A Tale of Two Havdalot

So there we were this past Saturday evening, some 500 people strong, many arm in arm, singing the la, la lahs, and doing Havdalah together. It was at the 10th anniversary celebration of the local Jewish High School, which at first branded itself as a “Conservative” school, but curiously downplayed that part of its history and no denominational reference was made at the dinner except by an honoree who referred to the school as being non- Orthodox.

It is an excellent high school, with students from across the Jewish religious spectrum, many superb teachers, lots of innovative quality programming, and most significantly, draws a third of its students from public schools. My middle daughter was part of its initial cadre of 25 students, and except for being threatened with expulsion for dyeing her hair green during her freshman year, had a fine educational experience there.

To the school’s great credit, they honored seven teachers and administrators who were there from the beginning, including the maintenance man.  A former student spoke about each of them and this was a clear statement of the mentchlichkeit (decency) that pervades the institution.

But back to Havdalah. I was bothered by the fact Havdalah came after Hamotzi and after we had started eating.  Jewish law is clear that Havdalah should precede eating on Saturday evening. While it should still be recited if this was not done, I thought a day school should model Jewish practice as the tradition clearly understands it and take the opportunity as a teaching moment to explain why it was preceding dinner.  However, in this case, and in many cases outside of Orthodoxy, aesthetics seemed to dominate over the integrity of practice, the genuine and powerful good feelings of the moment having more importance than the rules of the game, the very ceremony marking distinctions discarding the very distinction the ceremony makes and collapsing into feel good mushiness.

So I am left with questions? Should a ceremony about borders have any borders?  Is there integrity to how the tradition understands a ritual that should play a role in how it is practiced?  Am I too Orthodox that it clouds my vision of the beauty of the moment?  Am I being too judgmental?

Posted on November 23, 2011

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