Judaism makes demands
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 6, 2006
Dalia Sarah Marcus ("Wanted: Egalitarian Jewish Marriage") wants two things that are mutually exclusive – a wedding service that will simultaneously affirm her moral autonomy to choose whatever values she wishes and connect her to Jewish tradition. The subtitle of her piece pretty much sums it up: Young people should not be forced to choose between their own values and their Jewishness.
Unfortunately for Marcus, Jewish tradition forces her to make precisely that choice. For there is no idea more antithetical to the understanding that has guided the Jewish people since Sinai than that each individual is the moral arbiter of his or her universe.
Jews traditionally defined themselves in terms of their connection to G-d. The form and nature of that connection is determined by Him, not us. The term mitzvah, or commandment, implies both a Commander and one who is commanded. The word is derived from the Hebrew root signifying joinder, for it is through the performance of G-d’s commandments that we attach ourselves to Him.
G-d is referred to as HaMakom, or the Place, because our lives gaining meaning, and an aspect of eternity, to the extent that we locate ourselves within Him. In another traditional description, He is the Source of Life, an everflowing spring, and we too have a connection to eternal life insofar as we attach ourselves to that spring.
Connection to G-d, then, not individual autonomy, stands at the heart of Judaism. Judaism’s emphasis on connection to G-d through His mitzvos, i.e., the Law, has formed the basis of critiques of Judaism from pagan times to Paul to Kant to the modern Reform movement.
No designer ceremony – a pastiche of whatever traditional Jewish elements the individual participant chooses to incorporate – can connect one to Jewish tradition because it is in its essence a celebration of self not of G-d. Critic David Gelertner nicely dissected this aspect of modern Jewish "ceremonies" in a 1996 Commentary essay.
Commenting on a ceremony where the bride and groom promised one another "to help you grow as a person," Gelerntner lamented that their wedding offered to bride and groom a chance to enter into a connection with something larger than themselves, to join themselves to millions of Jewish brides and grooms through the millennia. But they had rejected that choice because "in modern America there is nothing bigger than yourself." As Gelertner put it, "The infantile insistence that religious ritual conform to you rather than the other way around is the essence of modern American culture, and is strangling Judaism."
From the ceremonies thus created all the mystery of religion has been drained. There is no trembling in the presence of a transcendent being beyond one’s puny comprehension. All is understood and subjected to the calipers of the latest political or spiritual fad.
To the extent that such ceremonies take note of G-d at all, the implicit message is: If You, G-d, want to have a relationship with me, it will have to be on my terms. Can one imagine someone designated to be knighted by the Queen of England, informing her that he finds the knighting ceremony degrading and insisting on designing one more to his liking? Yet knowing no measure other than our own assumed sincerity, we tell G-d the same thing all the time.
An ancient Midrash captures the essence of the distinction between Jewish and pagan ritual. Our G-d stands on us, as it says, "And behold Hashem was standing over him [Yaakov] (Bereishis 28:13), while they stand on their gods, as it says, ". . . and behold he [Pharoah] was standing over the River . . . (Bereishis 41:1). (The Egyptians worshipped the Nile.) Pagans conceived their gods as instruments of their own desires to be manipulated to serve their purposes, whereas Jews have always conceived of their purpose as service of G-d.
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik specifically linked the pagan emphasis on the subjective experience of the participants to modern feminist ritual. He did not doubt that women demanding to don tallitot and tefillin were sincere – i.e., that they wanted to do so very much. Nor did he deny that they experienced something when doing so. Rather he rejected subjective spiritual experience as the basis of Jewish ritual.
German Protestant theology picked up from paganism the idea that religious practice is validated only by the emotional response it engenders. And classical Jewish Reform seized on Friederich Schleiermacher’s elevation of subjective religious intuition and feeling as a means of attacking Jewish law.
Marcus follows in that path. Yet imitating paganism and Protestantism remain poor means of linking oneself to Jewish tradition.
One last point. Marcus’s characterization of a Jewish bride as absent from her own wedding because she does not recite the formula, "Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moshe and Yisrael," betrays an ignorance of Jewish law – the bride’s assent is an indispensable element of the marriage. But, more importantly, the underlying sense of grievance and the demand for absolute identity of roles between husband and wife, which her description conveys, forms a poor basis for any marriage, Jewish or otherwise.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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