Noah E Abramowitz
Noah E Abramowitz
ואף על פי כן, נוע תנוע

At the Cost of Custom

Standard European.  Chabad.  Joint (Kibbutz HaDati).  Sephard with additions.  Sephardic.  Conservative. Five Machzorim, one Selihot book.

This is the story of my Yom Kippur.   Every year a group called Katif Yisraeli sends students and other post army and national service youngsters to pick fruit, and in the case of many of the groups in the Arava, sort it.  The work is exhausting, sometimes inane, and very often the most fulfilling thing someone can do in their summer months.  I had the privilege of being in a group on Moshav Ein Hatzeva last summer, and people can tell you that I haven’t shut up about it since.  On that Moshav, I found a community, a family, and some of the best people I’ve ever met.  People with whom I didn’t have much in common before, and with whom I had a million inside jokes and shared experiences at summer’s end.  Together we shared the greatest Holiday season I’ve ever experienced; we had Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur together, and many of us had Sukkot as well.  We celebrated Shabbatot together, each in their way.  We all woke up hungover on some mornings, we all got dehydrated planting onions.  But we all worked hard and in an honest manner, and that was all that mattered.  We forgot what we were all from different forms of observance, and from different Jewish communities, and different sides of the political spectrum.  We were a group of Israeli folks, and that was what mattered to us.

This year, six days before Yom Kippur I got a call telling me that Katif Yisraeli was getting a number of the groups in the Arava together for the fast, and that I should come to be Hazzan.  I have my nephew’s Brit, I told them, but the manager insisted.  If you don’t come, he told me, we won’t have a Kippur.  With an offer like that, you don’t say no.  I drove from the Brit in Binyamina to Han Gamaliah, four hours drive.  And much like the year before, Yom Kippur was magical.  From the first notes of Kol Nidrei to the last notes of Neilah, there was something so unique about the experience.  There was no dress code.  Most of the congregants did not wear shoes; many wore shorts; some men opted out of kippot.  Some said all the prayers, some joined for one or two, some simply sat and took in the words of the different readings.  Our service was unique; the rites were mixed such that Selihot were said in the Sephardic custom at nights (Kol Nidrei and Neilah) and in the Ashkenazi during the morning and afternoon.  The participants juggled two Machzorim a piece, one from Chabad and one from the religious council in Eilat.  A woman led U’Netaneh Tokef and left the room without a dry eye.

At prayers’ end, the crowd gathered for Havdala, the religious, the irreligious, and the once religious together.  They all yelled the responses for the many blessings given in the last kaddish and in the verses of Havdala, with a dozen expressions inserted and improvised for the “Hatzlihenu!” (Make us successful!) prayer, for financial, educational, romantic and political success, and while both of these customs are Sephardic, the Ashkenazim in the room knew the call and response as well.  As a token of appreciation, the verse “Noah found favor in the eyes of God” was called and the traditional response was neglected for a round of whooping.

What is amazing about this experience, out of which I came in an Earth-shaking high, was that the whole holiday was an Israeli experience to the greatest degree, without a single modicum of judgement.  No one looked at another’s dress, or whether their pocket had a machzor or a cellphone in it.  In the purest sense, it was what religious services are meant to be, especially on Yom Kippur, when the goal is to come together “with the consent of God and the consent of the assembled”.  Everyone who was there wanted to be there, and had given their all to be in this service.  They were a hodgepodge of Jewish customs and communities.  We were honored to have shared in these experiences together, and to be an Israeli community, with no differences between communities, religious observance, and familiar rite.   And what was important to note is that everyone’s family customs were available, and none of them were invalidated.

The possibility was given for everyone to feel at home, and it came without the expense of comfort on any fronts.

Which is why it made me furious to read after Yom Kippur that an Ashkenazi custom was threatened by the actions of a religious authority.

In the pursuit of a uniform Jewish identity in the reality of a Jewish state, some have contended that we must join identities.  Our identities only diverged because they had nowhere to converge.  In the redeemed Jewish homeland, that must change.  Ashkenazim should adopt Sephardic customs, and Sephardim Ashkenazic rites. We would need a revamp of halakha, and of the interpretation of the importance of custom.  Movements like Beit Prat have tried to join rituals or create new ones in order to form the new Jewish consciousness.  Tzohar and the Kibbutz HaDati created joint Selichot texts.  In these cases, there is an inclusion of all systems, and a rejection of none.

There has, of course, been another approach.

This approach has decided that it has the one true motive and custom, and rejects the customs and reality of others.  It seems to be that among the representatives of the Chief Rabbinate, there can only be a single interpretation.  It is the reason the Rabbinate has denied legitimacy to Rabbanim who permit ascending Har Habayit, and why the Rabbinate allows its Kashrut policies to be the only standard of “Kosher” in the state.  It is the reason Rav Yitzchak Yosef was willing to dismiss the opinion of the North African Rabbanim who allowed for the use of Zoom for Seder night in terms which were far from polite.  And it is why Rav Amar decided to close the Mikvaot on Erev Yom Kippur, even though this ancient Ashkenazi custom has remained, with the approval of the Halakhic minds of the generations, throughout societal change and norm transformation.  The idea that one opinion will trump all goes against the idea of a unified opinion and ruins the idea of “Minhag Yisrael Torah” – Jewish custom is law.

In the statement the North African rabbinical council issued about the matter of Rav Yosef’s opposition to their ruling, they said that they would continue to teach the practices of their masters, the Hakhamim of Northern Africa, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.  And they then listed three customs in rapid succession, which almost shocked me in their contrast.  They said regardless of Rav Yosef’s ideas, they would continue to teach their students to use electricity on Yom Tov, as was their custom, to not insist on “Halak” meat as other Sephardim do, and to say the words ברוך הוא וברוך שמו during blessings.  The first two are huge.  They relate to Holidays and to Kashrut, which are commonly perceived as red lines in Orthodoxy.  The latter, however, seems relatively simple.  It is common practice among Ashkenazim.  Yet the important point here is that it is custom.  Customs are on a completely different level of perception, and they remind us less of the books in which we learned the law, and more of the people who kept the law, and taught it to us.  Customs are our inheritance from our ancestors, rather than from the library of law.  The average person might not care about where the laws came from in the books, but they do care about where they heard them, and from whom.  People have perception of what Mitzvot are more important than others.  Custom is always of paramount importance, no matter how small, because I did not get it from a Rabbi, I got it from my Bubbe, my Mamajoun, my Saba and my Opa.  Custom is what has preserved Judaism throughout the generations, and created the “Traditional” category of Jews, who defy logic and convention, by remaining committed to Tradition and Custom over Halakha.

In my experiences, Israeli custom is dependent on the acceptance of a plurality of opinion and tradition.   It is very independent from perceptions of regional origin.  And it relies on the widespread acceptance of customs which are not necessarily one’s own.  An Israeli Jew will have or attend a Mimouna even if they are not Moroccan, will celebrate a Henna for their wedding, will happily put on Tefillen at a Chabad stand in the Shuk or anywhere else in the world even if he does not routinely pray, will have Thursday night Cholent even if they grew up eating Hamin or Tibeet, and will be familiar with the Sephardic selihot even if their ancestors would not have recognized them.  The Israeli Jew knows God from the Bible and from the Taxi driver who can quote him the verses off by heart and from Mook-E’s song “Elohim” which got mixed with Mosh ben Ari’s “Jah is One” and from the fact that He can’t exist and the fact that He must, depending on which person is yelling at you today.  The Israeli Jew lights candles even if she does so on Shabbat itself and says Kiddush even if the next stop is a concert.  The Israeli Jew is a mix of contradictions, opposites, complex realities and emotions.

To try and limit the Israeli Jew by any categorization, or by the custom of one community alone, or by eliminating the customs of other communities, without their consent, is detrimental to the masterpiece that has been created in this Jewish state.  I spoke to a friend a while ago about the prognosis on Ashkenazi selihot.  His prediction was that in about 20 years the vast majority of Ashkenazim would say Ashkenazi Selihot once a year, maybe.  On other occasions they would say either the Sephardic rite or some form of combination.  Custom comes and goes, and some will die out, but it is with the consent of the observers that a custom may be created or in some cases undone, whereby a new custom will arise.  But it cannot be done by force.

The custom of going to the Mikveh on Erev Yom Kippur, even by single women, is not a custom which was invented in our turbulent times, which many see as immodest.  It is from our ancestors, and while many of us might not practice it anymore, we have the custom, we know it was done.  Let the Halakhic considerations be kept in mind, but as is the case in instances of tradition, the concern is not the law; it is the custom, and the perception of this practice as such.  For Halakhic reasons, one might argue to not allow this matter.  But despite that, the great Halakhic authorities defended the practice, for it was custom.  And it remains so.

A move to undermine custom undermines what makes this state, and this people, and this religion, so special.  It risks throwing away the opinions of generations past, interrupting the chain of generations, and jeopardizing the very institution of traditional Judaism.  When tradition is placed in this kind of danger, we cannot stand aside and start talking about the particulars of law, whether behavior is justified of not.  We instead must look at what we stand to lose if the institutions of tradition and custom collapse.  And I fear that if custom becomes subject to the same standards of Halakha, we may see people abandoning that as well.  We have preserved Jewish customs specifically because they were not Halakha, specifically because the Rabbis were not in full control of them, specifically because they were decided democratically, with the people voting with their feet, their hands, their voices, whatever was needed to perform the specific custom.  If Judaism becomes fully a religion of the learned elite, we will preserve Judaism, but we will lose many Jews.

Don’t get me wrong: in my mind Halakha is incredibly important, and will always be a determining factor in ritual.  Halakhic Judaism is authentic Judaism.  But those who do not connect to that must not be thrown aside, as if they have no place in our community because they do not keep our laws.  The unobservant are not criminals, and cannot be viewed as such.  They are connected, part of our story, and must remain so.  Halakha does not require Jewish souls, as it remains on the book shelf.  A person can take a book and read whatever ritual they would like,  Judaism endures because of the things which cannot be written, because of the things which are felt.  To shove those things back in the books is to undo their magic.

Customs endure despite the opinions of the halakhic authorities.  Kaparot, Tashlich, and feeding birds on Shabbat Shira have all been condemned by various Halakhic figures.  But they remain, because the people have the say.  Legal action against a custom is unheard of, and must remain so.  And the hurt and damage dealt to the institution of custom must be mitigated going forward.

My Yom Kippur was magical, because it lay within the world of Jews, not just within the world of Judaism.  It might be the Chabadnik in my who cares more about the Jews than their Jewish observance, it might be the postmodernist in me who understands that there is not a single Judaism but many Judaisms, and there might just be the Israeli in me who knows Judaism is a salad of practice and emotion and tradition.  I will remain loyal to those feelings, and it is because of them that I cannot allow a seemingly small matter of a few Mikvaot being closed pass unnoticed.

And I worry that it won’t stop here.  Tehila Friedman commented on the situation, whereby a particular victim of sexual assault discussed the awful situation in men’s Mikva’ot, where pedophiles are given free reign and no one ensures that people are safe.  She aptly said that the situation shows that there is a lot of attention to Judaism, and little to Jews, a lot to religion and not a lot to the religious.  When the Mikvah is not open to those whose custom asks of them to be there, but does welcome those who might harm others in the Mikvah, we have lost our way.  The warnings are present.  We must remember to keep our sacred spaces sacred to those who come into them, otherwise we will lose them and become lost ourselves, and if custom can be dismissed, the safety of children can as well.

We are still capable of stopping this.  We can protest.  We can fight back, and we can undo the exclusivist attitude of the Rabbinate.  And please God, we should be able to rein this in, before it gets out of control.  We will continue to be ourselves, to create a new Jewish identity and culture.  We will be unique.  We will keep our traditions and cherish them.  And those who keep halakha and those who just keep tradition and those who keep nothing at all, will be able to sit together.  At the end of the day, the Rabbinate has proved over and over that we can indeed manage without it.

About the Author
Noah E Abramowitz, a diehard O's fan, aspires to be the next Uri Orbach, and enjoys freshly picked dates, black gritty coffee, and brewing and mixing quality drinks with friends. On Wednesdays We Wear Pink.