This Normal Life: Pick and choose-daism

When it comes to the observance of Jewish tradition, we are all pick-and-choosers about what we do or don’t do.

A man wears a kippa.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man wears a kippa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jacob’s Ladder is my favorite weekend of the year. The spring version of the semi-annual music festival, which was held last month, presents an eclectic mix of country, folk, bluegrass and, lately, local indie rock bands over three days at Nof Ginossar, a kibbutz north of Tiberias.
Over the past several years, I’ve noticed an increasing number of kippa-wearers and others who, at least in outward dress, identify as religious at Jacob’s Ladder. When asked how they justify attending a music festival that takes place over Shabbat and is filled with amplified music spread out over three different stages, I hear a variety of answers.
“Well, we’re not playing instruments ourselves, we’re just listening.”
“We’re still keeping Shabbat, we do communal meals with our friends, we make kiddush and there’s even a Friday night minyan.”
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“We don’t handle money. We buy tlushim [coupons] before sundown on Friday night and use those if we need something in the food court.”
To which I say, enough already! Enough with the justifications and bend-over-backward explanations about how spending a weekend at a music festival or using funny money to buy schnitzel for lunch is really okay according to Halacha (Jewish law).
It’s all missing the point.
When it comes to the observance of Jewish tradition, we are all pick-and-choosers about what we do or don’t do. Sometimes it’s something big like listening to music on Shabbat. Other times it’s more private decisions such as whether to skip a particular set of prayers, eat a sandwich without washing for bread beforehand, wear tzitzit (ritual fringes) for men or cover one’s hair according to a particular minhag (custom) for women.
No one can keep all of the thousands of laws that started with the 613 in the Torah and have been expanded by our rabbis over two millennia. The truth is, every Jew engaged by tradition, from the most haredi on down, picks and chooses what’s most meaningful. Sometimes it’s out of laziness; other times it’s following a mindful reading of texts, wrestling with issues, and reflecting seriously about how to be true to oneself within a traditional framework.
And that’s okay. What frustrates me is when people expend endless energy creating convoluted thought puzzles that twist talmudic logic in an effort to explain away behaviors they’re not comfortable espousing publicly (or privately, for that matter).
Take premarital sex, for example. I took a whole class on the subject, taught by Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, a powerhouse when it comes to analyzing traditional Jewish approaches toward sexuality. Her PhD dissertation was entitled “Talmudic Re-readings: Toward a Modern Orthodox Sexual Ethic.”
She co-authored the book The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy and was named one of the “36 under 36” by The Jewish Week in 2008. Rosenfeld was selected earlier this year to serve as a communal spiritual leader in Efrat by the city’s embattled Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
In her class, she raised the issue of whether the concept of a pilegesh (concubine) could be applied to modern-day cohabitation. The idea was originally proposed by Prof. Tzvi Zohar of Bar-Ilan University in a 2006 article in the academic journal Akdamot.
A pilegesh is essentially a woman in a monogamous relationship but without betrothal and marriage. The pilegesh would hold by the same laws of nidda (ritual impurity) that a married woman would, and she would go to the mikve (ritual bath) afterward. The biblical patriarch Abraham had a pilegesh – Ketura – as did his grandson Jacob – Bilha.
I know unmarried, sexually active Orthodox young people who today invoke the pilegesh concept to justify what they’re doing.
Maybe that’s actually correct in terms of Halacha – that it’s not a rationalization, but the healthy continuation of classic Jewish argumentation. Rosenfeld suggested it was certainly an option. But sometimes it seems like it would just be more intellectually and emotionally honest to say: You know what, I’m okay with being frum (religious) on most things, but on this one, I’m choosing to have sex. Not because I’m weak or bad. Not because I’m lazy. Just because. End of story.
I’ve even come up with a name for this new “denomination.” I call it “Pick and Choose-daism.”
Rabbi Haviva Ner-David wrote an article last year for The Huffington Post in which she argued against a teshuva (religious responsum) voted into practice by the Conservative Movement that says both men and women should be equally obligated in performing all of the mitzvot. Ner-David wasn’t claiming in her piece that people shouldn’t be encouraged to observe Jewish Law. Rather, she says that the concept of “obligation” – for men and women – is out of step with the modern world.
“Every Jew today is a Jew-by-choice,” she writes. “We are no longer living in the shtetl... Jews today choose to perform mitzvot out of a sense of commitment to tradition, community, family, a way of life, a spiritual path or even simply a desire to repair the world. Even those who do see themselves as obligated have chosen to construct their worldview in that way.”
Ner-David wants Jews to “take personal responsibility for finding meaning in the rituals and actions they call mitzvot instead of performing them out of peer or communal pressure, habit, comfort or a sense of feeling bound by tradition.”
Lest you dismiss this as some crazy thesis by a woman rabbi who calls herself “trans-denominational,” or a radical analysis by a Talmud scholar masquerading as a sex therapist, I think the implications of embracing our essential nature as pick-andchoosers are broad – not just for those in an observant framework, but for the Jewish world as a whole.
Hebrew University lecturer and Shalom Hartman Institute fellow Dr. Micah Goodman gave a talk in 2014 called “Jewish Awakening in a Secular World.” Goodman, who also serves as the director of the Ein Prat Leadership Institute, explained that he no longer speaks about promoting “religious pluralism,” the long-extolled buzzword of the liberal Jewish world.
Rather, the future is in “secular pluralism,” he said: In allowing non-traditionally observant Jews to reclaim their traditions by studying sources, turning classic piyutim (Jewish liturgical poems) into rock songs, and observing the holidays in their own ways, free from commandment and obligation.
If you read my previous column “In Praise of Datlashim” (June 5), you know I’ve found a kindred spirit.
Goodman didn’t use the term, but Pick and Choose-daism, in his worldview, could be the rock upon which Judaism 2.0 is built.
Pick and Choose-daism even fits with the practice of mindfulness. Rabbi James Jacobson Maisels, who heads up the Or Halev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, uses a teaching from Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza, the Hassidic rebbe known as the Mei Shiloah, to describe what it means to worship idols, something clearly prohibited by Jewish Law.
“You shouldn’t just do what your rabbis and fathers did,” Jacobson Maisels paraphrases the rebbe. “That’s not serving God.
That’s serving your parents or your teachers or maybe some notion of tradition. And that’s idolatry!” Rather, the true way of being observant, he continues, is “to stake out your own path... [to drop] all your preconceptions – and become what you actually are right now in this moment,” knowing full well that even that will change... and change again.
For observant Jews, though, how far can one go? Can you invite guests over for Shabbat if you turn on and off electricity? Will they eat off your dishes if you use the same dishwasher for both milk and meat (even if not at the same time)? Can you be counted as a witness under the huppa (wedding canopy) if you WhatsApp on hag (Jewish holidays)? Ultimately it comes down to setting your own lowest common denominator – deciding which communities you want to be part of and adhering to those standards, without compromising on your own inner truth.
I love Jacob’s Ladder, and most of the people I’d like to have over on Shabbat are okay with that. That may exclude some people, and for that I’m saddened. But they’re doing their own kind of Pick and Choose-daism.
And that’s okay, too.
The author is a freelance writer who helps companies, brands and organizations become their own publishers, in order to rank higher on social media and search engines.