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.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Tradition?? Tradition!!

Psychotoddler, the blogger and musician, tells us (in a post that answers one of my own) that after his Rabbi made a general request, he (PT) agreed to change his custom for shaking the lulav. At least in shul.

Annotation: Until relatively recently, all European Jews followed the Rama and had one lulav shaking custom. At the end of the 18th century this changed when some European Jews joined the Hasidic movement and embraced the customs of the Ari, a 16th century Israeli. In our day, descendants of Rama followers and descendants of Ari followers often live in the same towns and daven in the same shuls, creating all sorts of comical problems. If it all sounds like the Lilliputian battles about how to best crack an egg, you're probably right. With no Hitlers to menace us, this keeps us busy.

Why did the Rabbi ask PT to change his custom? Because he (the rabbi) thought "that it looks really bad to have a few guys swimming upstream, and really detracts from the beauty of the service." With respect, I disagree:

1 - The Arba Minim represent the diversity in Judaism. The esrog is the Jew with tamm and rayach... and so on. Why would you stage-manage the lulav service for the purpose of denying or hiding that diversity?

2 - The Rabbi argued that it's "more beautiful" when everyone does the same thing. But one could just as easily make the opposite argument. Perhaps it is "more beautiful" when we honor the customs of our parents? Maybe, it is "more beautiful" when we acknowledge that Judaism is a rich tapestry of customs and practices?

3 - PT and I agree: At the end of the week, it doesn't really matter how you shook the lulav. Though in my dark moods I worry that customs I hold dear are being used to challenge the authenticity of my Judaism, I know customs aren't law. Still, doesn't PT's Rabbi make the opposite case? When he asks his congregants to perform the ritual the way that he does isn't he saying that it matters?

What do they do in your shul, Adam?

In the shtebble, the 15 or 20 ashkenaz men shake the lulav according to the teachings of the Rama. The Rabbi, an Ari follower who always leads the hallel, even waits for us to finish before he goes onto the next verse


Annotation: This is key because, along with the difference in _how_ the lulalv is shaken, there is a difference as to _when_ the shaking occurs: Ari-followers shake the lulav twice before a paragraph of the hallel. Rama-followers shake it four times, once after each verse of that paragraph. If an Ari-follower is leading the service and doesn't wait, the Rama-followers can't shake without rushing.

On the first day of Sukkot, I suppressed a smile when an amazing image, an image that would have been impossible in another shul entered my field of vision: Simultaneously, I saw an Ari-follower and a Rama-follower teaching their sons how to shake the lulav. The Rema taught his son to shake front - right - back - left - up - down. The Ari-follower taught his son... little help, please? I confess: I don't know exactly what they do, just that it is different. In any event, each kid learned his own custom, at the same time, in the same place, and I think that's neat.

Compared to PT's shul, I like our way better: No one has to change, and we teach our kids to acknowledge and to respect diversity.

Monday, October 04, 2004

The old man last seen here received just deserts on the second day of Sukkos. It was rainy, and a few of us were wearing baseball caps to keep our heads dry on the walk back from shul. The old man spotted a teen in a Yankee cap, and growled, "Can't you wear a hat that says you support Torah?"

The teen pointed to the grump's dripping Borsalino and said, "When you were my age, all a hat like that meant was that you were a gangster or a hoodlum. Times change, I guess. May the good Lord grant you years enough to see the day when a Yankee cap also represents Torah."

The grump was speechless, the teen triumphant. The rest of us grinned and chuckled.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Show me a man, past the age of thirty, who can read this poem without getting a lump in his throat and I'll show you a lump of clay.

All the Generations Before Me
-by Yehuda Amichai

All the generations before me
donated me, bit by bit, so that I‘d be
erected all at once
here in Jerusalem, like a house of prayer
or charitable institution.
It binds. My name’s
my donors’ name.
It binds.

I’m approaching the age
of my father’s death. My last
wills patched with many patches.
I have to change my life and death
daily to fulfill all the prophesies
prophesied for me.
So they’re not lies.
It binds.

I’ve passed forty.
There are jobs I cannot get
because of this. Were I in Auschwitz
they would not have sent me out to work,
but gassed me straight away.
It binds.

Note: In the original Hebrew "it binds" is zeh michayaiv which seems to me to carry the sense of "it creates obligations."

My great-grandfather, the first of my ancestors about whom stories are told, came to America in 1910. Slonim, a midium-sized city to the east of Warsaw and south of Vilnius, was his birthplace. My great-grandfather was a conscript who served the czar in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese war and was imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp. Many men in his position gave up the faith of their fathers, and dropped the burdon they had inherited from their fathers. My great-grandfather did not.

After the war, my great-grandfather married, had a son, then left wife and child behind to seek his fortune in America. They joined him almost 5 years later, when it was clear no fortune would be found. A second son was born, then a third, and my great-grandfather found a job as sexton in a small country shul.

This family was an exception. In that time, in that place, many men and women forgot Judaism. Many of their children intermarried. Many of their grandchildren declined to identify as Jews. Most of their great-grandchildren are not Jews. My great-grandfather's three sons died shomrei mitzvos, all of them fathers of large observant families.

The middle son, my grandfather, went to yeshiva, received ordination and took a pulpit. The Judaism he taught my father was the Judaism he taught his community, a Judaism I imagine he received from his father and learned from his illustrious teachers, men who could trace their intellectual heritage to Slobobka, Vlozhin and beyond. This was a Judaism of tolerance, of moderation. It didn't compromise, but it didn't flaunt itself. It was a modest Judasim, a temperate Judaism, a meticulously accurate Judaism with nothing showy or ostentatious about it. Influenced, as I suppose it was, by the great cities of Vilnius and Warsaw, this Judaism was firm, and solid, and it had nothing to prove. On matters of halacha, the Rema, the Mishna Brurah and Rav Moshe Fienstein were the great lights in our sky. When I grew up I saw some of its values, or hashkofa, in the teachings of Samson Rephael Hirsch. My father calls himself a misnaged, and he says it proudly.

In my time and place this style of Judaism has fallen out of favor. In the world of the Yeshiva torah im derech eretz is not their watchword. Brooklyn Judaism which, like Boro Park music, is not bounded by geography, is not modest nor temperate. I am raising my son in a sea of black, surrounded by chandeleirs and breakfronts filled with silver, among Jews whose parents and grandparents landed on these shores long after my great-grandfather was comfortably installed in the small country shul.

Their Judaism has a different taste, the taste of the backwoods. It's more ecstatic with a greater focus on the unthinking and the superstitious--miracles, acts of physical transport such as singing and dancing. Their sun is the Ari, their moon is any of the Hasidic masters. Samson Rephael Hirsch who wrote in German, and who was translated into English, and not Hebrew or Yiddish is ignored or unknown. Misnaged is a dirty word.

My son will reach adulthood in this time and place, in the vicinity of these Jews. I recognize he'll be influenced by this other style of Judaism, still I wonder: Am I bound to raise him in the traditions of my forfathers, to consecrate him to the memory of the exceptional man who withstood both czar and America, who clung to this tradition, to this Judaism in the POW camp and on the gold-paved streets? Or should I be satisfied (dayenu) that he will grow up Jewish and observant? Are taste and style essential to Judaism? Will something important, to my line if not to my faith, be lost if my son and I can't see eye-to-eye about religion when he is a man, raising his own children? Do I owe my son his history, his tradition? Do I owe my decendants the style of Judaism of my fathers?

It binds. It binds.

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