In a beautiful article in Reform Judaism, Emily Langowitz tells us about her “frum week.” A committed reform Jew, Emily took time to refine and better understand these commitments by practicing Orthodox Judaism for a week. There were a few surprising aspects of this article that I really enjoyed. The first was Langowitz’s framing of her justificatory project. The second was the importance of the music of prayer to her experience. Her emphasis on food and fashion interested me as well. And finally, her article gave me new insight into the positioning and marketing of Orthodoxy in the 21st Century.
Langowitz didn’t just ask, “Why be Reform rather than Orthodox?” The question she grappled with had more to do with picking and choosing,
Having been raised in a committed Reform household, I’ve long known that being a Reform Jew allows me a great deal of personal autonomy in Jewish practice. But…with freedom comes the responsibility of choice. To fulfill myself in a Reform context, I don’t need to observe every commandment, but I do need to know the answer to a very important question: Why? Why do I choose to observe one ritual or commandment and not another?
I am not sure Jewish Orthodoxy is the best place to explore this question. Many mitzvot are blatantly ignored by Orthodox Jews, from the commandments concerning the rebellious son and the condemned city to the commandment (arguably central) to take for oneself a lamb from each ancestral home and slaughter it in the place commanded by God. In any case, underlying the question is a certain seriousness and sense of commandedness that Jews from more traditional backgrounds might’ve thought was absent from Reform Judaism. I really like the idea that you can pick and choose mitzvot but that you should pick and choose responsibly. It seems like this constitutes some kind of correct notion of commandedness—there are a lot of commandments in the Torah, and even more minhagim and laws. How do I know which apply to me, where I am? Good question.
The second aspect of the question is a little funnier.
And I no longer had to be wedded to practices just because they were “the way I was raised.” How, for example, could I be sure that I was the type of Jew who prayed only on Shabbat, if I’d never tried anything different?
Well, first of all, many good Orthodox Jews only pray on the Sabbath. Secondly, most good Orthodox Jews do stuff explicitly because that’s “the way I was raised.” Some philosophers might say that’s the only good justification of a given religious preference, since truth claims are naturally excluded. Certainly my buddies in shtreimels wholeheartedly agree.
In any case, if this isn’t a good question, its certainly a great attitude. Yeah, I was raised on deli and red sauce Italian food—but I can branch out to kimchi tacos and southeast Asian cuisine. At the risk of going a culinary metaphor too far, the “heretical imperative” could be recast as the “menu imperative.” With a preponderance of choices, it might not mean much to choose one thing over another. You are just incentivized by easier access and low cost to try new things. No one will feel betrayed by frum week and hopefully, no one frum will feel bad about reform week. The choices are on the order of getting fried chicken over halibut, with all that that entails. To summarize, the casual sampling as well as the question of arbitrariness are both excellent. The first is a serious question about what God asks from Jews who aren’t holy rollers keeping the gamut of rabbinically approved mitzvot. And the second is a “why not just try it” which impishly winks at religiosity from behind a very attractive menu. I wonder what “____ week” my readers will be inspired to taste.
Since we are on the topic of food, Emily says something interesting about that as well.
I would stand in the lunch line, chatting with someone about how I had to say a b’rachah before I ate anything, and only then realize I’d been picking string beans off of my plate for a full minute without a second thought. I had never realized how mindless eating could be for me until I was suddenly forced to think about everything I put near my mouth…
One of the surprising side effects of being aware all the time was never feeling like I overate. It’s so easy to sit in the college dining hall for an hour talking to your friends and constantly refilling your plate. But during frumweek I had to say something to mark when my meal started and when it ended. And in that blessing, I was thanking God for satiating me—not for giving me too much, not for a mountainous abundance of chocolate chip cookies, but for being satisfied. I had assumed that thinking about food constantly would make me want to consume it all the time, but because eating was framed by something meaningful, it had the opposite effect.
I think this only reinforces my gratuitous use of gustatory metaphors throughout this blog. Orthodox Judaism explicitly and totally gets framed as a food centric phenomenon. Curiously, here it’s a weight loss plan, something which doesn’t play out in the real world. God is satiating Emily, not helping her eat mindlessly. Furthermore, she’s mindful of when the meal starts and ends. Its all very mindful.
I would say this mindfulness really doesn’t exist for most Orthodox Jews, even if they do remember all their blessings. Maybe, after a week or so, the patina of novelty wears off and it’s all burichatahhashemelokeinumelechhaaylem all the time. Maybe the rhythms are so ingrained in some that they are below the level of consciousness. Maybe we all believe in God a bit less than Emily. Whatever the case may be those who do use the grace after meals as a time of kavvanah usually look to my nonprofessional eyes as if they are suffering from severe constipation and not serene meditation. What Emily has done consists in transposing her expectations of spirituality, an island in time, introspection and appreciation (to quote a recent video) onto the thoroughly inhospitable thing called bentching. While bentching might not be the best medium for the loquacious soul to pour out like water its heart (even if mayim aharonim is required) its inspiring to see someone rework this cultural product in a way that’s meaningful to them.
Similarly, the mindfulness helps Emily stop snacking on string beans and other mindless snacks. I will state categorically that blessings have never stopped an Orthodox Jew from eating. Still, the assimilation of ritual practice to food neurosis mirrors much of what we see in the Orthodox community, where the rhythms of Shabbat, Yom Tov and weekday are often reprised in rhythms of binging and purging and where kashrut standards can leave people without adequate vegetable intake. I leave it to the sociologists to tell the story of how American food neurosis became religious food neurosis—but this is a major part of Orthodox women’s religion that Emily honed in on like a heat sinking missile (bug seeking housewife?).
Food choices come with sartorial choices. How will you fit into that dress? The question comes with a multitude of answers spanning questions of identity, choice, class and style.
The new rules I chose to observe also increased other people’s awareness of me. I’d like to think that before frum week I wasn’t parading around campus in overly revealing clothing, but still, wearing long skirts, cardigans, and crew neck tops represented a recognizable change in my wardrobe. Inquiries from friends about my new “uniform” often elicited explanations about my project. As for strangers who passed me in the street, no one treated me any differently, but I felt different, knowing that they recognized that I was, if not certainly Jewish, then at least a member of a community that required modesty of women. It was disconcerting for me to so publicly manifest a normally internal part of my identity. My male friends who wearkippot validated this feeling of hyperconsciousness. Some said wearing a kippah made them reluctant to act inappropriately, for fear of feeding negative stereotypes; others commented that it gave them the incentive to do something nice for others. Throughout the week I remained ambivalent on the clothing issue. On the one hand, being so easily singled out by appearance made me feel unique and important. On the other, I felt that displaying my Judaism so prominently caused others to see my identity along only one dimension.
With the conspicuous consumption of special food comes a conspicuous consumption of special “modest” clothes. The connection of the two in the article bears out the close affinity of these two consumer choices in painting the habitus of Jewish Orthodoxy.
Besides the wrongheaded idea that Orthodox Jews “pause” to bentch comes the misconception that Orthodox Jews “pray.” While some stalwarts of Orthodoxy like Samson Raphael Hirsch may have prayed, such occurrences are thankfully (to my mind) rare. Orthodox Jews daven.
I did, however, gain a very important understanding from davening with others. Before frum week, I had assumed that more observant Jews were just speed reading through the prayers, as compared to the Reform Jews in my home congregation, who actively participated in musical prayer services—the kind of service which often helped me feel connected to God. But after spending so much time experiencing this different style of prayer, I begin to sense that the “mumbling” was really its own type of music, with its own rhythm, its own voice rising and falling.
Emily instinctively looks for the familiar uplifting cadences of what, to her youthful ears, is a God suffused Reform liturgy. Of course, no such thing is possible at 7am (or ever, if you are not very interested in God). Davening is just a different thing, incommensurable with prayer. Sort of like the relationship of bentching to meditation.
The end of the article is a précis of what Emily learned.
Whether I choose for my alarm to go off tomorrow morning at seven or at nine, I do know that a world filled with God, and with people doing their best to reach God, is what I will be waking up to. For me, all the rest of Judaism—the ritual, the prayers, the understanding of Torah—is built around this one unchangeable truth.
Of course, traditional Judaism dissents from this laudable deist conception of the world. It also seems to have an undercurrent of comparing frumweek to other religions. Orthodox Jews, Buddhists and Baha’is, they are all “doing their best to reach God.”
In any case, what’s telling to me about the article is what Emily got and what she didn’t get. What she just didn’t get was anything to do with prayer, God, mindfulness, the larger “far” concepts that underpin Orthodoxy. What she did get was everything about fashion, food, and the general marketing of Orthodoxy. I would say that Orthodox Jews have done a great job of establishing a durable and transposable brand. When you order a plate of frum off the menu, it’s this brand name Orthodoxy you will get. And it’s strictly BYOG (Bring your own God).