Thursday, May 27, 2010

Where's the line?

I was at a meal on Shavuos at some religious friends of mine, the kind that are open-minded enough to not really care that I'm not religious; the kind of people for whom I don't ever have to pretend to be something I'm not. Unlike some of my ex-frum compatriots, I don't have any problem hanging around religious environments (well, certain religious environments), and I really don't think less of people just because they subscribe to religious ideas which I disagree with (again, certain religious ideas). But at the meal, something happened which prompted me to look a bit more closely at that fine line between what I consider normal religious behavior and the kind which I think is just short of crazy.

This particular group of people were a typically varied crowd of single men and women from the Upper West Side, most of whom were Modern Orthodox, some only nominally frum, some - like myself - not religious at all. At one point one of them launched into a classic Shavous dvar torah, and began expounding on the tradition of why people stay up learning on Shavuos night.

When it comes to shabbos meal divrei torah, my typical reaction is to just tune out entirely, as in most cases, such divrei torah usually fall into one of two categories, both of which I find utterly mind-numbing: There's the sort where some obscure textual inconsistency is reconciled by dredging up some even more obscure textual reference. And there's the kind where the inconsistency is reconciled by anachronistically inserting the persons ideological worldview into the text. Neither of which I (and to my cynical eye, anyone else at the table) have any interest in really listening to.

But this dvar torah was of a different sort. The guy was not content with simply reconciling an inconsistency, but he chose to invent a new one out of whole cloth, just so he could make his point when trying to address it. Ok, so I've seen this style too, it wasn't really new to me, but what started to grate on my nerves was that he was solving the problem he created by imposing some new-agey pop-psychology ideas onto the mental state of the Jewish People at Sinai. And it was at this point that I started to get annoyed at what I was hearing. Things only got worse when the rest of the table - people who I thought were of a more sophisticated intellectual bent regarding Jewish tradition - started seriously debating the merits of applying Gladwellian quasi-scientific ideas onto the midrashic narrative.

The same feelings surfaced when the conversation turned to why dairy products are traditionally eaten on Shavuos. As I heard supposedly intelligent people seriously explaining how the reason we don't eat meat is due to the dearth of kosher dishes after the giving of the torah, I found myself looking around in amazement, and thinking to myself, "Am I the only sane person here?"

But upon further reflection, I couldn't help wondering, why was hearing these ideas so particularly infuriating to me? I wasn't troubled by other things going on around me. It didn't bother me that they were commemorating the most dubious of historical events - that a nomadic tribe received a set of laws from a heavenly deity who transcribed them to a man who spoke to the being on a mountaintop for 40 days. It didn't vex me that they felt it necessary to make a blessing over a cup of wine before eating the meal or that they found turning on a light switch to be deserving of death. So many of the behaviors and beliefs of the frum person don't bother me at all, yet in this case, and in so many others, when I look at what's happening in front of me, or what's being said by seemingly intelligent people, I can't help wondering, "What the hell is wrong with these people?!"

Where is the line? Why do some things seem acceptable, normal, even possibly healthy, and others seem preposterous, foolish, and naïve?


Photo Credit: Flickr user Norah M

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