Sunday, June 4, 2017

Symoblic Judaism

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman 

Newspapers can be amusing, or depressing, or both simultaneously. Below are two items that appeared recently, which I offer for your a) amusement, or b) depression, or c) both. 

Item #1: “Yale University graduate students, demanding better benefits and stipends, are going on a hunger strike. A student reported, however, that the hunger strike is only ‘symbolic’: They can get food whenever they are hungry.” 

This “symbolism” is quintessentially 21st century, an exquisite manifestation of society’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality. It has infinite possibilities. Consider: Now we can give huge amounts of tzedakah symbolically, costing us exactly nothing. We can fast symbolically on Yom Kippur while enjoying a (non-symbolic) steak dinner before Mussaf. We can symbolically attend a sunrise minyan on a freezing winter morning while sleeping comfortably in our warm beds. No longer need we engage in backbreaking house cleaning before Pesach, or endure the weeklong regimen of matzah, or sit in a chilly booth during Succos, when it can all be done symbolically. 

This could revolutionize Judaism. Millions of unaffiliated Jews would find it irresistible, and would come flocking to our synagogues and yeshivos. Forget about the Chareidi Orthodox, the Chassidic Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox, the endless varieties of Orthodox. Here we have a harbinger of a new, overpowering movement in Jewish life, the wave of the future: the Symbolic Orthodox. This is an idea whose time has come. 

Item #2 : “Nordstrom, the famous American department store, now offers the latest thing in men’s clothing: jeans caked with artificial but real-looking mud.” 

The old-fashioned threadbare jeans that featured the pre-washed and faded look, complete with holes at the knees, are now passי. Now you can have the authentic look of a hard working manual laborer just in from a tough day in the coal mines. As Nordstrom puts it: “You’re not afraid to get down and dirty.” 

Here, too, endless possibilities. You can sleep as late as you like, imbibe a leisurely martini lunch, lounge the afternoon away on the beach or at a matinee, and then in the evening appear at a reception with your new mud-caked jeans and give the impression that you had a very tough day milking the cows and plowing the fields down on the farm. And you can do so regularly, because the pre-muddied jeans are washable. All for just $425. 

These two separate items are on the surface unrelated, but fundamentally quite related. They are bidding us a warm welcome to the new virtual world of the 21st century, where nothing is what it appears to be, and where, without any effort, you can attain instant gratification and instant recognition. This is the ersatz world of phoniness and artifice, in which you become authentic by being an impostor, and become genuine by being a counterfeit — what the Sages (Bava Basra 10b) call an olam hafuch, an upside-down, topsy-turvy world. 

FROM THE ABOVE it is clear that my reaction to all this is anything but amusement. But this is a Second Thoughts column, and on second thought, perhaps my reaction is a bit too mordant. Maybe this is just an innocent demonstration of the natural human tendency to return to childhood. 

Children love to make believe, to masquerade, to pretend. Rather than be bothered by symbolic fasting and by fake mud as manifestations of a pernicious desire to deceive and to fabricate, perhaps all this is just a reversion to the playacting of childhood. After all, each of us, at one time or another, has played the game of pretend. So let them masquerade as hunger strikers and hard workers, and let us be amused at the spectacle. 

In terms of choices a, b, and c above, it seems that my choice is c. What is your reaction? (Originally featured in Mishpacha 662)