Liberal Minhag

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I was looking for an article on Jewish customs, minhagim, on MyJewishLearning and, lo and behold, there wasn’t one. Which got me thinking: Does the concept of minhag exist in liberal Judaism?

Let me explain.

In traditional Judaism, there are two types of ritual norms: those that are mandated by Jewish law (halakha) and those that are (merely) customary. I put “merely” in parentheses because a minhag can often attain power similar to a halakha.

For example, Ashkenazi Jews do not eat kitniyot (legumes) on Passover. Essentially, these foods (including rice, beans) are forbidden.

But Sephardic Jews do eat kitniyot on Passover. And, while it is considered inappropriate for an Ashkenazi Jew to randomly change his/her custom vis-a-vis kitniyot. It is, traditionally, considered acceptable for an Ashkenazi woman who marries a Sephardi man to take on his tradition. (Similar rules apply to the different traditions about waiting between eating meat and milk.)

Other minhagim, like kaparot pre-Yom Kippur, have become standard rituals of traditional Judaism. And still others — like the custom of wearing a kippa — began as a minhag and became something a little stronger.

What’s the practical difference between a minhag and a halakha? This may be simplistic, but I’d say one practical difference is related to punishment. In traditional Judaism, violating or eschewing halakha is a sin, an affront to God, and something that one may be punished for. Abandoning a minhag may be inappropriate, but it would likely not be considered a punishable offense.

Now, of course, all of this presumes that Jewish law, halakha, is normative, that one must follow it. If there are rituals that one must perform (halakhot), then we can conceive of a category of rituals that are (merely) optional or laudatory — customs or minhagim.

But liberal (or post-halakhic) Judaism does not view Jewish law as binding. Rituals are chosen, abandoned, and adapted. If the concept of binding halakha disappears, what happens to minhag?

I was tempted to suggest that, in a sense, all of Jewish ritual becomes minhag. But this conclusion would ignore one of the most salient features of minhag: continuity. A minhag becomes a minhag when it is repeated over and over, within a cultural/geographical matrix, by generation after generation.

And here we see another problem for the possibility of modern, liberal minhag. Modern, liberal Jewish identity is, in many ways, defined by its individualization. Within a framework that favors personalization, can there be rituals that are passed down — intact — from generation to generation?

Which brings us back to the original question: Is the concept of minhag irrelevant to liberal Judaism?

I don’t mean this as a slight to liberal Judaism. I came to this question from the assumption that this website, to some extent, operates within the paradigm of liberal Judaism. That’s why the question intrigues me.

Posted on February 20, 2008

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