Thursday, March 19, 2009

Public Service Announcement

To the person who wished me Chag S'meach yesterday, it is not yet Passover! It is not even erev Pesach. Let's say - generously - that erev Pesach begins two weeks before the holiday. Well, that is not until next Wednesday. So please!

True, our sages tell us to start learning the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday, and many of us may remember someone at the Purim meal (though I don't; see below) getting up to fulfill this mitzva.

I also fully understand people - like my wife - who begin the slow task of cleaning the house for chametz weeks before the holiday. But I don't really get the people who perform their religious observance in an aggressively public way.

It's a tricky thing really. For a good way to stay away from hypocrisy is to denounce all forms of outward religious observance as inauthentic - to be a kind of antinomian like one of my favorite poets, John Milton. But we Jews have a different mandate - which is to render the world holy by means of our performance. So the trick is to have those performances - in another language, mitzvos - serve as a way of expressing ourselves in service of G-d, and not as a means of the expressing our supposed superiority.

As with any thing, it's a matter of tone. So I don't mind my neighbors who - every year - cheerfully and without any appearance of attitude empty the entire contents of their house on to the sidewalk in their preparation for Pesach (though, it should be noted, this is probably spring cleaning and not Pesach cleaning). But I do find objectionable the women who - last year in the local makholet (grocery store) - shrieked at one of the arab workers who had inadvertently put a cup of instant coffee on the counter for 'treifing up' her vegetables.

The mitzvos are a vessel for holiness, not for our neuroses. So while I know that Pesach is one of the times of year when we attempt to be stringent, if we sense that our observance is turning into the expression of hysteria or self-righteousness - it's called frumkeit - it may be better to turn things down a notch.

The wife of a good friend of mine suffered pneumonia during the winter. Under doctor's orders, she has been instructed not to exert herself this year. Her husband consoled her for not being able to keep the stringincies she has in years past. 'I suppose,' he said, 'we'll have to settle and just keep the Shulchan Aruch' - the laws of Pesach as expressed in the authoritative code of Jewish Law. For the rest of us, that may also be enough.

So happy - oops I almost said it - shabbat shalom!


Tr8erGirl said...

so ur telling me i'll be ok if i dont tin foil every surface in my house this year???

IDK man - i think ur becoming too reform for me to even read this blog anymore!

next ull be saying its ok to return lost cell phones to their rightful owners, adwe all know what an avayra that is!

(feel free to delete!)

nice hat btw......

Tr8erGirl said...

*and we

Modern Girl said...

Great post.
I think that's something that everyone - regardless of religion needs to consider. Don't take your attempt to be religious to such a level that it causes extreme neuroticism.

I had a similar experience today, at the grocery store. I received dirty looks from a Muslim couple when I placed pork on the counter. It was at least 3 feet away from their food, but I still got the glare.

wdk said...

well, actually trader girl, the goal is that your pesach kitchen should look like the Starship Enterprise (covered in tinfoil)... and modern girl, if you do ever visit jerusalem, you should probably be careful about pork on the super market counter... (you'd get more than a glare; can you say napalm?)

Modern Girl said...

I would never eat pork in Israel. I believe in the "When in Rome..." mindset, and when I travel, I try to respect the environment and culture I'm in.

And that was my problem. I was in Canada, at a Canadian grocery store, and I got a glare for my pork.

Jane D. said...

If I understand you correctly (and referring back to your post about "what's inside") you reject the view of pettiness in religion, like the length of a skirt or sleeve, or turning your house into Starship Enterprise in Pesach.
But where do you draw the line? What in religion should we seriously keep and regard as a "must" and what can we consider unnecessary "stringincies"?

This is not a "Davka" question, I'm really interested...

wdk said...

Tough question Jane D...

Though I think one way of answering it would be to re-think the phrasing of the question. It shouldn't be what in religion should WE regard as a must, but rather, what will enable the fulfillment of MY own aspirations in Torah? Different levels of observance will be appropriate for different people - even for the same person at different times (confession: our Pesach kitchen DOES look like a tin-foil covered Starship Enterprise; it works for us).

The rabbinic injunction aseh l'cha Rav is not a command to join a team, or - even worse - to identify with a particular camp. But it is rather to find a teacher - a rabbi, a rebbetzin - who will be aware of both where I am now, and the ideal towards which my aspirations may lead me. Such a teacher might discourage stringincies which seem to be expressions of mere frumkeit (aggressively public outward displays), but be equally discouraging of a recalcitrance to take on new observances - of a laziness masquerading as skepticism. That is, this model teacher will be sensitive to where I am now, and how learning and observance can lead me towards the ideal of who I am capable of becoming.

This might be a way of beginning to think about the question you asked: it's not a question of WE, but ME, and being honest about where I am in the present, and where I want to be in the future.