drwex (drwex) wrote,

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The Jewish Thing (third in a series)

I think this is the last preparatory post I will need to make. Comments and encouragement on the previous episodes (part one and part two) have been helpful.

To start with, the joke (my second-favorite Jewish joke).
Moses is up on Mt Sinai getting the laws from G-d, who says, "And thou shalt not cook a calf in its mother's milk, for that is cruel."
Moses says, "OK, G-d, I think I understand. You don't want us to eat milk and meat at the same meal and really we shouldn't eat one for an hour after the other in case some of it is still in our stomachs."
G-d says, "What? No, Moses. What I said was 'thou shalt not cook a calf in its mother's milk, for that is cruel.'"
Moses says, "Oh! I'm so sorry I didn't understand. I get it now. What you mean is we should have two completely separate sets of dishes..."
G-d says, "No, that's not what I said..." but Moses just keeps going. "...as well as separate sinks and refrigerators in order to prevent any possible cross-contamination but just in case that happens we should take the contaminated dish out into the yard and bury it."
And G-d sighs and says, "Moishe, do whatever the heck you want."

Once again this joke is hilarious to a lot of Jews and head-scratching to non-Jews. First, it helps to know that these are actual real things that people do, not something made up for the joke. The laws of Kashrut (making and keeping things Kosher) are some of the most bizarre and arcane of modern Judaism and cut across the lines of tradition I wrote about last time. For example, on Passover you're not supposed to eat "leavened bread". If you're an Ashkenazi (roughly, European and most American) Jew, regardless of how Orthodox you are, this means you don't eat rice. If you are a Sephardic (Asian, mostly) Jew you eat rice even if you're Orthodox.

Don't feel bad, this leaves a lot of Jews scratching their heads and going WTF? too. What it speaks to is the level of esoterica that has developed within Halacha as I mentioned earlier and how it's not really clear what it means to follow or not follow it. At least, if your definition of "clear" extends beyond "do what the Rabbi says" - which is some peoples' default and some peoples' fallback position.

I also love this joke because it speaks to the notion that some people have (and I share) that some of this ever-finer commentary and attempts to extend Halacha just fall down on outright silliness grounds. If you read what the Torah says about mixing milk and meat it's pretty simple but you'd never know that from observing modern Jewish practice. So what do you do?

It helps to know that Jews don't have a concept of "sin", particularly in the way that most goyim do. There are mitzvot - good deeds one can do - and there are laws to follow. There are commandments and prohibitions one is not supposed to break. But we don't have original sin, nor do we carry the weight of sins. Each year we atone, and ask forgiveness (for sins against G-d, not against other people, but that's a complicated aside to where I'm going). But there's no Hell, no eternal damnation waiting for us.

I don't remember most of the proto-rabbis who came through our synagogue when I was younger. The bad one with the bumper sticker obviously stuck, and there was one other. He gave a sermon in which he addressed this issue by analogy. He said that living a Jewish life was like walking a road that had jewels in it. Some of them were just lying around and were easy to pick up; others were harder and you had to stop walking and really dig for a while to get those.

The jewels in this analogy are the commandments and mitzvot. You can do some of them easily, some with more work. Doing some of them seems like it stops you getting on with your life. But in the end no matter what you do you enrich yourself with jewels - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Some people find some jewels easy or more attractive; others see it other ways.

All of which is to explain why I was worried about eating bread with my lobster this year.

Y'see, Thing 2's birthday fell on Passover this year. To me, Passover is a big deal. It's my favorite holiday as I've written before. I have particularly enjoyed re-engaging with it as I have my own kids to whom I can tell the story. I generally try to observe it (though I do eat rice) by not eating obvious bread things.

Our family tradition is that on kids' b-days they get what they want for dinner and Thing 2 wants lobsters. I love lobsters. So mid-week on Passover there we are eating lobsters. Which are, in case you weren't clear on this, completely not-at-all-even-a-little kosher. But I had to be sure I wasn't having bread with mine because I was trying to pick up the Passover jewel but doing whatever the heck I wanted about kosher, like Moishe.
Tags: humor, story, thinky stuff
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