Wisdom Wherever You Find It
If we can’t learn from our mistakes, we’re not a living tradition; we’re a bad habit and we ought to disappear. Rev. Terry Kyllo
There is a natural resistance to change among those who uphold a culture of tradition. And since most of us uphold such a culture in one context or another, there is a natural resistance to change for most of us.
Our traditions ground us, and even when we recognize that parts of it run counter to the values we want to uphold, snapping off a piece of that infrastructure can feel like we have betrayed something that has been unshakably loyal to us, or like we are denying to those who follow us that which has sustained us.
For example, generations of traditionally observant Jews have faced a dilemma in observing Shabbat. Especially in colder climates, the strict prohibition of lighting or maintaining fire held the potential to threaten life and well-being on frigid Saturday afternoons. The solution was to engage a non-Jewish neighbor to stop by after lunch to stoke the hearth each week and partake of some of the food kept warming. In that way, the neighbor was not violating the additional prohibition against forcing others to conduct impermissible labor, just meeting their own needs and generously including the Jewish household. In addition to physical warmth, the result was social warmth between the two communities. Frequently, especially in the American urban centers that succeeded the European villages, the non-Jew, often a young person, was given a coin or two during the week in appreciation. Many an unlikely Yiddish-speaker (like Gen. Colin Powell) also got a bilingual education.
The person, called a “shabbes goy,” by right should be a phenomenon of the past. So much of life has become automated – I don’t know a home without a thermostat – that exploiting an outsider to enable sacred conduct is really no longer necessary. Yet, there remain practices among contemporary traditionally observant Jews that facilitate the violation of Shabbat restrictions by counting on the good will (and expectation of compensation) of non-Jews. I understand the logic, but not the result.
This ritual workaround probably feels quaint. And other than a perception, accurate or not, that the non-Jews have the misfortune of not enjoying the blessings of a full day of rest, no one is really harmed.
But it does seem like the flip side of medieval times when money-lending within a community by Christians was similarly prohibited (based on the Bible), and so Jews were imported by feudal lords to handle such transactions. The result was not simply a practical banking system that preserved one community’s claim to piety. It also produced some of the most damaging perceptions of Jewish character values that persist to this day.
I believe that the “less-than” perception of the shabbes goy is a similar phenomenon.
Of course, both things are rationalized by a devotion to a culture of tradition. Can you chip off the noxious piece without undermining the positive and pervasive infrastructure? And, more to the point, if the practices are justified by some perception of divine authority, are modern perceptions determinative if they run counter to that culture of tradition?
A living tradition is one that is not ossified by the practices of the past. Even among those who believe in the literalness of divine instruction, there is a post-revelatory moment (almost always hundreds or thousands of years later) in which the struggle to interpret that instruction is deemed no longer legitimate. But that moment is too late; it affirms we will never progress beyond the past. And we, in our age, who see the evidence of bad habits with religious imprimaturs, ought to have the integrity to do something about it.
Name your issue: slavery, status of women, sexual identity, equality, mental health, equity…the list is extensive. In the name of faith and faithfulness we have developed bad habits, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes out of cultivated malice. Anything living is dynamic – it changes, difficult though it may seem. And anything that does not change is not living.
The phrase “the custom of our fathers is in our hands” is used in Jewish tradition to rebut the notion that we should do things differently, even where change is indicated. It is only valid when it brings our forbearers honor.