Friday, March 18, 2011

Expunging the Kool Aid

"Drinking the Kool Aid" is a popular metaphor for someone who simply accepts something wholeheartedly without thinking critically about it.  The origin of the metaphor comes from the People's Temple incident in Guyana, where over 900 people committed suicide by drinking Flavor-Aid mixed with cyanide at the behest of Jim Jones, the cult's leader.

Interestingly, at one time I was a Kool-Aid drinker as well.  In my late teens, I went through a period of about a year where I started accepting everything without question.  Young earth creationism?  Check.  The absolute historicity of every midrash?  check.  The notion that Jewish philosophy, culture and practice (with the exception of things like sacrifices and the like) have been unchanged since Sinai?  Check.  The notion that everything in the Gemara is Torah MiSinai?  Check.  Belief in an unbroken and completely intact and unchanged oral tradition passed down from generation to generation to generation?  Check.  And on and on.

Most people who go from Kool-Aid drinker to critical thinker (note that I did NOT say skeptic) arrive at the Kool-Aid stage in one of two ways:  a) they're born into it or b) they become ba'alei teshuva and just want to believe everything about their new-found spirituality.  I didn't take either of those paths.   I was not born frum -- I became frum (with my mother) at about age ten.  During high school, I was a skeptic (even if I wasn't a critical thinker).  Yet, about the time I turned eighteen, I began to drink the Kool-Aid.  A Rav Avigdor Miller book could often be found in my hands.  I could be found discussing and defending Judaism's objections to evolution, natural history, cosmology and the like.  I studied and regurgitated all the fallacious arguments, bad facts and mistaken notions.  I was never much of an evangelist, but if anyone wanted to discuss it, I was there to discuss and defend.

To this day, I can't tell you why I began drinking the Kool Aid.  While I tried to (and to some extent, succeeded) in internalizing it on an intellectual level, I did not "frum out," as the saying goes.  While I sometimes wore a hat/jacket, I by no means made it a requirement.  I sometimes missed davening.  I wasn't found learning every minute of the day that wasn't otherwise occupied, and so on.  But I did accept, without much critical thought, much of the anti-scientific dogma of the subculture that I was immersed in.

At some point, however, I began thinking critically.  I began to look at and evaluate arguments.  I learned to evaluate and weigh evidence.  I began to learn to spot things such as logical fallacies, poor reasoning and just plain silliness.  I began to consider not only the dogma of Orthodox Judaism, but the context in which that dogma was created.  I began to question and probe into the things I was taught, and discover whether the knowledge I had accumulated over the years (and the observations that I made with my own senses) affirmed, contradicted or were silent about those teachings.  

Over the years, as I began thinking more and more, I began adjusting my beliefs.  I reasoned out a version of old earth creationism that was consistent with both B'raishis (IMHO) and with contemporary scientific thought (again, IMHO).  I began exploring history not solely through writings that were made hundreds (or thousands) of years after the fact, but began to consider history through both historical and contemporaneous accounts.  I began to understand that not everything that is purported to be sacred writ *must* be viewed in the absolute, but also has to be put into its proper historical and cultural context.  I began to view our Sages not as simply great figures who grew up in a societal, political and emotional vacuum who were immune to the outside world, but as people who, as great as they were, were at least partly a product of the times, places and cultures in which they lived.  

It’s been a long journey -- one that is still ongoing and, with God’s help, will go on as long as I live.  I’ve slowly begun to make a change to my learning habits -- I’m still learning Torah, but I’ve also begun learning *about* the Torah -- something that was lacking in my previous education and, I would not be surprised to find, is missing in a lot of people’s education.  I’ve begun to pay more attention to not only Tanach, Mishna, Gemara and the like, but also the historical and cultural background upon which they were created.  I’ve come to look at not only learning the halacha, but viewing that halacha as a product of a halachic process that caused it to come into being.  I believe that the Torah has to be more than what is simply printed on the page -- it also has to include how the page came to be -- and in the vast, vast majority of cases, the story of how that page came to be is far, far more complicated than “God said it to Moshe on Sinai.”

I know that there are some who are reading this who would say that what I am engaging in is dangerous and forbidden.  They would like to tell me that such things may lead one away from whatever “pure” hashkafah that they are espousing.  They may try to tell me that context and background are unimportant or, worse, irrelevant.  They may believe that our great leaders and sages grew up in a “social vacuum,” unaffected by their time, place and culture and that their halachic, philosophic and other opinions are absolutely true across all times, places and cultures.  They may believe that if Chazal, Rashi, the Rambam, Rabbeinu Asher, the Vilna Gaon or any other “sage of the canon” says something that it must be true and that any critical thought about their statements is tantamount to a slap in the face of those great sages.  They equate critical argument with impertinence, respectful disagreement with insolence and a contrary opinion with disrespect.

I disagree.  I believe one can have the utmost respect for someone and yet disagree with them.  I believe that it’s possible that things that have been said and accepted in the past may no longer be applicable to our current times, places and cultures.  I’m not saying that halacha has to change because of that, mind you, but it should be recognized that such changes and obsolescence* has taken place.  A necessary corollary of this is that I’ve come to believe that not everything that a sage says is necessarily sacrosanct.  Like anything else, it has to be evaluated in terms of its message, historical context and the like.  In short, I no longer take anything as irrefutable dogma simply on someone’s say so.  That’s is not all to say that there are no irrefutable dogmas, universal truths or articles of faith -- but it is important to be able to make a distinction between a true article of faith, a halachic ruling that may or may not apply to our current situation, a midrash which may or may not be historically true, or a simple, personal observation of a sage.  Lumping them all together as inviolate “Torah” does a great disservice to both the Torah and to those sages.  But to be able to do make these distinctions, you need to begin to think critically about what you’re learning.  You need to learn not to blindly accept everything within the canon as absolute truth.  In short, to do this, you need to stop drinking the Kool Aid -- and that's what I've been doing.  I've spent a long time expunging the Kool Aid that I built up in my system over the years -- and I believe that I am, today, a healthier person and a better Jew for it.

The Wolf

* I don’t mean “obsolescence” in terms of “should be discarded” but in terms of not currently applicable.  In this context, the halacha of egla arufa, for example, would be termed as “obsolete,” but I am not, God forbid, suggesting that it be excised from the Torah or no longer studied.  Likewise, it should be (and widely is) recognized that the reasons behind the institution of the second day of Yom Tov are obsolete... but again, I am not advocating changing the halacha to eliminate that second day.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Yeshiva's Minhag Over Your Family's?

A Jewish wedding ceremony, like many other religious rites and ceremonies, is governed by many laws and customs.  One such instance is the period of yichud -- seclusion -- that the bride and groom spend together right after the chuppah

It should be pointed out, however, that this is *only* the case for Ashkenazim.  When a Sefardi couple gets married, they do not go to the yichud room.  For them, yichud is performed when the couple goes home after the ceremony.  In fact, Rav Yitzchock Yosef considers the idea of a yichud room during the wedding so repugnant that he called it "ugly" and "vulgar."  I don't think it's proper for a Rav to call a mainstream Ashkenazi minhag "ugly" and "vulgar" I made my point on that in the linked post)-- but that's really beside the point.  The main point for our purposes is that there are strong opposition in at least some Sephardi circles against the practice of going into the yichud room.

With this background information, we can look at a recent event.  Rafi, over at Life In Israel, reports on a recent wedding where a Sephardi couple was married.  The chosson attended an Ashkenazi yeshiva and his Rosh Yeshiva and friends from the Yeshiva were in attendance.  The Rosh Yeshiva directed that the chosson and kallah should go immediately after chuppah to the yichud room, in accordance with the Ashkenazic custom.  The chosson refused, intending to follow the custom of his family and the new bride's family.  When the chosson refused, the Rosh Yeshiva announced that he was leaving and ordered all the bochrim from the yeshiva to leave with him.  Fortunately, Rav Raphael Cohen, a guest at the wedding knew someone at a local Sephardi yeshiva, where they had the boys stop learning and go be mesameach (make merry with dancing) the chosson and kallah.

To me, there are some very troubling aspects to this story:

1.  Since when does the minhag of the yeshiva overrule the family minhag of the bride and groom?  Do they also expect their Sephardi students to refrain from eating kitniyos on Pesach in their homes?  Would they say that it's all right for an Ashkenzi student attending a Sephardi yeshiva to skip the yichud room?  I don't think so.  Minhagim have long been observed on the basis of inheriting them from your family, not on the basis of what yeshiva you attend.  Perhaps there is some basis after all to the fear that some Sephardim in Israel have that their minhagim and other cultural attributes are being slowly eroded by the Ashkenazim.

2.  Ultimately, a wedding is valid, even according to Ashkenazim, if the chosson and kallah never go into the yichud room during the wedding.  As long as there are witnesses that they went home together (and were alone together) after the wedding, the wedding would be 100% valid.  On the other hand, embarrassing the bride, groom and their families is a transgression of a Torah prohibition.  How could the Rosh Yeshiva possibly think that his custom (or the custom of his yeshiva, if you will) possibly overrides that?

The Wolf

UPDATE (3/17/11):  A commentator has offered an alternate version of the events.  I have no way of knowing which is true or not, so take your pick.