By Pamela Alexander
I was at the cafe rocking to the Sex Pistols when a friend came over to say hello. Bob is an evangelical Christian pastor who has never tried to debate the merits of our respective faiths, or tried to “win me to Jesus” (and thank G-d for small miracles!) His respect for our differences has allowed us to forge a friendship based on a mutual love for HaShem and a desire to follow His commandments. Baruch Hu.
When I told Bob I was listening to my favorite punk band, he roared with laughter. “Pamela! How can you listen to the Sex Pistols and be a religious Jew,” as if punk rock was anathema to faith. While he used different words, it echoed for me shades of “what makes a ‘good Jew,’ good?” I reminded Bob that I was not a fundamentalist, that my Judaism included teachings from the past and the present, and that as much as I challenge what Judaism has always been, I challenge with equal tenacity and enthusiasm what Judaism has become.
Well, that sounded intellectual enough. I can simultaneously delight in our oral tradition, without relegating myself to the 18th century. I can live in our post-modern world, recognizing the many things that must change without crashing head first into secularism. It’s a nice balance, right? I am always hearing about how we should strive for balance in all areas of our lives; it’s supposed to be a good thing. But, never mind the mental health experts. What does G-d desire of me? If my life is to bring about tikkun olam, is this the way I should go?
Can I be the Jew G-d wants me to be if I approach my faith, my Torah and Him, as if in Jewish deli, and is that what I’m doing?: picking and choosing what sounds good at the time, what is easy on my wallet, easy to eat in the car, and easy to digest? In other words, give me Orthodoxy as long as it’s always enjoyable, requires little sacrifice, is very convenient and will never give me heartburn?
When people of faith petition their institutions for change, whether it be Catholics who want Vatican approval for birth control, Presbyterians who challenge the ban on gay pastors (I cannot help but wonder what the members themselves think of the Presbyterian Church’s call for a world-wide boycott against everything Israel) and Jews who want Orthodox Rabbis to perform inter-marriage ceremonies, my gut reaction is always the same: you cannot ask a centuries-old religion to change its fundamental doctrine to suit your individual needs. But, what of Judaism?
I believe the Torah was inspired by G-d and while I believe that our Sages were also inspired through their deep prayer and study ~ and while their writings did become Jewish law, I have never viewed them as having the same voice as our prophets (even though the tale of the carob tree tells us that G-d responded that “the Torah is not in heaven!”) Maimonides was not Isaiah, Nachmanides was not Jeremiah, Akiva not Daniel. If this is indeed the case, why would we follow rabbinic law with the same fervor and commitment as we do biblical law?
What does this say of traditional Judaism, which is far more rabbinic in nature than it is biblical? And, what of today’s rabbis, perhaps even less “inspired” than our Sages (and I realize that this entire line of thinking is highly problematic). Currently, it is perhaps by five American Orthodox rabbis who issue poshkim, current Jewish law, that most of us will be most profoundly affected; that is, if we desire to follow halachah as set forth by them. Current poshkim address such as politically hot issues as assisted-suicide and stem cell research.
If I am going to pursue halachah, should I not first require myself to think, pray and make decisions on the relative importance I ascribe, for example, to biblical as opposed to rabbinic law, to the importance of tradition versus change? If I find that I do wish to balance what are ancient though not archaic laws, with current ideas, should I not first decide how I am to create that balance? To which view should I give deference?
As the Pistols go, their name is the most provocative thing about them. If I can share their lyrics with my parents without shame or embarrassment, it’s a pretty good sign that they are not a morally corrupting influence! The real issue is, if I had made a decision to become as observant as possible, and a poshka were issued prohibiting the listening to the Sex Pistols, would I throw out my records? Or, would I decide to follow my own heart, and my own beat, picking and choosing at the rock and roll delicatessen? Hmm.
Honestly? While part of me hopes I would pursue other types of music, I know that I would turn it up just as loud. Yeah, I’m sure I’d go kicking and screaming on this.