Monday, June 22, 2009

Faux Judaism

A guest post by rejewvenator

Recently on Hirhurim, Gil had a post on a Jew taking an oath in a secular court. Jewish law has developed a strong resistance to taking oaths, and so Orthodox Jews customarily opt to 'affirm' rather than swear when in court. Gil's post got into the details of how and why this is halachically effective.

Reading his post, I just felt a sense of loss and futility, because it just feels so fake. The courts require an oath, but Judaism isn't into oaths. Rather than just take our lumps, we invent this notion that you an make some kind of promise that is somehow sufficient for the State to believe you, but isn't actually a Shevuah in a halachic sense. Practically speaking, you're swearing to tell the truth in a formal, legal, and social-contract-binding way, but that oath doesn't have halachic value. It's just an end-run around our own traditons and values.

It got me thinking that so much of Jewish practice today happens not in the real world, but in some strange, disconnected, halachic bubble. For example, Judaism has long benefited from a tradition of fastidiousness, and we've got lots of washing rituals that served to keep us healthier than the people around us. Today, however, we moderns have better means for keeping clean, like anti-bacterial soap. When it's time for dinner, I wash my hands with soap, and then I perform a 'faux' hand-washing, a netilat yadayim, so I can say a bracha. Its value is purely symbolic, and has no meaning, outside of metaphysical or kabbalistic reasons. The notion that cleaning up before I touch food is a Godly one gets completely swallowed up. But no Orthodox Jew would suggest that I could make a bracha on washing my hands with soap!

Faux Judaism is the divorcing of Jewish practice from reality. It's living in an imaginary sphere of halacha that is only tangentially connected to the real world. It's liviing in a world where so many of your actions or deviod of Jewish significance. Collecting your spare change every day and giving it to tzedaka is just tzedaka. It's not Peah. Maybe you got the idea from Peah, but it's not Peah. We're not allowed to make that leap. Once upon a time our leaders were able to say that Tefillah is Korbanot, for example, but we don't have that right, or maybe we jsut don't have the courage to make those kinds of changes.

Our Judaism has turned from a very practical religion whose rituals carried both pragmatic and symbolic meanings into a religion where nearly everything is only symbolic, and thus kind of fake. In the meantime, values like democracy, equal rights, or environmentalism find no real home in our Jewish life, or at best, get strung onto a handful of pesukim, with no real halachic expression or force of mitzvah behind them, even thought they resonate strongly within us as true, and good, and important. Our davening has turned dry and distant from our hearts, our Torah has turned into halachic acrobatics and midrash-style apologetics, and the world does not look to us as an example for how to treat your fellow man.

Maybe it's time we dusted off both our traditions and oursleves, and started living once again in the world of the real.

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