullied into dropping them, by ignorami who think their minhagim are holy and ours are not. But that's nostalgia talking. If something more important is at stake, I hope my kid's priorities will be in order.

They shouldn't change their minhagim, and they shouldn't ever be made to think that they _should_ change their minhagim. That's really the prayer in this post.  

Adam-
Don't delete anything on my account. I find the guy amusing.
If these guys really think their minhagim came down from Sinai, then they shouldn't change them.
If my folks had passed anything useful down to me, I'd probably want to pass it along too.
I sometimes feel like the guy who somehow managed to climb Everest, only to find a bunch cranky old people squabbling over who gets to sit where.  

Adam wrote:
In general, I don't think people should change their minhagim. People who change their minhagim usually do so because of outside preasure: the rabbi, the community, the spouse.

Me:
How would you apply this statement to women marrying and (having to?) adopt their husband's minhagim?  

ME:

If you've closly read what I've written, you know I don't think the spouse should care. If s/he does care, though, I think keeping the peace is more important than keeping the minhag.

(Incidently, I know Orhthodox men who've taken on their wives minhagim, so it isn't so uncommon.)  

But AR, it is halacha, not minhag, that the woman adopt her husband's minhagim.
Simililarly, in some instances it is halacha, and not minhag, to adopt to minhag hamokom.  

Yes, that is the halacha. No question. And it was established, I'd wager, to prevent the type of disagreements I allude to throughout this post.

In fact, I think my thesis (minhag is meanigless) is the basis for this halacha. For if minhag mattered in the way we often pretend it does, how could the sages compel you to forfeit your minhag?

I wrote that minhag is often given priority over halalcha, and this is indesputably true. For an example, I turn again to my own neighborhood. Though the Me'eri, Rav Moshe and others are crystal on the subject of break-away minyanim (they all say it is osur) the founders of the shteeble seperated from the shul because of minhag. This happens all the time.

So, last annon poster, you are right. The halacha itself makes it clear that minhag is less important than we often say it is, and when we must choose between two minhagim, the halacha tells us which party should yield.  

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