Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tradition or Truth

Last weekend I was teaching in upstate New York. During one of our shared meals, a woman with a deep love for Orthodox Judaism challenged me regarding my revisions of Jewish prayer. I had commented earlier that I could not pray from a conventional siddur (prayer book), whether Reform, Orthodox, or anything in between. The language was dualistic, xenophobic, misogynist, and filled with threats of violence against those who stray from the revealed path of Torah and mitzvoth (commandments). I have been writing liturgy for decades, and I strive to create texts that avoid all of these things.

“But what about tradition?” she asked. Well, what about it? Here was a woman who wanted nothing to do with traditional views of women, Jewish or otherwise. She wasn’t about to let traditional views of African Americans go unchallenged. She didn’t feel at all compelled to uphold traditional views about the origin of life or the evolution of species. So why, when it comes to Jewish tradition, was she willing, even eager, to perpetuate behaviors build on ideas that she no longer believed in?

Did she believe that God created the world? Did she believe that God chose the Jews? Did she believe that God’s sole revelation to the world was Torah? Did she believe that God ordained animal sacrifice, or cared if she had a scoop of ice cream a few hours after having a bologna sandwich? No, she did not. But she felt we should pretend these things mattered so as to maintain our coherence as a people.

I understand the argument. I just reject it. What does it mean to base a community on untruths? Judaism survived for thousands of years not simply because people ate in a certain way and prayed in a certain way, but because they believed, deeply and honestly, that God wanted them to do those things. Today there are millions of Jews who still believe that and their communities are thriving. But for those of us who don’t believe that way, our traditionalism is hollow and forced.

I am not opposed to tradition. I am simply in favor of truth. And when I have to choose between the two, I choose for the latter. I don’t think that precludes me from being a Jew. In fact, I would argued that choosing truth over tradition is exactly what being a Jew was meant to be.

Abraham was the world’s first iconoclast, the first freethinker, and the first to break out of the prison of tradition and to strive only for truth. He should be the hallmark of what it is to be a Jew. God calls Abraham to radical freedom; tradition calls us to avoid it.

This is the nature of religion. It begins with the radicalism if a founder whose vision is so fresh, so daring as to frighten the establishment to death (or, sometimes, to murder). Then, with the death of the founder, the original message is turned over to the bureaucrats who replace freedom to conformity, and the immediacy of God with a remembrance of things past. Abraham was not about the past. If we are to honor his memory we must take up his quest: putting Truth before tradition and holding nothing sacred but God.

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