“Creating a mimetic tradition” sounds like a contradiction in terms, and on a very fundamental level it is: if your tradition is based on what your elders did, then how can you (1) create one out of thin air or (2) change it? But mimetic tradition here is not a factual statement about a set of practices: it’s an outlook (with theological underpinnings – stay tuned for part III) which regulates but does not dictate Jewish practice.

Mimetic tradition can yield le-kula and le-humra, all the while assimilating new practices on the one hand and rejecting old ones on the other – and still maintaining its status as a mimetic tradition. Everyone knows old women whose kitchens surpass any halakhic standard set by any book, but who eat pork out. They rejected some parts of their mimetic tradition and kept others. Usually, their children are not mimetic Jews, but if they were, then you would see more and more people with lifestyles like that. If they were to form Jewish communities, they might even be able to formulate theological/halakhic justifications for their customs. Other descendants of these old ladies would start eating only kosher/hechshered out. But if they are mimetic Jews, their kitchens will maintian the super-halakhic standards of their (grand)mothers. Others still may stop keeping kosher, but cite their grandmothers as a reason for their practice. They, too, are mimetic Jews.

What I’m trying to say is that mimeticism is a consciousness – not a set of practices. It allows you to exercise judgment and innovate according to personal/new theology/halakha while maintianing the security and continuity with previous generations and with (dare I say it?) “Catholic Israel”. It also allows you to better appreciate other people’s practices while not accepting them yourself.

It goes without saying that some people will not want to be a part of a mimetic tradition and/or community. Some people grew up haredi and decided at some point not to be observant Jews at all. Others make the opposite trip. Both groups will have an inherent distrust of people who never made the trip, mocking either the “nonobservant” people who keep shabbat and not kashrut (or the other way around) or the “haredim” whose wives wear sheer stockings. (Obviously, the “natives” will also cast funny looks at the “newcomers”). But these people aren’t part of our discusscusion anyway. But for the rest of us, I think mimeticism is the best way in which to be able to maintain continuity while being able to accommodate every generation’s sensibilities and moral sense. Understanding the value of stability, and forcing oneself to at least acknowledge a departure from one’s parents’ observances (REAL PARENTS, not imagined eastern-european forebearers) and respect those observances for what they are – and in most cases, to accommodate changes within the mimetic framework – does all those good things I listed in the previous post.

But it also goes without saying that mimeticism is not a goal: it is a means to an end. If the mimetic tradition of one community is to always talk during the Rabbi’s sermon, its probably not worth keeping (but someone should talk to the Rabbi).

This past yom kippur I had some case-in-point thought about concrete examples for the flexibility of the mimetic tradition, and I’d like to share them with you. Having grown up in a modern Orthodox home, and essentially keeping a halakhic lifestyle, they aren’t too bombastic, but the principle is the same.

  1. I don’t wear a tallit, since I’m single. But on Yom Kippur, I do. This is my custom, but it was not my father’s custom. But for my children it will be “my father’s custom”. I understand other people (like my father) did not have this custom, but it was meaningful enough for me to become part of my mimetic tradition.

  2. My parents are not members of an egalitarian shul. But when invited to smachot and such, they will go to them. When I started davenning in egalitarian shuls, that was my precedent. I found halakhic justification, but I probably wouldn’t have looked if I hadn’t seen my parents doing it on occasion.

Next time – Part III, Theological Underpinnings

Mimetic Tradition, Part I

September 20, 2007

The Mimetic Tradition Rant

Left wing American Orthodox intellectuals have a “thing” for Mimetic tradition. It used to be the way people ran their lives, and it was moderate, and in-sync with the times, and it kept frumkeit at bay while allowing for preservation of Jewish identities and practice in the American melting pot. The loss of this mimetic tradition is blamed on more or less everything in the world: the Holocaust, yeshivot, Artscroll, the reform movement, the hechsher on Oreos – you name it.

But other groups of Jews have lost their mimetic traditions a long, long time ago, and these are the Liberal Jews. The name “liberal” doesn’t explain why this happened, but the older names – “Reform” and “Reconstructionist” do. The thinking was that the tradition was something antiquated and that it had to be changed and reformulated. After cataclysmic moves that reshape practice like that, three things can happen:

  1. The reform will be branded as antiquated itself and the entire system of practices will be abandoned (e.g. Israeli secularists)

  2. The reform will become holy and there will be frum reformed practicioners (e.g. Southern Baptists)

  3. There will be a new reform ever so often (e.g. The URJ)

All three kinds of responses are essentially fundamentalist responses. The assumption of the new generation raised in the reformed tradition is that there is a truth to be found (or not found) beyond the practices learned in the home/congregation. They all display a (quite modern and contemporary) basic mistrust of previous generations and their practices. (This distrust also exists in Orthodox communities, which are also funamentalist in this way. But that’s a different story, which way too many people have written about already).

None of the responses has the ability or the power, apparently, to create an ongoing mimetic tradition. Why is this important? Well, it has several functions.

  1. It creates a sense of security in custom and practice. “We drive to shul because we’ve always driven to shul”. “We play musical instruments because we’ve always done that”. It makes it much harder for the Orthodox – driven by the same sense of mimetic tradition – to convince the Liberal crowd that they’re inot authentic enough.

  2. It creates a sense of holiness in the community. Shuls and communities suddently become ongoing bodies with long pasts and rituals that have nothing to do with who happens to be the Rabbi at the time. There is a sense of confidence in the community as an ongoing autonomous body.

  3. It creates trust and continuity between parents and children.

  4. It creates a sense of being educated and informed – the custom belongs to the congregation and not the Rabbi.

It also has some drawbacks. It hinders change (somewhat). It creates a sometimes false sense of trust in things that should really be changed. It is essentially foreign to our concept of personal autonomy.

But the greatest advantage of mimetic tradition is CONFIDENCE. It creates a framework where people are comfortable about who they are and what their tradition is, and they can relate in a pluralistic way to others and their traditions. “I put soup on the blech on shabbos. That’s what my mother did”. “I don’t comb my hair on shabbos. That’s what my father did”. “Oh, your minhag is to use electricity on yontif? That’s nice.” It makes sure nobody comes around and tries to be a halakhic dictator, like the CJLS tries to from time to time, like with the eating dairy out thing. And it also makes sure you don’t need to be a Rabbi or go to Rabbinical school to know how to behave Jewishly.

A mimetic tradition also helps those who have none because they can adopt one instead of going back to (usually silly and usually haredi) books and guides when they’re looking for help and/or frumkeit. You ask other people what they do – and thus save yourself the embarrasment and/or sheer silliness of not knowing what to do. It will also minimize the role of the Rabbi in congregations, who has to invent directives for people off the cuff every other week – and usually leaves the shul by the time a new generation comes around asking for advice.

But how do you form a mimetic tradition? That’s for the next post.