Sunday, January 23, 2011

Each family is different

"Do you mind if I keep my hat on," I said to the neighbor as I entered her house.  I was there to meet with her husband about a business matter, and was wearing a cap to protect against cold and wind. It had been on my head for hours, and I was now reluctant to remove it and expose a head of flat, sticky hair.

"Not at all," she replied, "Though if we were sitting down to a meal together, I'd take offense."

A short conversation ensured about family mores. In her house, the children all must ask to be excused before they're permitted to leave the table. In my house, no one eats until the cook sits down. 

"Each family is different," she said by way of summing up, and of course she's right. Or, to go a step further, each family is different and that okay. We're not better people because we wait to eat until my wife is seated; the neighbors aren't our superiors simply because their children have been taught to utter a specific formula in a specific situation. A family isn't deemed a success by virtue of its embracing certain manners, or because it playacts certain rituals; rather, success is a measure of how happy and healthy the members of the family are. Certain rituals and manners might lead to health and happiness; likewise, the act of performing certain rituals might create happiness for those who perform it, but, for the most part, guaranteed outcomes are rare.  

Many of the tensions in a new marriage are produced as husband and wife adjust to each other's idea of normal. The disagreements between Jewish neighborhoods and Jewish sects often result from something similar. If you've been raised to perceive a particular pronunciation of Hebrew, or a particular nusach or seating arrangement as "normal", someone elses perfectly good shul can seem foreign, and inauthentic. If the goal is serving the creator, or doing good int he world, or increasing health and happiness should artifacts, manners and styles matter? Yet they are often a subject of Jewish complaint. Perhaps, this is  because the very act of complaining, and demeaning the styles and manner of others is itself often a source of happiness for the one who is doing the complaining.

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