Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why Are Minhagim Important?

There's nothing like Pesach for causing perplexity and wars about minhagim - customs. Recently I was disappointed to hear a reasonably well-educated person effectively stating that minhagim are not important and can be freely abolished. In fact, while there is inevitable debate about precisely how important minhagim are, and what exactly is defined as a minhag, and the parameters of their applicability, there is no doubt that minhag is of great importance in Judaism. But why? Prof. Daniel Sperber, in volume three of Minhagei Yisrael, cites three reasons that are given (I'm writing from memory here, so I could be mistaken):

1) Stability. It's important to maintain established practice, so as to maintain stability in Judaism and avoid anarchy. (In times of turbulence, opinions will differ as to whether stability is better maintained by being more rigid, or by being more flexible. I think that reasonable people can understand that both viewpoints are reasonable.)

2) Preventing disputes. If everyone follows custom, this should prevent disputes. (Unfortunately in practice, this sometimes seem to have the opposite effect. However, this is more a result of the modern era, in which the ease of travel enables people from different communities to be lumped together with great frequency.)

3) Finally, Rav Kook states that since minhagim result from people desiring to demonstrate their passion for Judaism, they must accordingly be treated with great respect. (This would appear to apply to only certain types of minhagim.)

I think that before evaluating whether a given minhag should be maintained or not, it's important to understand exactly why minhag has an important place in Judaism.

15 comments:

  1. Here is why I do not like minhagim and agree with the sentiment that they should be abandoned (at least functionally abandoned as obligations):

    Minhagim are supposed to represent the longstanding customs of our ancestors as they lived in a given place. I.e. Minhagim are nice things that are supposed to give us strength because that is how my family or my community has always done things. Occasionally, minhagim did a better job of upholding halacha because people were simply ignorant beyond what the Rabbi told them.

    I could easily respect that, except that as things stand today, minhagim are artificial constructions grabbed from a great many sources. In America especially, but often Israel as well, a family's minhagim are not long standing customs but compiled from a book your father or grandfather read and started doing and are not tied to the place that you live in or what your family had been doing for generations. With the ascent of books which are choshesh for every other person's minhag, regardless if they have any relevance to me and people's family, actual minhagim are primarily reduced to how they set the table or other meaningless exercises.

    Further, any minhag related to a question of halacha is, depending on your community, either completely ignored or held to the strictest interpretation. People either could care less what you do, or they ridicule lenient minhagim until they are abandoned (by the same people who ironically trumpet the importance of minhagim). What constitutes kitniyos would be a perfect example of this where I am forced to treat say, peanuts like kitniyos, even if my family tradition doesn't consider them to be so.

    Overall, as we live in a world where people do not care what you do, and those that do carry the "traditional" concern of minhagim are really only out to impose their own minhagim on others, we see that minhagim do not have the same strength or meaning they once had. If you like what you do, wonderful, but the traditional provisos that make up a minhag simply do not apply to this modern day except for the most basic and universal of minhagim.

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  2. Mo'ed tov R' Natan -- this is an interesting topic and Pesach is indeed a good time to consider it. I agree substantially with SF2K01's points about minhagim having more relevance when their geographic basis was clearer.

    The massive change in Jewish demographics between the mid-19th c. and the mid-20th c. has really changed things. Local minhagim from the Alte Heim have a different significance in an era when about half of world Jewry lives a couple hours' drive from either Jerusalem or New York City.

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  3. R' Aryeh Kaplan adds two other important reasons:

    1) They tend to reinforce Torah values.

    2) They are a powerful force against assimilation, because they tend to strengthen the bond between generations.

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  4. Minhagim are indeed very important; the only problem is that every thinking person changes at least *some* of his parents' customs, and to somebody else, it's a change that goes too far. Like the old saw defining a drunk: "Anyone who drinks one more glass than me."

    Same thing with minhagim. Reuven, a baal teshuvah, might have completely altered his parents and grandparents way of life. Or Shimon might have gone to yeshivah and adopted all of his rebbeim's customs, neatly throwing by the wayside all of the customs of his parents did. Yet these these same two guys will find it wrong if someone so much as changes the "tzuras hadaf" of the Vilna Shas, believing it to be a breach of tradition. Suddenly tradition is important. When it came to adopting chumrahs or taking on the yeshivah's customs, minhag wasn't so important.

    That's why it's such a slippery slope, and an area where it is impossible to maintain consistent intellectual honesty. I do think tradition is very important, and preach as much to my kids, all the while knowing that in certain areas [not many] I have changed or dispensed with a family minhag. Ultimately every man must use his shikul hadaas, and not worry about accusations of "minhag changing", because everyone can be accused of this.

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  5. How can anyone say that all minhagim should be "abandoned"?

    If you want to talk about abandoning minhag A B or C, that's a reasonable discussion. But ALL minhagim? Halacha doesn't tell us what to do from A-Z in Jewish life. How do we fill in the rest? With minhag. Jewish civilization and culture are what they are because of minhagim, from the tunes we sing on Shabbat to the foods we eat on chagim, and everything in between.

    Besides, how do you think the Torah got to be the Torah? Did these commands come totally out of the blue? Of course not! They were minhagei Yisrael which later became canonized and sanctified. Halacha might therefore be called a kind of crystallized minhag. As we go forward in time, more minhagim get crystallized, and others dissolve. But there's always going to be minhag.

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  6. Speaking of which here is an explanation by Rabbi David Bar-Hayim why kitniyot is a negative minhag :

    http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=WGafcOKFVTQ

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  7. The problem with minhagim is that there is a popular conception that "more is better".
    The upsherin is just a minhad and once upon a time it was only certain Chasidim that did it. Now it's extremely widespread. Why? Because the more minhagim you have the more frum you are perceived to be.
    If it was harmless then that would be one thing but the day will come when some frum kid who wants to enter a certain yeshiva will be told "Sorry, you didn't have an upsherin so you're not the kind of student we're looking for". That's what makes minhagim dangerous at times.

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  8. Minhag is the way that Judaism grows and changes organically. Not too different from the way language changes. It's Torat Chaim, and Am Yisrael are Bnei Neviim.

    So let's all take a deep breath and be patient. Even kitniyot will sort themselves out in a generation or 3, into a couple of basic patterns.

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  9. Professor Sperber?
    Hmmm.

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  10. Have to agree with sf2k01. One addtional factor to add to what he said is that the stigma of Reform is partially to blame for the constant "self consciousness" about lenient minhagim , or on the other side, the denigration of such minhagim. A big part of the evil of Reform movement was the reactionary streams within traditional Judaism that it spurred. That coupled to the murder of the lithuanian jewish approach by the nazis leaves us with a Judaism that fails to see the forest for the trees.

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  11. Each minhag would have to be evaluated on a case by case basis.

    The moral thing must be done in a moral way.

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  12. A lot of minhagim have been incorporated into the Shulchan Aruch, and it's difficult to distinguish what is halachah and what is minhag. For example, the Mechaber says to salt meat to remove it's blood for the amount of time it takes to walk a mil. The Rema brings the minhag to salt for an hour, and rely on the Mechaber only בשעת בדחק. (Salting for an hour probably existed many years before the Rema codified it, also.)

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  13. There is also a problem of Lo Sisgodedu...

    What is the source for Rav Kook?

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  14. In a world with so little time and so many important, and real meaningful things to do, does it make sense to waste one's time on a minhag that on longer severs a purpose ?

    For those minhagim which do not apply to today's times. E.g. There are many minhagim which was formed to remedy a certain problem in a past generation, or for something that was believed to have been of a beneficial value. But for our generation these problems are no longer an issue, or that which was believed to have been beneficial, turns out to be in fact harmful. What purpose will it serve to practice them ?

    Then there are those minhagim that do not fall into either category, only which was just of the opinion of a few.

    Why are we obligated to agree with the opinions of those who we do not, and will not ever know ?

    But who asked this generation if we wish to practice these minhagim ? I.e. How can someone from an other time and era impose on others who are not yet born to do something against their will ? Or perhaps they did not intend to do so, why then are there those within our own generation who insist we practice them, and go as far as to condemn those who do not engage. To feed their ego perhaps.

    The charedim are of such, and saturate themselves with many many meaningless minhagim, which they believe justifies their less meaningful existence.

    o

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  15. The charedim...saturate themselves with many many meaningless minhagim

    Do you realize how insulting and arrogant it sounds to judge a set of customs to be "meaningless"? And if that's not enough...

    which they believe justifies their less meaningful existence.

    Are you seriously deeming their very "existence" to be "less meaningful"? Or that they see their existence as less meaningful? Either way, eizeh chutzpah!

    Sorry - I'm not charedi myself, but all the more reason I felt I couldn't let such a gratuitously offensive comment sit there without response.

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