Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Is minhag like a dialect?


I've been re-reading RYA's article from earlier this week, and I find myself doubting my original condemnation. Oh, to be sure, I still think his conclusion sucks, but earlier I thought his underlying logic was equally bad. Now, I am not so sure.

The question comes to this: Is RYA acting as a prescriptivist or is he a descriptivist? The difference: A prescriptivist, (to explain the post title's simile) is like your HS English teacher, the old bat who beats you over the head for splitting infinitives or for ending a sentence with a preposition. A descriptivist, on the other hand, understands that many of the rules of English usage are the result of culture and superstition in that a great many of these "rules" have little basis.

Most significantly, a descriptivists recognizes that language rules slowly change over time for a variety of reasons, some good, most bad. The prescriptivist, or the very worst sort of prescriptivist anyway, prefers to imagine that the rules are etched in stone, written in the sky, and impossible to alter.

So what is RYA on hashkafa?

At first, I took RYA to be prescriptivist appealing to precedent or tradition. But as aptly shown by Doctor Marc Shapiro et al appealing to precedent or tradition won't work, because what's considered correct changes over time. In Rashi's day women, or some women anyway, wore tfillin. Less than 200 hundred years ago, many Jewish women weren't permitted to go to school. There are passages in the Talmud which suggest women could receive aliyot, and that milk and fowl were eaten together. There are old siddurim which provide "she lo asani ish" as the correct liturgy for women. As Shapiro's book taught me it was also once okay to illustrate your religious books with pictures that depicted God in human form. You could speculate on the mutability of the MT without being called a heretic. And much, much more.

When RYA says certain Jewish ideas and practices are outside the pale, he might be right, but only if he is speaking as a descriptivist. If he is speaking as a prescriptivist he is defeated by the tradition itself.

Which brings me to my central point, and the meaning behind the title simile. While recognizing that many language rules are arbitrary and silly, most descriptivists still admit that arbitrary and silly language rules serve a purpose. Namely, they help us determine who is part of our group and who is not.

Consider, for instance, the case of dialects. Most of us speak more than one. I, myself, speak Jewish-English and Standard Written English. These are not the same, and there are situations when one is appropriate and suitable and the other is not. These dialects -and there are hundreds if not thousands of other English dialects and sub dialects - are useful because they help us to determine who is part of our group and who is not.

If he is speaking as a descriptivist RYA's argument has some sense to it, because what he is actually saying is that normative OJ developed contingently, and because 21st century OJs, like any other group, wish to live/work/play and otherwise interact with each other, it helps if we all sort of think and act the same way. Because otherwise, we're not one group. Otherwise, our OJ identity is diluted, just as surely as the identity of a group of African American friends is diluted if they include a guy who does not greet them with "Yo" and call them "Brothers" and ask "s'up, s'goin on?"

This argument has some logic to it - perhaps it reduces Orthodox Judaism to a club with a dress code, but the logic is present. The conclusion, however, still stinks, because what is also present is RYA's unmistakable disgust for Jewish actions and ideas that he, personally, does not hold.

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