lessons from Fiddler

Yesterday I happened upon an idea that is very Jewish.

Jews have the idea that you can assume something has value if it has been done for centuries.  In short: tradition. Tradition!  Tradition!*

Its longevity is indicative of its truth.

The reason I started thinking about this tradition value is because we have kept track of who descends from a priestly family.  There are very few ways that this actually has any effect on anything and one of them is that the first person called up to the Torah is a Cohen (high priest lineage), and the second person is a Levi (priestly lineage).  One rabbi told me that it was decided this way so that no one would fight over the order of getting called to the Torah, but I think the greater reason for why we hold on to these castes is because of the hope that one day we will rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and then these priestly families will resume their priestly duties.

As a liberal in the pure sense, and especially because I don’t believe a third Temple will ever be built, maintaining these titles offends me ever so slightly.  At my synagogue’s monthly Shabbat dinner, a group of us were discussing the possibility of getting rid of the Cohen/Levi thing. What was the argument against it?  TRADITION!

But this is something we’ve done for thousands of years!  You can’t just deny the Cohens and Levis their God-given place in our society!

When I found myself mentally arguing that I could deny them that because I don’t want to live in a genetic caste system, I realized a few things.  One, that my lack of belief in the God of the Torah made it easy to deny such things, and, two, that I don’t value tradition for tradition’s sake.

Now, that’s not true.  I have no moral reason to refrain from eating pork and shellfish, but I do it anyway. I cling to a Jewish identity even though it’s pretty hard for me to pinpoint what Jewish even means. But, generally speaking, I don’t value things just because that’s the way it’s always been done. In fact, that usually makes me question it more.

I want to do something or agree with something because it makes sense to me and aligns with my worldview, but Judaism views my dissent as short-sighted radicalism. If this is the way it’s been done for thousands of years, I come out the fool for not realizing that it’s been done this way because this is the right way.

I respect this outlook and think its mostly necessary in any ideology. An overly malleable ideology doesn’t really last. People believe it because of its permanence. But it certainly presents dilemmas for me as a Jew.

Is there anything I actually do agree with? Why do I insist on being Jewish when I oppose so much of it?

And when I say I’m ‘Jewish,’ just what exactly am I referring to?

*In fact, in cases when one group of Jews has traditionally done one thing and one group has traditionally done another, both are legally obligated to follow their forefathers’ tradition even though clearly one group is breaking the laws of the other group.  Jewish thought teaches that in such ambiguous cases, it is the tradition specific to your family that is correct.  It is not correct, however, to follow the other group’s tradition, even though it’s alright for them.  Judaism doesn’t resolve the contradiction itself but rather has created a loophole that obligates you to adhere to the law your ‘people’ have traditionally followed.

I’ll give an example for those of you who aren’t familiar with this concept.  On Passover, Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European Jews) are forbidden to eat rice. Sfardi/Mizrachi (Southern European, North African, and Middle Eastern) Jews are allowed to eat rice.  One solution to this contradiction would be for some rabbis to decide for all Jews if rice was ok or not. But the way of Judaism is to say that Ashkenazis can’t and everyone else can.  So I as an Ashkenazi Jew would be breaking the law if I ate rice on Passover but my Persian Jewish friend wouldn’t be.  It is a double standard.

I’ve heard the same thing applied to men shaving.  If you’re unfamiliar with how ridiculous Jewish law gets, check out this wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaving_in_Judaism. In the end, tradition wins.  If you use an electric razor and your father didn’t, you are technically breaking the law.  But if your father did, no problem.


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