Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Mix and Match

One issue that often arises in liberal Judaism (and arose in an earlier comment) is why should a Jew be limited to just Jewish practices and idea. Lots of people have good ideas. And if the mitzvot are not literally commanded by God, then why not adopt these other good ideas too. Christmas and Easter are pleasant, even for Jews, and especially if one is not too literal. But why stop there? Celebrate Kwanzaa, meditate with the Buddhists, get married with Sufi wedding rituals, adopt a Kantian ethic (or Aristotelian, or Ayn-Randian), study Talmud, and be a citizen of the world.

There are many responses to this question, lots of them unpersuasive. But there are at least three that I have found compelling, and one reason for actually adopting at least some non-Jewish practices or beliefs.

First, it is not so easy to mix and match like this. There is not that much play in the joints. Beliefs and rituals and holidays do not exist in isolation; they are part of a larger coherent (or at least largely coherent) system. And many practices work well together, but do not work well with other practices, even though those other practices work well together. Ice cream is good and sauerkraut is good, but ice cream and sauerkraut together are not good. You are better off just picking one.

In Judaism, there is a tight linkage, for example, between the Torah, the holidays, and the Jewish people. The story of Passover is told in the Torah. It is about the Jewish people being liberated from slavery. The actual commandments to celebrate Passover are in the Torah. We eat matzah on Passover, as commanded in the Torah, to remind us of our Jewish ancestors (not just someone in general) who did the same thing.

In Christianity, Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died for everyone's sins, and by adopting Jesus as our personal savior, we can be saved.

These are two very different belief systems, and while they don't literally contradict each other, they just don't fit together all that well. They reflect different ideas of redemption, different views of the relative importance of this world and the next world, and different fundamental approaches to behavior and belief. Jews look to Jewish history or myths or culture and use these to reflect broader universal themes. Christians look to universal themes themselves, and Jesus is a model of universal values. The question "What would Jesus do?" has no real analogue in Judaism. Jews look to laws and rules; Christians to broader ideas of love and sacrifice. Much can be said about all this, but my purpose here is not to discuss the particulars in any detail, although I do have to concede that bunnies and chocolate and candy beat the heck out of plagues and bitter herbs and matzah. My purpose here is simply to note that these two belief systems and these two holidays reflect different ways of thinking about, and participating in, life. Not really contradictory ways, but ice cream and sauerkraut are not contradictory either. They just don't blend well.

The second reason for avoiding a free-for-all mix-and-match is that Jewish practices are after all Jewish practices. They are ours. I love my wife and kids, and I like my house a lot. Other people have wonderful wives, kids, and houses. But mine are mine, and theirs are theirs. I can appreciate theirs, but I do not want to marry their wives, adopt their kids, and move into their house. (Well, actually, some houses are a closer call.) Part of the reason is that the value of my relationship with, and love for, my wife and kids is based on my prior experiences with them. My wife and kids are really and actually part of me. And as I build and expand on those relationships and experiences, they becomes even more a part of me. And to a lesser degree, my relationship with my house, a physical object, works the same way. It is a special place because of the specialness that my family and I have created here. Other houses might be great, but ours is special to us.

The same is true of Judaism. The value of Passover, to continue the analogy, is my decades of experience with Passovers. And my family's and community's experience, and my ancestors' experience, and my descendants' expected experiences. I am linked to all of this, and it is part of who I am. And Easter is simply not. So as much as I like the bunnies and chocolate, I'll stick with the bitter herbs and matzah.

The third reason is closely related to the second: it helps builds communities. My family, Jewish friends, and members of my synagogue celebrate Passover. We can invite them over, share stories, discuss what went right and wrong with the seder, offer suggestions on how to make it more meaningful, and in the process grow closer. If they doing something else, this would be lost.

The bottom line is that we do not write on a blank slate. We have strong connections specifically to Jewish practices and ideas. It is not all that easy, and often not very desirable, to sever that connection and link up with some other practices or ideas.

But none of these arguments completely preclude other ideas or practices from influencing or being incorporated into Judaism. There are many non-Jewish practices or ideas that complement Judaism nicely or even warrant modifications to Jewish practices or idea, and Judaism has always been influenced by such ideas and practices. The Passover seder is based on a Greek symposium. Maimonides drew heavily on Muslim Arab philosophers and Aristotle. And today, American Jews have elevated the importance of the otherwise minor rabbinic holiday of Channukah, largely oblivious to the irony of partially assimilating with a holiday that celebrates zealously not assimilating.

It is not clear what exactly distinguishes practices that should be adopted from practices that should not. But a few factors come to mind. The new practices that were incorporated into Judaism occurred gradually, were adopted by entire communities not just individuals, and did not conflict with existing ideas of Judaism. (Maimonides' view did sharply conflict, but he eventually won the battle.) This is a far cry from individuals simply picking the practices or beliefs that they find appealing from all of the world's religious and secular culture.

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