Monday, May 14, 2007
Minhag Monday.

Last week, Laurel Snyder at Jewcy wrote an article that goes directly to the identity predicament I’ve been feeling lately with regard to being a full-on, unashamed atheist while managing to somehow hang on to some of the meaningful traditions associated with being a Jewess. She is debating whether to have an upsherin ceremony for her son despite her reluctance to commit to beginning Torah study at three years old, as per tradition.

She writes:

“But mostly... I just didn't want to be a poser.

Now, before you laugh at me, I want you to think about this... because I'm not sure it's totally stupid.

What does it "mean" to borrow cultural trimmings without fulling participating in the strict observance or community behind them? I would never intentionally appropriate something like that from another religion, would you?”

When my niece was born, this issue blindsided me. I suddenly wanted her to have the experience of going to a Shabbaton, singing zum gali on a burning hot summer day at Camp Tinokim, learning about tikkun olam, making hamentaschen and smelling the spices at havdalah. These are deeply ingrained in me and provided me with a sense of stability in my somewhat unstable childhood. The fact that it was all in praise of Baruch atah adonai…I came to realize sometime in my 20’s that that part wasn’t going to work for me and so, for the most part, I left my Judaism behind.

I wouldn’t think about jumping a broom at my wedding or making the sign of the cross. These things are not part of my tradition. But then, those things that are part of my tradition are saddled with meanings that I am somewhat uncomfortable with or completely repulsed by.

I want to retain some of the cultural treasures that Judaism offers, but I am struggling to do so within my atheist soul.

The Catholic community is all up in arms about people picking and choosing what parts of Catholicism they follow and what parts they don’t. They are calling it cafeteria Catholicism. There is a movement against cafeteria Catholicism as the Pope decides on interpretations based on what God wants and Catholics do not get to practice only the parts that appeal to them. Period.

In Judaism, I was taught, you must ask questions. Jews have an ancient tradition of hacking it out among scholars (albeit all men) debating long into the night over a halachic ruling. The cafeteria issue doesn’t apply as even in Orthodox Judaism a posek on Fairfax can disagree with another on Riverside and Moishe in WeHo is as kosher as Shmueli in Valley Village. The delineations just within the fundamentalist wedge of Judaism of Modern Orthodox, Satmar, Chabad, etc. who, for the most part get along just fine even with different rulings (although here we are talking about the splitting of the finest of hairs and the measuring of millimeters of skirt hem). Then, within the Conservative, Conservadox, Reform and Reconstructionist denominations, there are broader gaps between what is practiced and what traditions are discarded.

Then there are the lines between what is a commandment (mitzvah) and what is tradition (minhag).

As a secular/atheist Jew, I do sometimes feel like a bit of a poser taking on some of, what is rightfully, my tradition.

About seven babies were born this year to friends and family. I made many of them blankets. It occurred to me each time that one tradition Jews have is to put a red thread in or on the blanket. If it were only so simple. The thread is so that Lilith, first wife of Adam before Eve, will not take the child’s soul. Yeesh. So, I didn’t add a red thread, but I thought about it every time I made a blanket. Somehow, redefining the red thread to mean something new seemed really poser-ish.

Some of the traditions make sense though.

Giving to charity in a proscribed way so that it is anonymous or giving to a poor complete stranger, gifts that they can actually use by going up to them and giving it to them - these are incredibly positive traditions that have been maintained for thousands of years because they are set down. You don't get to just give money to a charity all the time to make yourself feel better. You actually have to find someone in real need and know that person and hand them something that is a necessity of life.

I'm still working this out. I imagine it will take time. In the meantime, I guess I'll just have to do what seems right at the time - or my new motto, better to ask forgiveness than permission.

By the way - how weird is it that Wikipedia always has the most concise definitions of Jewish terminology???

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Blogger Baconeater said...

When you think about it, even a marriage ceremony at City Hall is traditional and dependent on whatever country you live in. The idea of a wedding is a ceremony, so is a birthday.
Most atheist Jews, including me, have many family members who believe (mine are mostly secular followers) in various ways and degrees.
There is nothing wrong with being a cultural Jew.

Blogger Susan said...

Hi. Cafeteria Catholic here. In fact, they might not even let me be that, considering I've marched for abortion rights. My husband and I were discussing how we're "cultural Catholics" these days. We're trying to decide what happens when the baby comes. I'm glad I had that part of my upbringing, even though I don't embrace all (or even most) of it as an adult. Not sure what we'll do.

Blogger Bridget said...

I'm running into the same problems with being a "cultural Catholic" and a believing, but not practicing, pagan. I have strong memories of my Catholic upbringing (I was a believer until well after grad school; then I still believed, but could no longer do it through the Catholic traditions) and want _parts_ of that for my daughter, but it is VERY difficult to find an ethical, non-poser path.

Blogger Laurel said...

I really appreciate hearing your thoughts. I'm not an atheist, but I'm a fence-sitter in so many ways, and I think almost everyone (who wrestles) wrestles with this...


Blogger Orangeblossoms said...

I have been thinking about this from a slightly different perspective. As I become more and more involved in my future stepsons' lives, I realize that there are parts of my restrictive, traditional childhood that have served me really well. But, those things are kinda rigid, kinda structured, and kinda opposite of the way my future partner parents.

I don't really want to be rigid with the boys. I want them to learn how to make decisions for themselves and to think with open minds and hearts. But, somehow, I need to figure out what is so important to me about respect for elders, chores, structure, high standards.... and a more 'authoritarian' delivery system for these things. (Not so punishing, but more exacting.)

I know what didn't work for me growing up; but I also know what I learned and what I hope to impart to my own kids. Sometimes, I wonder if it wouldn't be good for them to have a discipline like music or a martial art to teach some of the same stuff. But the kids aren't really interested in those and I think it needs to come from family as well as from teachers.

This new step-parenting gig is freaking me out!

Your post made me think even more intentionally about more than the religious/cultural cafeteria...

Blogger Rachel said...

Thank you for that thoughtful and thought provoking post. I'm struggling with lots of similar issues at the moment. I have two small girls and having been raised in a church-going Anglican family, there are lots of good things that I'd like to pass on to them, but I'm not a christian, and it's hard to work out the line between giving them some kind of cultural foundation and being a hypocrite.
Tough choices!

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