“I Don’t Know Why…But It’s a Tradition!”

I did something yesterday that I’ve never done before in my nearly 30 years as a rabbi and it felt strange doing it.  On the surface of it, what I did won’t sound strange.  I took the Air Train from JFK to Jamaica Station, then got on the LIRR to Penn Station, and finally took the midtown direct train to South Orange Station.  What made it strange was that it was the final day of Passover, a festival day nearly equivalent in sanctity to Shabbat.  I’m an observant Jew, and I don’t drive or take public transportation on the Sabbath or festivals unless it’s an emergency.  But here I was, wearing my kippah, taking the train to get home from the airport.  What’s more, despite the fact that it was Passover, I even had a bagel on my way home.

How could such aberrant behavior be explained?  The crucial detail you need to know is that I spent Pesach in Israel, where the holiday is celebrated for only seven days and only one Seder is held.  I left Israel on what was the day after Passover for Israelis, though that day—the 22nd of Nisan, April 22nd—was being observed all throughout the Diaspora as the holiday’s eighth and final day.  The addition of an extra day to all three of the Pilgrimage Festivals, called “Yom Tov Sheni Shel Galuyot,” is the result of a calendar quirk that’s centuries old.  Before the creation of reliable time keeping technology, the Jewish calendar was set according to the testimony of witnesses who had seen the New Moon, and an announcement that the Biblical holidays should be observed was sent by signal torch and messengers.  Such testimony was considered reliable only within the borders of the land of Israel, so it was decreed that a second day of the festival should be observed in Jewish communities abroad in case word hadn’t arrived to those places in time to begin observing the holiday.  To this day, “Yom Tov Sheni” is observed even though there is no confusion about the correct day of the holiday anywhere in the world (Reform Jews celebrate only one day of the festivals).  But if a person celebrates the entire holiday in Israel, he is exempt from observing “Yom Tov Sheni” even if he lives outside of Israel.

Why do we still add an extra day to the festivals when the original reason for doing so is obsolete?  After all, we know when the holidays fall each year without the aid of testimony given before a rabbinical court about the appearance of the New Moon.  There are good answers to that question, including the pleasure of celebrating holy days and special times with family and friends.  Just as we look forward to celebrating special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, so do traditional Jews look forward to celebrating the Jewish holidays.  Some in the Diaspora even consider themselves especially fortunate to have an extra batch of holidays to celebrate that our Israeli brothers and sisters do not have.  Still, most people would agree that there’s a limit to how many holidays we can celebrate.  While the Jewish holidays are special occasions, it can be difficult and costly to prepare and allocate time for them.

An even better reason for celebrating the second day of the festivals can be summarized by a phrase coined by the Talmudic sages:  “minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…the customs of our ancestors are in our hands.” In essence, each new generation may question the validity of certain Jewish practices, like celebrating the second festival day or including legumes (kitniyot) in the prohibition of eating chametz on Passover, but there is reluctance to abandon such practices out of a desire to safeguard the decisions and views of our ancestors.  This is more than firmly disagreeing with some religious practice from the past but agreeing to continue it out of respect for previous rabbinic leaders.  Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu suggests that our ancestors may have had insights that we have not yet grasped and we ought to defer to them out of humility.

The idea that we are maintaining practices and values from the past can be summarized in a single word, perhaps the most important word associated with being Jewish: tradition.  Ask people who practice Judaism why they do what they do and you will likely hear reasons that include theological conviction and personal meaning.  But the number one reason that people practice Judaism is probably tradition- the desire to be a link in a chain and continue what was done in the past.  It’s fair to say that the Passover Seder is, for most people, more about continuing family traditions than it is about the theology of the Haggadah.   As Tevye the Dairyman famously said, “Why do we do these things?  I don’t know…but it’s a tradition!”

Those words aren’t so foolish.  We owe a measure of respect and humility to those who came before us.  Rather than conclude that our ancestors had no idea what they were doing when they enacted customs and practices, we should say that there is something valid in being a link in the transmission of a centuries-old tradition.  Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…rather than simply dismiss out of hand those practices that we find irrelevant or difficult to understand, we instead should say that maybe our ancestors were onto something when they fashioned the religious practices they did.

Each new generation is faced with the challenge of balancing traditions from the past with sensibilities and insights from the present.  As we make choices about what customs and practices should comprise our Jewish experience, we ought to give substantial weight to the ideas of our ancestors.  If we don’t regard them with care and respect, who will?

Three Faces

It’s been my privilege to walk the streets of Jerusalem this week.  While enjoying the beautiful spring weather and exchanging greetings of “Chag Sameach” with strangers, I’ve made a point of noticing not just the buildings and the street names, which are always beautiful and intriguing, but also the faces of people I pass on the street.  As I walked down Rechov Yafo from the Machane Yehudah outdoor market to the Old City, I saw three particular faces that have stayed with me.  These faces have left me wondering about the people behind them, and have reminded me to look beyond crowds to try to see the human beings who comprise them.

The first face I saw was that of a young man, an Orthodox Jew affiliated with the Chabad movement.  He had set up a small portable table on one of the street corners with worn and tattered signage produced on a home printer hanging from the edge that was flapping gently in the breeze.  The sign advertised that the man could arrange for the sale of chametz to a gentile on behalf of his rabbi.  The spot in the city where he had located his table was not in the most religious neighborhood, so clearly the man was seeking to inspire people to sell their chametz who likely wouldn’t have done so on their own.  He chose a busy intersection, but very few people stopped by to sign the form, despite that there was no charge for this service and no hard push for tzedakah for the yeshiva.  I stopped for a while to look at his face, wondering what he was feeling.  Was he discouraged that so few people wanted to sell their chametz?  Was he wondering why he, a true believer and follower of the law, had to persuade others to fulfill a mitzvah so central to the observance of Passover?  As I was looking at his face, a man stopped by the table to sign the form and arrange for the rabbi to sell his chametz.  The man’s face lit up with joy.  What was he thinking?  Was he contemplating that he had come one step closer to bringing the Messiah by persuading one more person to observe the law?  Was he thinking that his diligence and effort would please his rebbe?  I wondered…

The second face I saw was that of a woman who seemed to be not young but not elderly.  She, like so many others, had a cell phone pressed to the side of her head and was engrossed in conversation.  That’s not an unusual site in the times in which we live.  But this woman had a look of anguish on her face and tears streaming down her cheeks.  I couldn’t hear her voice, since it was muffled by her hair and gentle sobs.  Why was she crying?  Maybe it was not anguish she was feeling, but joy.  Had she heard good news?  Had she just experienced reconciliation with a family member or friend?  Or was I correct that she was feeling anguish and had just learned about a tragedy, or perhaps was having an argument?  Perhaps she given over to unbounded or even inappropriate expressions of emotion when having ordinary conversations?  What could be prompting her tears?  I wondered…

The third face I saw was that of an old man walking slowly down the street using a cane.  His steps were excruciatingly slow, perhaps an inch or two at a time, more of a shuffle than a walk.  It wouldn’t have been out of place to worry that he would fall down.  Right behind him, though, was his aid pushing his wheel chair.  By itself, that might not have been a site to notice, as the aid could have been acting as the safety net for his charge.  But the man’s face revealed a determination chiseled into his features.  Each step was accompanied by grit and ultimate effort.  Was he feeling pride at being able to move on his own?  Was he feeling desperation or at what could have been one of countless attempts to ambulate on his own?  Was he feeling worry that if he couldn’t make it on his own he would be forced to sit in his wheelchair, and endure a crushing loss of independence?  Was he hoping to impress his children that he could still make it?  I wondered…

When I’m in crowds, I tend now to look more at faces than at the bulk of people I see.  I try to imagine who they are and what stories they could tell.  I contemplate what I can learn from them that could be helpful and insightful, even if I can’t know with certainty that my speculation is right or wrong.  Looking at faces has caused me to see the human beings in a crowd, and has reminded me of the ancient Jewish teaching from the Mishna that rather than creating a human race, God created at first one person to teach that each life has a measure of holiness and value and that each person can impact our lives in a unique way.

So I urge you to spend some time looking not at crowds but at faces and the human beings who bear them.

Want Some “Kosher for Passover” Challah?

Passover is almost here and with it come the familiar sounds, rituals and tastes of the holiday.  Pesach seems to have its own unique culture.  Most of us have Passover memories of some type, whether recent or spanning generations.  My childhood Pesach memories include the usual- saying the Four Questions as the youngest child, my mother’s cooking and my father’s voice racing through the Haggadah.  In recent years, the years of my own family, my memories include pride at observing the stages of growth in the lives of my children, passionate discussions around the table, and the annual explanation of why we use a boiled potato instead of parsley when we dip karpas in the saltwater.

My memories also include a dessert we enjoyed one year, courtesy of Amy’s brother Peter.  He brought a cake from a fancy New York Kosher for Passover bakery.  This was nothing like the Passover cake or cookies we were used to eating.  It was so cake-like, so authentic, so incredibly good that I couldn’t believe it wasn’t made of chametz.  I remember asking Peter if he was sure that the bakery had hashgacha (rabbinic certifrication) for Passover- he assured me it did.

Once we were finished enjoying this masterpiece, this culinary Passover puzzle, we launched into a discussion of the ethics of eating such a cake on Passover.  After all, isn’t Passover supposed to be the holiday when Jews refrain from eating chametz (leaven)?  Don’t we go through the exercise of selling our chametz in order to fulfill the requirement of not even owning any leaven during the holiday?  Aren’t we supposed to deny ourselves the pleasure of eating a nice piece of pizza or a doughnut in fulfillment of the holiday’s regulations?

Well, the answer came back, isn’t eating a chametz-defying “Passover cake” the same thing as eating Baco-bits (which bear the symbol of “OU”) or putting non-dairy creamer in your coffee?  What’s wrong with getting around the stated law?  People do it all the time.

It’s true.  There’s nothing technically wrong with putting non-dairy cream in your coffee or fake bacon in your salad.  We may have a lot of reasons for doing such things.  There are those who can’t bring themselves to eat actual bacon, but want to know what it tastes like.  There are those who focus only on the letter of the law and not on its spirit.  There are those who want to eat their cake and have it too (even on Passover).

But getting around the rules raises a problematic issue, one that has persisted through Jewish life since Moses brought down the Torah from Mt. Sinai.  We have to contend not only with the letter of the law, but its spirit too.  Unless doing so out of ideological conviction, observing laws for their own sake often leads to an absence of relevance and meaning, and ultimately an absence of observance.  The law must have meaning; we must be able to appreciate its spirit if we are to embrace it with a full heart.

This idea came into focus during last week’s scholar-in-residence Shabbaton with Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS.  On Friday night, Rabbi Nevins spoke about his reasoning for maintaining Conservative Judaism’s prohibition on the use of electricity and electronics on Shabbat.  He discussed a teshuva (legal brief) he had written in which he explained in eloquent detail what scenarios he could envision for permitting the use of electricity and electronics and in what situations they should not be used.  At the end of his presentation, Rabbi Nevins added his own encouragement that people unplug their electronic devices on Shabbat if, for no other reason, we will all feel better for doing so.  He provided sound halakhic reasoning (the letter of the law) and also reasoning that explained the spirit of the law and its relevance.

So before you reach for that Passover dinner roll or “pareve” cheesecake, remember that the letter of the law has to be balanced by the spirit of the law.  Following laws without understanding their relevance and meaning will often lead to an empty feeling.  In that spirit, make sure to squeeze out of all the Passover rituals we are about to observe the rich meaning that lies within them.

Click here to read a great article in the Jewish Week on meaning vs. ritual.