With two Jewish holidays coming (blog posts pending!) I’m thinking generally about the ways that growing up as a Modern Orthodox Jew have shaped my thinking. Every culture teaches you certain implied beliefs about how the world works. Here are ones I identified about Judaism. To different extents, I embrace, reject, or struggle with them.
- Wasting food is a moral sin. They don’t tell you about the Eleventh Commandment, but I assure you that when Moses walked down Mount Sinai with those tablets in hand, God’s mother was running after him with a ladle of matza ball soup, upon which was engraved in burning letters: EAT ALL YOUR FOOD, LEST YOU PERISH IN AGONY. I once brought a boy home for dinner and my mother never forgave him for not having seconds.
- Alcoholism and Overeating are appropriate in context. And that context is mandated by tradition. There is a tradition on Purim to drink until you can no longer remember which guy was the “good guy” and which was the “bad guy” in the Purim story. You have to drink four glasses of wine on Passover – four full glasses. And God help you if you don’t have enough appetite for a proper Jewish meal (see #1).
- Gratitude is always appropriate. This isn’t just because you most likely have a Jewish Mother guilting you for every moment of your existence (I love you, Mum, and I promise this is NOT a statement about my childhood!). It’s because we have a blessing – for everything. For going to the bathroom; for eating bread; for washing our hands before eating bread; for new clothes; for waking up in the morning; for going to bed at night; etc, etc, etc.
- It’s us against them. Nearly every Jewish holiday has as its premise: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat. There’s been an ongoing push-and-shove in the Jewish community since the Civil Rights Movement over how much we should redefine “us” and “them,” and it’s somewhat connected to the struggle to redefine and retain a Jewish identity in a world that is more and more fueled by ideals about equality and working-together-to-save-the-world.
- It’s Complicated. Because Jewish law is based in applying written tenets to individual situations, every law was argued over – in depth, extensively, and with numerous case examples. There are loopholes, and loopholes to loopholes, and then periodically the Rabbis would throw out the baby with the bathwater by inserting a story about how God wants humanity to make its own choices and interpretations even if they are wrong. In modern application, what this means is this: we know how to ask a Rabbi a question such that we’re not bound to follow their ruling if we disagree with it. We know how to find Rabbis who will give us the ruling we want to follow. Obviously this doesn’t apply to every situation – we aren’t going to find an Orthodox Rabbi who says, “Sure, go eat pork!” But it applies in quite a lot of other situations. We’ve learned how the Rabbis themselves, in setting down the laws, manipulated and pushed the questions around, and so we know how to do that with their answers too.
- We believe in happy endings. One way or another, we’re convinced that we’re heroes of a long, unfolding story. Either the world is going to get so terrible that God gets fed up, destroys everyone, and saves those who are worthy – or humanity as a whole somehow becomes so worthy that the Messianic era begins. Some say that this will be heralded by trumpets and Godly acts; others believe that feminism and the Civil Rights Movement and other examples of the growing equality in society are the beginning of the Messianic era, slowly evolving.
In summary, a Jewish world perspective can be summed up like this:
- Aren’t you going to eat that?
- I’m pretty sure you should eat that.
- Thank god you’re going to eat that.
- If you don’t eat that, someone else is going to walk over here and take it from you just like the last time.
- I’m pretty sure your doctor would approve of you eating that just this once – it’s a weekday!
- You might as well eat it and be happy.