Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The paradox of the heap and Jewish customs

The paradox of the heap:
1,000,000 grains of sand is a heap of sand (Premise 1)
A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. (Premise 2)

Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one less grain), eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand (and consequently, if one grain of sand is still a heap, then removing that one grain of sand to leave no grains at all still leaves a heap of sand, and indeed a negative number of grains also form a heap [Wikipedia]
The connection to Jewish customs:

600 or 700 years ago no one performed the Jewish haircutting ceremony know as an upsherin. Today the custom is widespread, and has become so popular that the default expectation in many frum communities is that it will be performed. How this happened is easy to explain:

Step 1: Muslims performed a haircutting ceremony at the Tomb of Samuel
Step 2: Musta'arabi Jews saw this and copied it, later taking it to Meron after they were banned from the Tomb of Samuel
Step 3: Sephadim who lived in Israel, the descendants of Jews who had been expelled from Spain and settled in the Ottoman Empire, saw this and copied it (Today, the Musta'arabi have assimilated with the Sephardim; in the 15th century the two groups were distinct)
Step 4: The Hasidim came into existence, and fascinated as they were with all things mystical and/or related to Sefad and the Ari, copied it.
Step 5: Insecure American Orthodox Jews, fascinated as they are by all things related to the Hasidim, copied it

And that, after factoring in bullying and birth rates, is where we are today.

What is not quite so easy to explain is how the perception of upsherin changed. How did it go from being considered a fringe practice, not having the status of even a custom, to becoming something many consider essential to frumkeit?What was the tipping point? When only one Jew or one Jewish community accepted upsherin it did not have the status of minhag. Today it does. The paradox of the heap suggests that something that was irrelevant and unimportant in the eyes of God when only one Jew did it, remains irrelevant and unimportant even after all Jews have embraced it. The solution is to take a descriptive view of religion, and argue that if lots of Jews come to think something is important, it becomes something of Jewish importance. Those of you who take a normative view of Judaism have a problem, though, as you're forced to explain how the status of an ordinary haircut was so dramatically altered without relying on a descriptive solution. For if you're prepared to concede the descriptivist's point on upshuren then how can you object to something like Yom Ha'atzmaut on normative grounds?  

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