Thursday, September 23, 2010

Yom Tov Sheni, Orthodoxy, and the Path to Authoritarianism

Sometimes, when you initially argue certain points, you like to go back and see if anything has either changed or needs to be refined.  Back on the second day of Passover 5770, I had made an argument that having a second day for holidays, called a yom tov sheini, was a superfluous practice.  Looking at the blog entry retrospectively, I think this is an instance that calls for a refinement rather than pulling a complete one-eighty, and I found it appropriate to do so on a yom tov sheini.

I recall having an online argument with one of my Orthodox friends soon after.  It was somewhat dismaying, especially since I was partially acting as an agent provacateur and like all Orthodox Jews, the fervor in everything is just over the top, hence why they're Orthodox.

One of the arguments that he had made was against my third point in my initial argument, which is that yom tov sheini does not enhance the holiday.  He brought up points, some which I actually thought that were good, such as another day to actively study Torah, another day to get away from mundane life, and more time to spend with family.  I would fire back with such arguments as being able to do the mitzvah of putting on tefillin, being able to have more time to sit shiva if that is your current situation, or being able to better follow the commandment of "six days you shall do work" (Exodus 34:21), but when push comes to shove, arguing enhancement of the holiday ends up being an "eye of the beholder" argument because one man's enhancer is another man's hindrance.  Ultimately, this means that it has no bearing on the actual legality of the practice itself.

Where I had felt that lost the argument that day was that I was not willing to assert whether this was a rabbinic enactment (either gezeirah or takkanah) or if it were a minhag.  My Orthodox friend was arguing it was a minhag.  And why shouldn't I be surprised?  I have made the argument before that Orthodox Jews like making the "tradition for tradition's sake" argument to preserve practices that could very well be antiquated, even though legalistic history has a slightly different story to tell in terms of getting rid of needless customs.

Now, allow me to disagree with my friend.  Although rabbis argued whether this was a rabbinic enactment or a custom, I find very little historic basis for this practice being a minhag.  This practice was conceived as a rabbinic enactment to compensate for what was an inefficient calendrical system and to make sure we did not miss the holiday.  The widespread dissemination of the Jewish calendar makes this worry moot, which, by extension, makes the practice moot.  It does not matter if it enhances the "holiday spirit" or if we are in exile.  What matters is the following: here we have a rabbinic enactment that had a specific reasoning behind it, that reasoning no longer exists, and as I had pointed out in my previous blog entry on this topic, we do not need a Sanhedrin to reverse it.  That is the crux of the argument.  Considering anything else would be of a secondary or tertiary nature. 

Why does this form of argumentation make my Orthodox compatriots nervous?  For one, this is a practice that many would consider a "universal minhag," even though the law was not conceived as such.  If you can knock down something that is deemed universal, the slippery slope of halachic laxness ensues.  But more importantly is my assertion of making myself the ultimate arbitrator of my halachic decisions.  Orthodoxy, by definition, is authoritarian in nature.  Anything that attempts to erode the stability of such a nature is toxic and potentially harmful to the structure in place. 

Since the Enlightentment period, Orthodoxy has had to become more rigid to respond to the Reform movement.  Due to the increasing amount of secularism, Orthodoxy has had to step it up a notch from what it did in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century.  In our day, Orthodoxy has reached a juncture, something which Rabbi Nathan Cardozo is astute enough to realize.  The Orthodox community will need to decide if there will be room for autonomy or if Orthodoxy will become irredeemably authoritarian.  Based on observations of Orthodoxy, I cannot help but feel that it is heading towards the latter.  A rich, diverse tradition that has prided itself on "eilu v'eilu" will be reduced to a narrow, streamlined despotism.

Abraham had to be his own halachic decisor when he was sacrificing Isaac.  The Talmud has much discourse, and ultimately leads to more questions than answers.  Judaism has a tradition of argumentation, response, and diverse opinions.  I humbly submit I am doing what my Jewish forefathers have been doing for centuries, which is questioning, arguing, and trying to better figure out our place in the world.

With that in mind, I leave you with a quote from a fellow congregant that is reflective of my thoughts here today:

"When facing the winds of adversity and change, a reed that decides that it will not bend will ultimately break." 

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