Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Fun Post on Identity

I had an interesting online conversation with a Breslov BT about a month ago and my views regarding halacha came up. The guy was fairly shocked that I was so open about not really giving a fig about the law, and said as much. "Without Torah, what holds you to Jewish identity?"

Here was my response, slightly edited and clarified:

My approach to Judaism and Jewish identity is predicated on the idea of picking and choosing. I entered into being "actively" Jewish with the understanding that I was not going to let my disinterest in halacha (not Torah per se) become an insurmountable barrier to identifying as a Jew. From an (Orthodox) religious perspective, I am probably a "bad" Jew because my religious observance is nowhere near close to Orthodox. However, since I don't define my Jewishness or Jewish identity according to that scale, it really doesn't come into play. I hold on to my Jewish identity because it's where I come from and because I see no need (and feel no desire) to "become" something else.

However, partially due to my upbringing (secular Jewish with zero Jewish education) and partially my demeanor (fairly skeptical and firmly agnostic), I see my roots as informing my behavior/thought process/perspective, rather than dictating it (basically a rip-off of ol' Rav Kaplan). The fact that 5 generations ago my relatives kept kosher and the laws of purity doesn't make me feel particularly obligated to do those things any more than my Communist g.grandparents' past make me feel obliged to start spouting lines from Das Kapital.

I suppose if I had to identify with a particular group of Jews it would be the Yiddish writers and artists of the early 1900s, who were raised in one world and deliberately left it, though often could never quite make that break completely. By contrast, today where I could very easily leave the Jewish world entirely, I see history, folklore, literature, and yes, some elements of Jewish thought and philosophy (I enjoy cracking the Matt Zohar now and again) as anchoring elements (and frankly, when I have the opportunity, I intend to learn more about Jewish practice so I can have more knowledge and the ability to make more informed and integrated choices about my personal practice). But I don't see any particular need to go from appreciating all those elements of Jewish culture and contributions to following halacha, either to the letter or really, at all. I like the idea of flexibility in practice, approach, and outlook on Jewishness, I like the idea that you can "do" Jewish in a lot of different ways besides just what Maimonides put on his list.

When it comes down to it, I pretty much don't care what the Shulchan Aruch says, apart from cultural/anthropological interest (hence my copies of the Zohar and Sefer Aggadah). If there's a particular custom or ritual that I can get something out of, I might try it (I've fasted on Yom Kippur for almost a decade). But to go from zero to 60 (or 613 as the case may be) for basically no reason... I can't justify that. I wear a yarmulke around the house because I like doing it and it gives me a feeling of connection, not because God said so. I light candles and go to Friday night services (when I do) because I want to, not because someone's looking over my shoulder. And so the same logic carries over into all the things I don't do. Why don't I keep kosher? Because I don't think there's any compelling reason for me to do it. It doesn't resonate with me the way some other things do. It's just that simple. Just like shatnez and kitniyot and family purity and eruvs and so on ad infinitum.

Simply put, my conception of God is not halachic (obviously I'm biased because I'm not halachic, but there you go). Now,if God, existent or not, does not care about halacha, then my only reason for observing the mitzvot is either a skewed form of Pascal's wager (which I'm not very impressed with) or personal and subjective gratification. Self-centered? Admittedly. But in my mind, the only real rational option. I look at the mitzvot and can't avoid thinking that a lot of them are nonsensical (admittedly, this is not helped by books such as this). I can appreciate them (to a degree) as history and custom, even ritual, but I can't accept them as law, certainly not a binding law. I'm happy when people can find beauty and meaning in them, but I reserve the right to opt out if I don't find myself moved in the same way. "But grandpa did it" is not a compelling enough reason for me to subsist on crackers and golf balls for a week every spring, anymore than it would be for me to start speaking Yiddish (great-grandparents) or go become a Jewish cowboy (one crazy g.g.uncle). Is this selfish? To a certain degree, absolutely. But the alternative is to either embrace all of because of "tradition!" (bitty bum-bum), or to chock the whole thing out the window, as quite a few of my relatives have done. I don't see why I need to choose one of these. I don't see why a middle path isn't a better option. I refuse to accept that the only "right" way is to pick Hasid or Trotsky.

I don't begrudge other people following the mitzvot, in whatever interpretation, but I'm not really interested in tagging along, other than semi-regular dabbling in small areas. I'm happy to take what looks appetizing, mull over some of the supposedly healthy bits, and leave the rest for someone else to deal with. Cafeteria Judaism doesn't bother me. In fact it's the only thing that makes sense.

1 comment:

Tzipporah said...

then my only reason for observing the mitzvot is either a skewed form of Pascal's wager (which I'm not very impressed with) or personal and subjective gratification.

interesting. I'd suggest another reason for observing (some) mitzvot, to the extent that it seems to fit your approach and lifestyle:

Being able to take part in (and contribute to) a community with common standards or hashkafa. Since you don't go halachic, that's probably not an ortho community, but there are others out there.