How to Create a Mimetic Tradition (Mimetic Tradition Part II)

September 23, 2007

“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

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