Free Kugel and Hot Shtreimels

It’s all well and good to talk in the abstract about the social capital that accrues from rituals, but how well do such claims hold up when we consider concrete examples? Take, for example, the chassidish custom of wearing a shtreimel (fur hat) on Shabbos and holidays and at family celebrations. Shimen and most of his friends in the Gerrer shtiebel abandoned their shtreimlech (that’s the proper pluralization) for reasons I’ll discuss down the line, but the greater mystery is why they and their ancestors – and some of their descendants – ever adopted the custom in the first place. To be sure, I am not interested here in the particular historical circumstances under which this specific custom was adopted (that is, which goyish or reformist decree needed to be defied at the time), but rather what, intended or unintended, social benefits such customs promote.

As any casual observer could hardly fail to note, a shtreimel is expensive, it isn’t very comfortable in the summer and it might attract unwanted attention on West End Avenue. All in all, it seems to be a rather costly quirk without much obvious payoff of the sort we discussed in the previous post.

In fact, viewed in broader anthropological context, a shtreimel in summer is a walk through the park. Some Shiite Muslims observe the holiday of Ashura by whipping themselves with blades on chains, some Australian aboriginal boys pass a bone through their urethras to, quite literally, mark their passage into manhood, participants in the Phuket Vegetarian Festival drive spikes through their cheeks and other soft tissue (as might I, if I were vegetarian), and bored youth all over the world cover their bodies in irremovable tattoos and pierce sensitive body parts. What’s this all about?

It’s actually pretty simple. Consider my dear friend, Free Rider, a bit of a schlemiel with poor financial prospects and no particular religious convictions. While wandering aimlessly through Boro Park, Free chances upon a chassidish wedding and, lo and behold, it looks like it’s open house for the after-dinner potato kugel. Free soon discovers that there’s a wedding in that particular congregation about five nights a week, there’s a kiddush on Shabbos, everybody is generous with charity and there are volunteer societies devoted to giving free loans, visiting the sick, matchmaking and providing free arbes (chickpeas) for sholom zochor celebrations. Free vaguely intuits that this system can only work if, on average, everybody in the congregation gives as much as they get, but he figures he’s just one person. Even if he contributes nothing, which is precisely his intention, how much kugel can he eat? Nobody will notice or care.

Unfortunately for the optimistic Mr. Rider, many others have thought similar thoughts and this particular congregation, as well as every other society on earth, would have long ago gone out of business had it been without means of smoking out Free Rider and his ilk. Every society requires that members, or wannabe members, signal that they’re serious about giving as much as they get and not just eating the kugel and running.

The trick of an effective signal for this purpose is that it must only be worth sending if you’re a good type, committed for the long haul. If anybody can send the signal, even Free Rider, then it wouldn’t be worth anything. Consider some roughly analogous situations. If you’ve opened a bank and want to signal potential depositors that you’re not running off to Brazil next week with their money, build a big marble building, since that kind of investment is only worthwhile if you intend to be in business for a long time. If you want to signal employers that you’re a productive worker, get a college degree; you might not learn anything relevant to the job or to anything at all, but you (presumably) couldn’t have gotten the degree without a modicum of intelligence and diligence. If you want to signal your fellow gang members that you’re not planning to grow up and go all middle-class on them, tattoo SATAN on your forehead; that’ll convincingly burn your bridges to bourgeois society. If you’re a peacock and want to convince the peahens that you’ve got what it takes, strut enough useless plumage to exhaust a lesser man.

Note that these signals work in different ways. The peacock’s plume simply can’t be mimicked by the unqualified. A college degree can be obtained by someone not especially bright or diligent, but it might require so much effort that it wouldn’t justify the investment. Tattoos work by burning bridges out of the gang, very much the way that not getting an education and not serving in the military burns bridges out of certain communities in Israel.

What all these signals have in common, though, is that they are costly. If they were cheap, Free Rider would mimic them. That shtreimel is persuasive only because it’s expensive, hot and marks you as an outsider in modern society. You’re going to have to consume a whole lot of free kugel before you recoup that investment, not to mention the cost of getting circumcised, learning Yinglish and possibly even having to eat petcha.

Note that, while I’ve portrayed these signals as barriers to entry for outsiders like Free Rider, they also work for veteran members of a community, who signal their ongoing commitment to each other, thus maintaining the group’s social capital. Signaling not only reflects commitment, but reinforces it; when I receive signals, my trust in the community is strengthened and when I send a signal, my investment in the community is increased. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that a study of 19th century communes, by anthropologist Richard Sosis, found that the longevity of a commune is positively correlated with the number of demands it makes of members.

Finally, I repeat an important disclaimer. I have claimed that many apparently bizarre social norms serve as signals that enable us to distinguish people we can trust from free riders. But this does not mean that this is the (sole) purpose of such norms or the reason we should observe them. Note, in particular, that peacocks don’t strut their plumes because they choose to signal their strength and virility; rather, the instinctive urge to strut plumes serves as such a signal and thus has certain advantages for fertility. Draw the appropriate analogies yourselves.

Signaling theory is actually more important for our general argument than might appear at first blush. To show why this is the case, I’ll devote the next post to a game-theoretic analysis of signaling.







Social Norms and Solidarity

One evening in 1941 a boatload of European refugees, including my father’s family, docked on the shores of Mogador in Morocco. The boat’s passengers were herded into a refugee camp; the only way out, they were told, would be for local families to come and take responsibility for them – presumably a mere theoretical possibility, since the passengers were unlikely to have any acquaintances there. By morning, not a single Jewish family remained in the camp and not a single non-Jewish family had left the camp.

What’s the secret to this kind of solidarity? One part of the answer, the part that concerns us now, is shared norms.

Solidarity, trust and cooperation, the stuff now often called social capital, is to a society what schnapps is to a farbrengen: without it, a society wouldn’t last long and it isn’t clear why it should. The generation of social capital among members of a society is possible only if shared norms align their expectations, habituate them to exercise self-control, instill in them a unity of purpose and incentivize them to transmit wisdom across generations. In short, social norms must encourage our prosocial instincts and discourage our selfish instincts. If you and I both know that we share a commitment to such norms, we can trust each other and cooperate in mutually advantageous ways.

Let’s see how the norms considered in the previous post – rituals, food taboos, kinship rules and exchange regulations – achieve these ends. I’ll follow the sequence of the Shulchan Arukh, but I’d like to ask the reader to try an exercise as we go through this: think about hunter-gatherers rather than observant Jews. Much less baggage.

Consider the public performance of rituals such as prayer, singing and dancing, communal ingestion of psychotropic substances, rites of passage, ostracisms, coronations, exorcisms and whatnot. Each such performance is carried out according to established rules governing who does what, where and when. Individuals sharing particularly powerful such experiences often feel an overwhelming sense of unity, a kind of melding into a single organism. (If you didn’t follow instructions and are still thinking Jewish rather than hunter-gatherer, I’m not talking about your typical weekday mincha here, for me a decidedly pedestrian experience, but maybe the end of Yom Kippur davening. If that doesn’t work for you, go with the psychotropic substances.)

Furthermore, younger participants in public rituals see that elders and wise men are accorded honor and understand implicitly whom they should take as role models. In this way, they learn to value experience and knowledge, and they understand that if they wish to obtain similar prestige, they should seek to acquire such experience and knowledge. They also internalize the tribe’s evolved division of ritualized responsibility and develop the qualities of character appropriate for best performing their respective roles. In addition, privately performed rituals, such as minor blessings or meditative activities, encourage mindfulness and introspection and, under special circumstances, can evoke a sense of awe and unity.

Food taboos (as well as rules of purity and contamination, on which I’m not elaborating here) serve the incidental purpose of reducing possibilities for eating or contacting toxins. Along with other constraints on consumption – ritualized slaughter of animals, blessings over food, feast-related ceremonies, sacrifices – they help cultivate the ability to defer pleasure and they draw attention to the differences between humans and animals. Rules regarding tithing and other obligatory food gifts build solidarity and trust and promote the internalization of a sense of mutual responsibility.

As for norms regarding kin relations, prohibitions on polyandry and rules regarding female fidelity in marriage reduce paternal uncertainty and thus encourage paternal responsibility. Limitations on polygamy prevent violence among males competing for scarce women. Institutionalized assortative mating, such as matching of promising scholars with wealthy brides, incentivizes scholarship and improves the gene pool. It is well understood that prohibitions on incest prevent defects associated with inbreeding, but in fact such prohibitions achieve much more. The fact that incest is not merely prohibited but a reprehensible taboo engenders intra-family trust by completely eliminating sexual tension within the family unit; this permits unthreatening intimacy between family members. (Are we okay so far? Here comes the grenade casually tossed into the room before I run for cover.) Analogously, only when homosexual acts are taboo can male cohorts – soldiers, yeshiva bachurim, hunters – interact with complete trust and even intimacy that is not undermined by sexual tension.

Now exchange regulations. Voluntary trades are beneficial for both sides of the transaction; a multitude of such transactions thus greatly benefit the entire society. But such commerce is only possible if buyers and sellers share an understanding of the rules of the game (when a transaction is complete, when and where delivery will take place, who is on the hook for defects, etc.) and can trust each other to carry out their respective parts of the deal. Norms of commerce manage expectations, create the necessary degree of trust and reduce transaction costs, to everybody’s benefit.

To summarize, all the types of social norms we have considered promote trust and cooperation, sometimes in subtle indirect ways. This is why they are so crucial for a society’s viability.

I want to add two important comments. First, the claim that certain types of norms have beneficial effects on the viability of a society is not the same as the claim that such viability is the purpose of the norms. Second, one can easily think of bizarre social norms in common practice that appear to have no benefit at all. These require further elaboration using some ideas from game theory. That will be the subject of my next post.

The Hunter-Gatherer Shulchan Arukh

For many East African peoples, eating fish is taboo. In India, widows do not eat fish. In Fiji, pregnant women don’t eat fish. Jews eat only fish with fins and scales, preferably filleted and breaded with matza mehl.

For Yazidis, lettuce is taboo. Chines Buddhists don’t eat garlic. Jains refrain from eating onions. Mormons abstain from coffee and tea. Some North American tribes, mostly around Berkeley and Cambridge, will not eat food that has traveled great distances. I personally will not eat petcha (jellied calves’ feet), even if you call it galla and threaten me at gunpoint.

Muslims often marry first cousins. Catholics and North Indian Hindus regard it as incest. South Indian Hindus and some tribes in Fiji allow marriage between cross-cousins (children of a brother and a sister) but not parallel cousins (children of two brothers or of two sisters). For Jews and Protestants, marrying a first cousin is allowed, but nowadays it’s kind of weird. In 29 of these sovereign United States, marriage between first cousins is illegal, though it’s unclear if this prohibition applies to cousins of the same sex.

In some places and industries, deals are sealed with the signing of a contract, in others with a handshake. Sometimes the transaction isn’t complete until delivery is taken. Two gentiles in the diamond business close a deal by saying “mazal ubracha”.

Just about every society has rules about who holds the door, when to shake hands or bow, how far apart to stand during a conversation, how to determine status and how to address someone of a given status, how to inquire about someone’s welfare and how not to respond, when it’s okay to brandish a weapon and who gets to lead the rain dance.

Why so many damn rules? Why not just “no fighting, no biting”?

The simple answer is that our intuitive moral sense is inadequate because it’s usually too vague for practical purposes and it competes with all sorts of selfish inclinations that further muddy the waters. It’s good to have clear rules that settle the matter without much mental or emotional energy being required.

That’s true as far as it goes, but it leaves the key question unanswered. For all the astonishing variety of social norms one finds in the wild, one can’t help be even more astonished by the ubiquity of certain types of norms. Consider this brief description of the material covered in the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch (the 16th century code of law by R. Yosef Caro): “kinship ties, social norms of ownership, food taboos, and ritual practices”, corresponding to Even HaEzer, Choshen Mishpat, Yoreh Deah and Orach Chaim. Except that – maybe you saw this coming – that was actually a description, by the anthropologist Joseph Henrich, of the types of social norms found by anthropologists in the bush.

These types of norms are simply universal, though the specific norms themselves vary widely, as we saw above. Let’s consider the four types in a bit more detail (now using the standard order of the Jewish codes):

  • Ritual practices include communal prayer and observance of lifecycle events and periodic festivals, and are governed by rules defining the roles accorded to various members of the tribal hierarchy in such practices.
  • Food taboos constrain the types and combinations of foods that may be consumed, prescribe the means of preparing foods and define the requirements of sharing of different types of foods.
  • Kinship ties are governed by rules regarding which marriage relationships are permitted, who pays whom what when a marriage is contracted, how the family unit is defined, what the duties of each spouse are, what degree of fidelity is expected from each partner and what the rules of succession are for inheritance.
  • Social norms of ownership concern the rights and duties of ownership, the means of completing transactions, the definition and consequences of various torts and the disposition of public goods.

It is straightforward to see that these types of norms formalize each of the moral foundations we considered earlier (including those of which Heidi is less fond): sharing and other forms of fair play, duties to community and constraints on animal pleasures.

But why do all human societies have them? The short answer is that no society would survive for long without them. We’ll see in the next few posts how these types of norms collectively facilitate the kind of trust and cooperation without which a society is not viable.

Drawing the Battle Lines

Shimen might make kiddush on tears in Auschwitz, but he wouldn’t make kiddush on a stolen bottle of wine in Manhattan. He knows that under certain circumstances one can violate a prohibition in order to observe a positive commandment (such as wearing tzitzis made of shatnez), but it would never occur to him to that this principle would include violation of duties to other people. (His intuitions are shared by Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg – see Chasam Sofer on Succa 42a.) Shimen knows the difference between being frum (pious) and being a mensch.

Shimen might have never seen the comment of the 14th century sage, R. Asher ben Yechiel (“the Rosh”), on the Mishnah (Peah 1:1): “[Isaiah 3:10 reads:] ‘The righteous if good eat the fruits of their deeds.’ Are there righteous people who are not good? Rather one who is righteous to God and good to people will eat the fruits of their deeds. For God prefers deeds that also do good for people than those only between a person and his Creator.” But he knows this.

Shimen, like most Gerrer chassidim, didn’t linger long over the reading of the haftarah, but he perfectly understood the verses in the haftarah read before Tisha B’Av: “For what do I need your many animal sacrifices, God says. I have enough burnt offerings… Stop doing evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, defend the oppressed, do justice for the orphan, argue for the widow.”

So, Shimen does not regard the fairness foundation and the loyalty and restraint foundations as being exactly equal.

Likewise, Heidi shares Shimen’s revulsion at disrespect and degradation. She shares Shimen’s instinctive sense that incest, for example, is wrong. Similarly, she agrees that speaking ill of one’s deceased father, even if nobody is harmed by such speech, is wrong. She is as revolted by cannibalism as any conservative, even if the deceased has died naturally and willed his body for this purpose.

So, Heidi is not completely insensitive to the loyalty and restraint foundations.

In short, human nature does not distinguish between Shimen and Heidi; culture does. Relatively few moral judgments are common to all cultures. Torturing innocents and incest are extreme examples of moral violations that cut across cultures. Inchoate senses of fairness, loyalty and restraint are universal, but the precise definition of each is culture-dependent.

In Heidi’s culture, fairness is given much greater importance than loyalty and restraint. This is manifest in two ways.

The first becomes evident when, as Jonathan Haidt did, you present people with potted stories involving completely private and unreported acts of cannibalism or incest or using a stack of Bibles as a stepstool and ask not just if this is bad (everyone agrees it is), but rather why it’s bad. Conservatives like Shimen might say that the Torah forbids it or that it’s just wrong and requires no explanation. Progressives like Heidi, on the other hand, would struggle to find some way in which someone would be harmed: offended sensibilities, deformed babies, regrets, irreparable relationships. In Heidi’s culture causing harm or being unfair to others is a primary violation, while violations involving disrespect for community hierarchy, disloyalty to tribe, degradation or dissoluteness are merely derivative; rules for their avoidance when no harm is done are not self-justifying.

This leads directly to the second way in which fairness is privileged in Heidi’s culture. When two different moral foundations rub up against each other, fairness always wins. Thus, if homosexual acts are regarded as dissolute, as they were in Heidi’s culture until recently, while restrictions on such acts are seen as causing undue harm to homosexuals, the outcome is clear. The very idea of dissoluteness sounds archaic to Heidi. Similarly, if intermarriage is regarded as a betrayal of tribal loyalty, as it was in Heidi’s culture until recently, while restrictions on intermarriage are seen as intolerant, the resolution is obvious. The very idea of tribal loyalty sounds bizarre to Heidi.

On the other hand, for all that Shimen’s piety is accompanied by sympathy, taboos remain taboos. Restraint and loyalty are, for Shimen, self-justifying moral foundations and if the norms that manifest them in his culture sometimes cause harm to some individuals, this is sad but necessary.

The battle lines have thus been drawn, hopefully in a way that Heidi finds fair and accurate. In the next series of posts, I’ll explain why her position is untenable.

Three Moral Flavors

Rather than recite and evaluate the whole litany of Heidi’s objections to Shimen’s way of life, let’s try to draw out the overarching principle. This will require a very simple taxonomy of mitzvot (commandments).

The wise son in the Passover haggada, based on Deuteronomy 6:20, inquires about three kinds of commandments: testimony (עדות), decrees (חוקים) and rules (משפטים). The differences among these three can be summarized as follows:

  • “Rules” are those commandments that order human society by regulating social interaction in a way that encourages fairness and cooperation. These are generally roughly similar across societies that might be very different from one another in other respects.
  • “Decrees” are commandments that restrain or mandate human activity in ways that might seem arbitrary, at least in the specifics.
  • “Testimonies” are commandments that manifest the special duty of the Jews to bear testimony to God’s dominion on earth; these commandments include overtly symbolic acts like Sabbath observance, but also entail loyalty to the Jewish people who collectively bear this special duty and extra respect for the people, objects and institutions that most saliently represent it.

Many passages in the Torah refer only to “rules” and “decrees” and the commentators define them roughly as we have; “testimonies” are in some respects intermediate to the other two.

Another well-known division of commandments distinguishes those that entail duties to God (בין אדם למקום) and duties to other people (בין אדם לחברו). The distinction is drawn for a technical purpose: atonement for violations of duties to other people requires asking their forgiveness. Roughly speaking, duties to God correspond to what we have called “decrees” and duties to other people correspond to what we have called “rules”. Furthermore, Nachmanides and others have noted that the commandment to honor one’s parents is typical of an intermediate category: respect for hierarchy within the community, especially for the bearers of tradition. It is a bit of a stretch to link this third category to what we have called “testimonies”, but not completely artificial.

If we wish to reconcile these two taxonomies and maybe clean up the definitions a bit, we can look to some important contemporary work in anthropology. The anthropologist Richard Shweder interviewed 600 subjects in a variety of communities in India and the United States. He summarizes his findings with the observation that there are three distinct moral foundations that one finds, in varying proportions, across human societies – and three types of concomitant violations. Here are the descriptions of the three types as summarized here:

  1. [The ethics of Autonomy] Individual freedom/rights violations. In these cases, an action is wrong because it directly hurts another person, or infringes upon his/her rights or freedoms as an individual. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like harm, rights, justice, freedom, fairness, individualism, and the importance of individual choice and liberty.
  2. [The ethics of Community] Community/hierarchy violations. In these cases, an action is wrong because a person fails to carry out his or her duties within a community, or to the social hierarchy within the community. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like duty, role-obligation, respect for authority, loyalty, group honor, interdependence, and the preservation of the community.
  3. [The ethics of Divinity] Divinity/purity violations. In these cases, a person disrespects the sacredness of God, or causes impurity or degradation to himself/herself, or to others. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like sin, the natural order of things, sanctity, and the protection of the soul or the world from degradation and spiritual defilement.

This categorization captures the core of the somewhat homiletical taxonomies we saw above: autonomy=rules=obligations to individuals; community=testimonies=obligations to social hierarchy; divinity=decrees=obligations to God. For simplicity, I’ll refer to these moral categories as fairness, loyalty and restraint and to their violations as harm, disrespect and degradation, respectively. It is interesting to note that the three major sins which, according to the Rabbis of the Talmud, must be avoided even at the cost of one’s life – murder, idolatry and incest – are simply the extreme cases of these three types of violations.

Here is where the plot thickens. Shweder’s student, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has elicited the opinions of many thousands of people all over the world regarding a set of moral dilemmas based loosely on the earlier Shweder interviews. He presented them with stories involving stealing a desperately-needed drug, consensual incest, eating the family pet, mopping the floor with the national flag,… you get the idea.

Haidt’s key conclusion is this: there are two kinds of people in the world. Members of more traditional communities tend to assign approximately equal importance to all three moral foundations. (Haidt sub-divides Shweder’s foundations to obtain five or six higher-resolution foundations, but this is not relevant to the key point.) But educated Westerners with progressive political views tend to assign great importance to the first foundation, fairness, and very limited importance to the other two, loyalty and restraint.

To be sure, nobody likes the idea of a family gathering to dine on their recently-deceased chihuahua. But self-labeled progressives among Haidt’s respondents regarded this as a violation of social convention (“that’s not what we do around here but, so long as no one was harmed, what others do is their business”), while self-labeled conservatives regarded it as a moral violation that degrades human beings, even if no harm is done to anyone. Haidt found the same difference for stories involving harmless taboo violations of respect for hierarchy and sacrosanct symbols.

How well does this difference between progressives and conservatives explain Heidi’s rejection of Shimen’s Judaism? That will be the subject of the next post.

Why Judaism Lost Heidi

Heidi’s maternal grandfather studied in the Telzer yeshiva in Lithuania and came to the United States in the 1920s. He married an American girl from a fairly well-to-do family and subsequently became the rabbi of a nominally orthodox shul in a medium-sized city in the Midwest. The Rabbi’s family was the only shomer shabbes family in the neighborhood. Heidi’s mother and her two brothers went to public school; after school Heidi’s grandfather studied Talmud with his sons.

Heidi’s paternal grandparents moved to New York shortly after their marriage in Warsaw in the early 1930s. Jobs were hard to come by during the Depression; Heidi’s grandfather worked in a kosher butcher shop and her grandmother freelanced as a seamstress. There were few Jewish day schools available and, in any event, the family could ill-afford one, so Heidi’s father and his sister attended public school. They both went to the local orthodox shul’s Sunday School program.

Heidi’s parents met in New York in the 1960s. They shared a conservative and traditional sensibility that was rare at that time. They married and moved to Long Island, where Heidi’s dad worked as an engineer at a large firm and her mom worked as a schoolteacher. They became active in the local Conservative congregation, attending services often, if not religiously. Heidi attended the local public school because it was regarded as an excellent school academically; almost all of her classmates and friends were Jewish.

Heidi attended after-school classes in the local synagogue; she could read Hebrew passably and was well-versed in Jewish legends. She had good relationships with her Orthodox grandparents and even with her mother’s brother’s family, who had turned yeshivish and lived in Flatbush.

When she came to Princeton as an undergrad, she naturally gravitated to Stevenson Hall, the forerunner of the Center for Jewish Life. Most of the students who dined at Stevenson came for the kosher food, but Heidi – who did not generally keep kosher – simply felt comfortable in the company of other Jews. In fact, she often attended egalitarian services on Shabbat and, after befriending orthodox students who had returned from gap-year programs in yeshivot in Israel, occasionally allowed herself to be pulled in to lectures on halacha.

By her Junior year, however, Heidi’s large circle of friends began to resemble a Benetton ad. Initially, the evident ethnic pride of her black, Hispanic, Muslim and Hindu friends increased her appreciation of her own ethnic identity. Gradually, though, she felt her own commitments challenged in two ways. First, the view from nowhere accords no privilege to Judaism and so she became keenly aware of the utter arbitrariness of her own particular identity. Second, she became aware of the financial, social and cultural obstacles that many of her new friends had to overcome in order to get to and survive in Princeton and she began to feel guilty about her own privilege as a white and relatively wealthy American.

From this new point of view, she began to re-assess her Jewish attachments. Her orthodox friends and relatives seemed a bit, well, provincial. Their professed beliefs seemed so random as to necessarily either be insincere or the product of brainwashing. Their concern with picayune details of halacha seemed somewhat obsessive; in any event, it apparently sapped them of energy for the truly important social justice causes crying out for attention.

But most of all, halacha itself seemed to her to suffer from serious moral failings. First of all, halacha seemed to encourage in its practitioners a certain hostility to non-Jews (or, as her orthodox friends insisted on calling them, “Goyim”). She had always known that Jews were opposed to intermarriage; for reasons becoming increasingly inexplicable to her, her parents had mentioned their own revulsion at the idea on several occasions. But she had discovered at Princeton that orthodox Jewish disdain for non-Jews extended beyond that: some wouldn’t even drink wine handled by non-Jews. She had also learned that Jews would not collect interest for a loan to a fellow Jew but would take interest from a non-Jew. Altogether, halacha seemed to her to embody an arrogant and disdainful attitude toward non-Jews for no apparent reason.

In fact, Heidi became increasingly aware of a certain condescension towards non-observant Jews such as herself. She discovered to her horror that some orthodox Jews would not drink wine that she, a non-Sabbath observer, had touched. She noticed that when discussing Torah, her orthodox friends would switch into a private language she felt was deliberately intended to exclude the uninitiated. Heidi felt some were particularly antagonistic towards her because she was an opinion leader. Just as she discovered the suffering of the Palestinians, it became a hot topic on campus; just as she discovered the many ways in which gays were made to feel excluded, that became a defining issue of campus life.

But in the final analysis, what really turned Heidi off to Judaism was its attitude towards women. Women in the orthodox minyan sat behind a mechitza and could not lead the services. They were not taught Torah at the same level as the men; suddenly she recalled her mother’s resentment at not having been included when her own father had studied Torah with her brothers. Jewish marriage was, as far as Heidi could ascertain, a patriarchal institution, entered into by the man “acquiring” a wife. Jewish literature was rife with what Heidi saw as oddly essentialist attitudes: men are inherently different than women, Jews are inherently different than non-Jews.

Heidi’s student days were for her a time of discovery, of expanding horizons, of disappearing barriers. She wished to know all cultures, to love all people, to drink the world in whole. The Judaism for which she once had a certain fondness now seemed unnecessarily restrictive, confining and narrow. It squelched love in the name of obscure principle.

By the time I met Heidi, she was a committed social justice warrior, who came to the kosher dining hall mostly to educate innocents like me on the immorality of Judaism. Was there merit to her claims? We’ll take this up in our next post.

Shimen’s Daily Life as a Jew

This is the first of many posts that will focus on differences between Shimen and Heidi regarding the scope of moral principles and the social norms that embody those principles. We begin with a review of Shimen’s daily life as a Jew committed to the Jewish way of life – halacha. This review is intended mainly as a primer for those less familiar with halacha. But it is also intended to slightly reorient the reader already familiar with halacha from the customary emphasis on halachic severity and importance to an emphasis on actual salience in everyday life.

Immediately upon waking on a typical weekday, Shimen will wash his hands in a ritual manner and recite the appropriate blessings. If he shaves at all, it will not be with a razor and he will always leave ample hair on his temples. He will dress modestly and will wear a tallis kotton (a garment with fringes called tzitzis) under his shirt and will keep his head covered at least partially at all times. He will not wear any clothing that includes mixtures of wool and linen. In public, he will almost always wear a jacket and a hat, though not the long bekeshe and round kapelush he wore before The War.

On most weekdays, Shimen will go to shul, don his full-size tallis and phylacteries, and recite the morning prayers with a minyan. He will treat religious articles with great reverence, pointing to the mezuzah as he passes through a door frame and handling his phylacteries only in accordance with specified rules. He will stand for the Torah scroll when it is taken from or returned to the ark for the abridged Torah readings on Monday and Thursday mornings, just as he would stand in the presence of a scholar of Torah. During prayers, Shimen will put some coins in the charity box or in the hands of a passing beggar. He will catch up on who in his community is ill or in mourning and will plan to visit them at the first opportunity. If a friend asks for a small loan, he will comply on the condition that no interest be paid, not even a thank you; if he needs a small loan, he will expect the same conditions. When approached, Shimen will make a modest contribution to the maintenance of the shul, the mikveh (ritual bath) and other of his community’s institutions. All of Shimen’s friends and acquaintances are Jewish and almost all are from backgrounds very similar to his own.

Shimen’s routine is broken for shabbes and holidays. For a 25-hour period beginning on Friday evening just before sundown, Shimen will – among many prohibitions too numerous to fully enumerate – not light or extinguish a fire or even turn a light on or off, not move money or make a transaction, not cook or even pour from a pre-heated kettle onto a tea bag, not write with a pen or a keyboard, not carry in an unenclosed space, not tie or untie any semi-permanent knot, and generally not even speak of business and other mundane matters. He will spend extra time in shul davening and listening to an extended reading of the Torah. After davening on Friday night, he will recite kiddush at home over a cup of wine and then will wash his hands and make a blessing over two whole loaves of challah; this will be repeated in the morning after davening; he will have challah again at the third shabbes meal before sundown.

The shabbes restrictions and rituals will be repeated with relatively minor variations on the festivals, each of which has its own associated special rituals: Shimen will eat all meals on Sukkos in an outdoor sukkah, on Pesach he will neither eat nor maintain any foods — other than matzah — that include grain, on Shavuos he will typically stay up all night studying Torah, and on Rosh Hashana he will spend extra time in shul and will listen to the blowing of the shofar. On Yom Kippur, he will fast for the entire 25 hours, spending most of it in shul davening, focusing on the theme of repentance. On five other fast days during the course of the year, four of which commemorate events associated with the destruction of the First and Second Temples thousands of years ago, Shimen will fast from morning to night – and on Tisha B’Av for a full 25 hours. On the minor festivals, Purim and Chanukah, he will remember miracles from the period of the Second Temple. On Purim, he will go to shul to hear the megillah in the evening and the morning and will partake in a festive meal with friends in the afternoon. On Chanukah, he will light candles on the window sill of his apartment, adding one candle for each of the eight nights of the festival.

Shimen eats with considerable restrictions. He will buy meat only from a vendor under strict supervision ensuring that the meat is from approved species, that the animal was slaughtered in a strictly specified manner, that certain parts of the animal were removed, and that the remaining parts were soaked and salted appropriately to remove blood. He will not mix milk and meat products or eat them at the same meal; in fact, he won’t use the same dishes or utensils for milk and meat and he won’t consume milk products for six hours after eating meat. He will eat fish only from species with fins and scales. He will not eat any processed foods that are not marked with a trustworthy seal of approval ensuring that they contain no non-kosher ingredients. He will not eat dough products or agricultural produce of the Land of Israel without first ensuring that symbolic tithes have been taken. He will drink wine only if it has been produced by sabbath-observant Jews. He will not eat any food without first reciting the appropriate blessing, taking care to eat food items in an order that properly prioritizes the blessings; he will also recite appropriate blessings following eating.

Shimen will frequently attend life-cycle rituals — a bris, a bar-mitzvah, a wedding — often addressing the assembled to share a thought based on the weekly Torah reading and on his gratitude that Jews are once again capable of celebration. He will take pleasure in suggesting shidduchim, matches between his friends’ children and grandchildren, the rules of which are well-known to the participants: courtship is meant to be relatively brief and the prospective mates are supposed to refrain from sexual activity, even touching. Engagement and marriage are regarded as creating a bond not just between two individuals but between two families, each of which undertakes financial obligations related to the well-choreographed celebrations surrounding the marriage and to the establishment of a new home. Even after marriage, the couple will not be permitted to engage in sexual activity during menstruation and for a week afterwards, after which the woman will immerse in a mikveh. They are expected, if they are able, to produce many children, with one son and one daughter regarded as a minimum. Abortion is forbidden, except in rare circumstances. If the marriage fails, a get (writ of divorce) must be enacted in a very precise manner; a child born to a woman who has not obtained a valid divorce is regarded as a mamzer and is almost unmarriageable.

Whenever he has free time, Shimen studies Torah; on any given day, he is working his way through one of the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. The subject matter is no more likely to be one of the matters enumerated above that determine the texture of his daily routine than matters that have not had direct application for the past two millennia. Shimen will study the laws of sacrifices brought in the Temple — categories of sacrifices, on what occasions they were brought, the sequence of the associated rituals, who was eligible to perform them, which errors of action or intention disqualified a sacrifice, and so on. He will study the laws of ritual uncleanness — the hierarchy of uncleanness from dead human bodies on down, the means by which contamination could be transferred to a person or object, the means of purifying a contaminated person or object, the proper handling of uncertainty regarding possible contamination, and so on. He will as soon study laws of torts and fines intended for application by specially-ordained judges — none of whom have existed for centuries — as the laws of ordinary debts and transactions which are adjudicated on a daily basis.

Shimen works hard to make a basic living, handling all transactions with care and honesty. In the rare event that some dispute needs to be adjudicated, he will – with the agreement of his counterpart – approach a local rabbinic scholar to propose a compromise or to rule in accordance with halacha. When Shimen needs to make an especially important decision about which he is uncertain, he might turn to the Gerrer Rebbe for guidance.

This sketch merely touches the surface of halacha, but it should give us adequate background to highlight some key differences with the very different moral principles preferred by Heidi, whose reservations about all the above will be the subject of our next post.