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Ask Shifra

Something Different... Answering questions and making curious observations (online) since 2005.

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Monday, September 26, 2005

Relevance and Halacha

On a recent post on the subject of women's hair covering a reader named "Fish Stix" writes: (Note: I cleaned up the grammar a little to make the writer's point more easily accessible)

"...I believe that women should be able to choose, and in today's society I don't find the need to cover the hair relevant. I do think that when people grow up with a certain belief, they more readily 'think' that uncovering the hair is wrong due to tznuis.

I don't think that the average person (whatever average means) really spends all day thinking about women in "that" kind of way, so that when they uncover their hair they are immediately 'attractive' as if it is some huge difference."

Evaluating laws and customs based on their "relevancy" is hardly a new concept but not one that is endorsed by Orthodox Judaism. If anything it is quite the opposite - OJ never seems to toss anything out!

One could argue that many of the mitzvos we keep today are either generally or personally "irrelevant" and no longer require our observance:

Do I "need" Shabbos to remember that G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh?
I could mark it on my shul calendar in red crayon like I do my dental appointments- I don't forget them!

Do I "need" to remove every crumb of chometz from my house for a week to remember that He redeemed us from our enslavement in Egypt?
Perhaps watching the Donny Osmond version of "Joseph and the Techinicolor Dreamcoat" on television every Spring would be enough to jog my memory.

In fact, many laws and customs that were picked up under very specific (and no longer existent) circumstances are still held today despite their obvious "irrelevancy." For example, the observance of a second day of Yom Tov outside of Israel when we know with great precision exactly when each Holiday occurs.

Many commentaries note that the reason that the Torah does not specifically state the rationale behind many mitzvos is so that people will not judge for themselves whether or not it is necessary for them to observe each specific Mitzva. So essentially, if you choose to accept the "yoke of mitzvos" upon yourself you must relinquish the criteria of relevance.


At 10:01 AM, Blogger Eliyahu said...

Shifra, it seems to me that you are saying that custom has become law, and should not change. i feel this ignores the dynamic nature of our religion. we have been continually disagreeing about what is correct for thousands of years. my prediction of the next trend is the empowerment of women. and that means they will decide about their hair, and about other matters, smaller and greater.

At 10:12 AM, Blogger Shifra said...

Actually I was not trying to make a value judgement on the correctness or incorrectness of this practice but merely to point out the current stance of OJ on the development of halacha.

With the continuous shift of OJ to the right, it seems unlikely to me that your predictions will come true for "orthodoxy." For other factions of Judiaism however, it is already a reality!

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Little Wolf said...

The point I took away is that Orthodoxy is just what the name implies. That it encompasses and embraces, hopefully proudly, all of the tradition in a modern society. The key has to be to allow the how that embracing is done to continue to evolve in a way that is both following tradition and not making a mockery of it by keeping the tradition in a stoic and static way.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said...

To answer your rhetorical question about rmembering things like shabbos, yetzias meitzayim, et al, all you have to do is look to your left at Jews whose predecessors made the same judgement call a century or so ago.

Actually, you're unlikely to find them being that almost all of them are lost to assimilation and intermarriage.

At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"saying that custom has become law"

There is an idea that this is true if the custom is considered of "long standing" and of being "true to Torah". Many of these customs were recorded next to fences around the halacha or the customs were fences themselves. One must be *extremely* learned (beyond my comprehension) in order to seperate what is custom based on external society, the rabbinic fences, and the basic halacha (oral torah included here).

A lot of the customs remind us of what are important lessons and what our priorities should be. Two day holidays to remind us that we are still "strangers in a strange land" if we don't live in Israel. Not eating legumes (to remind us that we aren't to eat things that rise or be made into bread, etc.).

Goyim have Jewish holidays marked on their calendars, but that does not make them aware of what they celebrate and the leasons that one learns from them. Things that are quickly forgotten. As pointed out by still wonderin'.


At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Still wonderin', you're confusing your ideology with facts. There are more of us non-Orthodox folks left than there are Orthodox folks. As for me, I'm the great-great-great granddaughter of non-Orthodox Jews, and I'm still Jewish, married to a Jew, and expecting (G-d willing) the first of several Jewish children. And I've got dozens of Jewish cousins, too.

If Shifra covers her head--good for her. If you never drive on Shabbat, good for you. But don't imply that those of us who don't observe every mitzvah according to all the Orthodox stringencies are automatically doomed to intermarriage and assimilation.

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said...

Of course there are more non-Orthodox Jews than Orthodox Jews. The point you're missing is that it is incredible there are any at all.

In the late 1940's, early 1950, in America, there were virtually no Orthodox Jews. Hitler did his part to virtually eliminate all those living in Europe. So by all accounts, this trending should have continued, but it didn't because those who led Orthodox Jewry then began to invest in full day Jewish education. This reversed the trend and continues to do so.

I'm thrilled (truly) that you are the great-great-great-grandaughter of non-orthodox Jews who is still Jewish and has Jewish family. But I doubt you are typical and would bet that your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents were unusually strong in their belief that family and traditions trump all. you don't need to be Orthodox to be Jewish. You just need to be committed to remembering that you're a Jew.

My credentials are similar: my Great-great-great grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who lived in New Jersey. My great-great-grandfather was born in NJ.

None of his siblings remained Orthodox and we have no idea where any of their descendants are. As for my direct family, there are a few here and there who did not remain Orthodox, who we remain close to, but the rest are all orthodox Jews. Our family temperament for tradition and staying together kept us together and observant.

I wouldn't "imply that people who don't observe every mitzvah according to all the Orthodox stringencies are automatically doomed to intermarriage and assimilation." But I would bet you that MOST who reject their JEWISH traditions are. And that from your own experiences, you probably agree.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Shifra said...

A very excellent exchange of ideas-probably worthy of their own post (someday!)

At 11:04 AM, Anonymous uncle moishy said...

You made the point that, regarding mitzvot from the Torah, our understanding of the "logic" behind them is secondary. Our obligation to observe them remains, even if the logic behind them were to be undermined.

But a large portion of Orthodox observance nowadays is a combination of rabbinic interpretation and accumulated minhag. More importantly, the inherent conservatism of Orthodoxy and the absence of an agreed-upon posek hador (or a sanhedrin, for that matter) means that we are stuck with observances whose underlying rationale may have long since disappeared. The example you cited -- 2-day holidays -- is a good one. There are undoubtedly others as well.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Shifra said...

UM- yes, this is very true and also something I find frustrating to some extent.
It is easier for me to accept that the torah (to my mind the very WORD of God) is eternal - but not so much the laws made by man on the basis of specific time bound circumstances. I was trying to think up other examples, I'm sure there are many... Can you think of any others?

At 11:33 AM, Anonymous chuck said...

its dangerous to fool around with traditions
we dont always understand why things must be done
sometimes i'll find the source of a minhag and even though its ancient and doesnt apply nowadays BUT i always felt that the 'do as your dad did' concept is a major reason we're still around

At 10:17 AM, Anonymous big fan said...

I am fine with "do as your dad did." The problem is that with the major changes in society/technology over the last generation or two, it is hard to translate what they did then to what we do now. In the olden days, things pretty much stayed the same, so it was easy to copy what your dad did in both religous and non religous things. How do we differentiate which is which in 21st century America?

Some examples:

1) For generations, people in a cold climate wore fur hats. Their dads wore fur hats and they wore fur hats and it suited them well. When the people moved to a warmer climate, do they still need to wear the fur hats?

2) The food industry was different. If you wanted a loaf of bread, you went to shmuli the bread maker. There were no kashrus symbols. So how can you tell if your dad ate triangle K?

3) What did our dads do when they saw a bug in the water through a microscope? (Answer: They didn't have a microscope and had better things to do with their time, like getting a job)

4) In the olden days, most people (at least men) worked. Only the cream of the learning crop could sit and learn. Why can't the people who sit and learn now, do what their dads did?


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