Thursday, October 30, 2014

Buffet Judaism: The Joys of Hypocrisy

This Rosh Hashanah, I was walking to synagogue when I came across a curious sight. A man was strolling down the street in a suit, kippah on his head and tallit-bag in his hand—and he was talking on his cell phone, an action strictly prohibited by the most ancient religious authorities. My immediate thought: that’s not right! What’s this guy doing?

Then I got to synagogue, prayed, came home, and checked my email before hopping in a car. The only thing separating me from the fellow in the morning was that I didn’t have the courage to put my eclectic selection of ritual practices on colorful display.

People like to lampoon what they call “buffet Jusdaism.” This is slander against buffets. Properly done, a buffet is the most civilized way to eat—no one goes hungry, and no one has to eat a morsel of food they don’t like. I personally despise kugel and lox, but will devour as many sweet potatoes as the earth can yield up from its bowels. Great! The Polish shtetlers that I’m eating with will be more than happy to swallow the food that to me is tasteless, salty sludge.

Gefilte fish: an abomination unto the Lord,
not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Once we’ve filled up our plates and our cups with cider or beer, we can all stretch out on the lawn together and chat until it’s time to get more food. Everyone has a great time, and indulges in all the pleasures of human fellowship without any of the awkward disagreements that usually accompany it. For the name of such undiluted human delight to be made into a derogatory slogan is endlessly perplexing to me. One might as well denigrate Reform Jews by calling their religion “passionate-love Judaism” or “sunrise-hike Judaism.”

Nevertheless, I don’t dispute in the least the fittingness of calling Reform Judaism a buffet. The analogy actually applies extremely well. But Jews should wear this label as a badge of the most sacred honor. A buffet is a delight! So is driving to synagogue while fasting on Yom Kippur, reading Abodah Zarah in Aramaic with a glass of goyish wine in hand, and going to sleep early without finishing the Seder.

Mixed with all the spiritual agonies that modernity imposes on us, we have this consolation: our aesthetic and moral freedom. If our religion seems musty to us, we can change it. If parts of it make our noses crinkle in moral disgust, we can set them aside with the rest of our trash. We can do all of this calmly and confidently—that is, unless we’re made to feel self-conscious and ashamed of ourselves by people who claim to be following the entire law to the jot and tittle.

This applies to scripture just as it does to practice. Do we like the parts of the Bible when God makes Sarah laugh and when he commands the Israelites not to oppress a stranger? Great! Let’s make them the center of our spiritual and moral lives. Do we not like the parts when we’re told to stone gay people and murder Amalekite babies? Great! Let’s ignore them with all the fervor we can muster. What do we lose? Only our consistency. But can consistency stand before the face of happiness? Can it stand up straight in the presence of virtue? Let it slink away in shame.

On a related note: Christians are also accused of “picking and choosing” when they listen to Christ’s teachings on love and ignore his warnings about divorce and Hell. I similarly fail to see anything wrong with this. As long as we’re going to declare moral freedom from human pettiness, why not also live in hermeneutical freedom from the writers of the Gospels? In any case, a day that goes by when I don’t pick something and choose another is a joyless waste of time.

In my praise of buffet Judaism I don’t want to imply that it’s any more picturesque or noble than Judaism of the prix fixe style. That would be committing the same snobbish error as the Orthodox. No: there’s nothing virtuous about arbitrarily doing assorted rituals. It’s also not intrinsically more meaningful than Orthodoxy, and of course the only people to whom it’s a real option have been predestined from birth to feel spiritually unmoored for their whole lives. The most that can be said for it is that it’s fun, pleasant, and perhaps meaningful sometimes. I hope that gets to count as enough justification.

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