These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem


Posted on November 5, 2010 by Barer

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What value does tradition have? What is added to an action, ritual, or practice from it being something that has been done for 500 years as opposed to 50 years or 5 years, or compared to starting a new ‘tradition’ altogether?

As anyone who has watched Fiddler on the Roof knows – and judging by how often it is referenced, I would guess that a lot of people have (see this recent example) – tradition is generally thought of as very important in Judaism. As someone who is very routine-based myself, I can appreciate how setting out to do something regularly, be it daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly, can add significant meaning to that action. However, when does the switch happen where such an action goes from being a tradition in the sense of minhag and become tradition in the sense of halacha? In other words, when does such an action become so engrained in a given person’s or community’s life that it is no longer treated as tradition, but rather as law?

Rav Elisha recently posited the idea that a text – such as the Talmud – becomes a legally binding document, whether it was originally or not, only when the reader of such a text no longer fully understands the original context of the text. To me, this is an extremely interesting thought, and raises a lot of questions about what Judaism’s relationship to its ancient texts ought to be. However much one might like to think that he or she can fully grasp the context of a legal document written two thousand years ago, it is hard to expect that such a venture wouldn’t leave gaping holes in it. Does this not point to taking these texts more as signposts rather than as the foundational, unquestionable authorities on all aspects of Jewish life?

This is looking at the importance of tradition from the other side – i.e. can a tradition become ‘stale’ or no longer strictly relevant? An example that has come up a few times for me, most recently while reading The Source, is the dress code observed by the Haredi community. Is this really a biblical commandment, to wear black suits and fur hats in Israel? Or is this a tradition that has passed its expiration date now that they are not living in Russia? There is nothing in my view, other than a kippah, that differentiates formal attire for a Jew as compared to anyone else, and so it should not surprise anyone to observe that Jews tend to copy what is accepted as formal in the surrounding society in which they find themselves.

The biggest issue this raises, however, is not what I think about a given tradition, but rather how a community as diverse as Judaism is now can possibly hope to decide collectively about all the traditions that make Judaism what it is today. I can’t hope to provide an answer to that question here, but I see it as an issue of incredible importance that must be constantly re-addressed if Judaism wishes to remain relevant in an age where information is so readily transmitted.

Shabbat Shalom