Thursday, March 12, 2015

The right way to think about ritual law.

Welcome to the fourth in our series of countdown posts.

Today's edition begins with another attack on Cross Currents, the blog's favorite punching bag, but ends with one of the great observations of my blogging career. In the second post (yes, true believers, you got two today) I develop the idea.  Several years later, a real thinker, one who credibly uses his actual name, published a lengthy monograph which built on this observation. According to a mutual friend, this thinker-person was mad and disturbed to discover that I had beaten him to it. Ah, well. Life.

As always, we politely and humbly request that you tell your friends about the countdown and suggest some GOAT posts to be included. Click here to see them all. 

Is minhag like a dialect?
Originally posted December 19, 2007


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.


You don't really need this information in order to enjoy the end of the post, but if you are curious...

Here's my original criticism of the RYA article, and here are some of the other things people like GH said about it 


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 very little basis.

Most significantly, a descriptivist 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 and 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. For example:
  • 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. 
  • 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 simile I used in the title of the post

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 wears a kilt.

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.

Here comes today's second countdown post. It uses another issue as its launching point, but swerves back to about how minhag is a dialect.

Defending Yeedle's Composition

Originally posted June 30, 2012

I'm going to take exception here to some of the complaints issued against Yeedle Yid's essay. "Poorly written" said one commenter. Look elsewhere for Chasidim who are "fine writers" said another. An "off day" sneered a third.

What these complainers don't seem to understand is that Yeedle was not writing in Standard English, but in Yinglish, a dialect of English with its own rules and its own conventions. I'm not expert in Yinglish. I can't speak authoritatively about its conventions, or explain exactly how it differs from Yeshivish, but I can recognize it, and I can support a Yinglish speaker's right to make his arguments in his native tongue.

The error Yeedle's detractors made is common. We all have done it or something like it. The basis of the error is the fallacy of authenticity. We often reject things - Yeedle's dialect, a minhag, a nusach, a bit of Torah - because something about it strikes as artificial, or less real.

This is a mistake. There's nothing innately superior about Standard English. It just happens to be the dialect of English used by the American elite, and for this reason alone its perceived as the dialect of education, intelligence and prestige. It didn'tfall out of the sky, but developed naturally over time. And the same is true of our Jewish customs and practices. Shabbos, as I've often said, didn't always mean three meals, three prayer services, fine clothes, fine food, and a long nap. Once Shabbos looked and felt different, and because Shabbos is a living entity, it will continue to evolve and eventually it will look and feel like something else. The way we OJs celebrate Shabbos today just happens to be the way we celebrate Shabbos. There's nothing special about it, or rather what is special about it is entirely subjective, i.e. unique to us, and to our perceptions.

However, that fact that religious conventions, like grammatical conventions, are arbitrary does not mean that they are also unimportant or inconsequential. For instance, I concur with those who said that Yeedle's arguments would be more effective if he made them in SE. His use of Yinglish rather than SE has consequences. In America, those who use other English dialects to communicate are judged unintelligent; likewise, those who celebrate shabbos, even a halachic shabbos, in a non-Orthodox style are not going to be fully accepted in most Orthodox communities. Spend shabbos sitting in jeans with a tuna sandwich at the neighborhood park and most Orthodox will decide you're somehow less Jewish. These are just blunt facts.

If Yeedle wants the world at large to listen to what he has to say he's going to have to learn to say it in SE, and if the jeans-wearing shabbos observer wants to be accepted by the Orthodox he's going to have to adopt Orthodox shabbos conventions. No matter how arbitrary grammatical and religious conventions might be, you simply have to follow them if you want the members of that discourse, or religious community to take you seriously. People judge you on how you dress, how you write, how you speak, and in the OJ world they also judge you (or perhaps "grade" is a better word) on how you perform rituals and carry out Commandments. That's Just How it Is.

Meanwhile, Yeedle's unfamiliarity with SE shouldn't be misunderstood. Yeedle's essay wasn't poorly written, and he's not a bad writer. He's simply not fluent in SE.

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