Sunday, May 08, 2005

On Pesach, Mimetic Culture and the Renegade Rebbetzin

Recently, there has been an important, explosive discussion on an otherwise entertaining blog that is penned by the self-styled 'Renegade Rebbetzin.' The subject is ostensibly that of home preparation for Pesach versus spending the holiday at a Hotel. However, the author and her many corespondents included within the scope of the discussion the overall issues of Pesach stringencies and the popular identification of Pesach cleaning with Spring cleaning. JUdging from the remarkably virulent tone of the author, as well as that of those who commented, I have been hesitant to participate. However, as the question touches upon a broader issue that is of keen concern to me, I felt obliged to participate, post factum.

The phenomenon of families spending Pesach in a hotel, rather than at home, is an expression of the westernization of Orthodoxy and a key indicator of the significantly improved economic status of observant Jews. It also constitutes a further indication of decentralizing and specialization of Jewish observance. In other words, rituals and knowledge that had previously been home based are now transferred to specialists who provide them as a commercial service. This, of course, is not an unprecedented phenomenon. Professionalization has been a permanent moment in he history of Judaism (at least, Ashkenazic Judaism), since the late thirteenth century. However, it has long been my feeling that this development is not always salutary. On the contrary, I think that it has potentially negative effects upon present and future Jewish education, ethics and religiouslity.

Jewish religious life involves much more than punctillious observance of Halakha. It has an experiential aesthetic and that aesthetic is not only expressed in results but in preparation. In the present context, this is a maddeningly academic way of saying that the experience of Jewish life requires getting one's hands dirty with Shabbat/Holiday preparations. Only one who makes the effort on Erev Shabbat can truly eat on Shabbat. As Professor Haym Soloveitchik has noted on more than one occasion, the increase of Jewish observance and the greater emphasis on strict halakhic detail has been accompanied by the death of Erev Shabbat, Erev Yom Tov, Elul, and the Three Weeks. The observances are stricter, the texture is weaker.

Opting for Pesach in a hotel may well be satisfying spiritually in terms of the seder. However, what is lost is the anticipation created by Pesach preparations and the sense of tradition of preparing as one's parents and grandparents did. It also leads to functional ritual illiteracy on the part of children who don't have a clue how to 'make Pesach,' and results in alienation from a critical aspect of the holiday. In addition, consistent resort to hotels for Pesach assumes the capacity to pay for them. What of those who can't? [In addition, while hoteliers have the right to make a living, it bothers me deeply that so much money is spent on hotels when so many Jews barely have money for matzot.]

I am fully cognizant of the tremendous efforts that are require to prepare for Pesach (or for other holidays). In our house everyone contributes equally to the effort (much as we all work on baking hamentaschen, instead of buying them). I also categorically reject the extremes ogf Pesach 'insanity.' Nevertheless, it is my deeply held feeling that more is lost by the hotel phenomenon than is gained (though I don't reject the idea of occasionally resorting thereto. I am addressing the phenomenon of preparing for Pesach by making reservations.)


Oysvurf said...

Well said. Couldn't have written it better. With all due respect to the mitzva of והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא, I think I passed on more to my son with the pre-Pesach cleaning, the last minute shopping run, and the Erev Pesach matza baking than the seder itself which was in a larger family and which started 1.5 hours later than "usual" owing to the early Summer time coupled with the later time in the year (Chodesh Ha'Aviv?).

My brother, who has absolutely refused to go to his in-laws hotel Seder for years finally went this year - only b/c the last "3 day" chag (in Chu"l) at my parents was a disaster as far as his wife was concerned.

We have neighbors who went off to a hotel this year as a means of getting away from the two sets of parents without causing a fiasco - something along the lines of the one off that you suggest, and an appropriate one at that

Renegade Rebbetzin said...

Thank you for this insightful essay. I apologize if my virulent tone "scared" you off from commenting (as I think it did others as well); it's rare that I become so incensed that I can't hold it back from my writing, but the apodictic tone of Ms. Marcus's assertion that her way of doing things is of necessity more meaningful and valuable than anyone else's could possibly be, and the transparent bias and ignorance inherent not only in her assumption of why people do this, but that it is "the rabbis'" fault, touched a particularly raw nerve. I suspect my reaction would have been more restrained if these assertions had come from a different source, but as Ms. Marcus has in the past vilified "the rabbis" numerous times for "problems" she's decided exist, without providing a shred of support or any examples of what "they" have done to warrant said vilification, I continue to feel justified in my reaction.

My other primary complaint, as I said parenthetically in my post, is that Ms. Marcus has rarely before taken up the sword on behalf of the "traditional" method of doing things, without considering evolution of circumstances or of the needs of individual families. Her defense of choosing public school over yeshiva, for example, was primarily that this was the right choice for these particular children, and she stated that people should not blindly assume that yeshiva is always better, nor that a strong, solid Jewish education could not be provided in the home. I found it extremely telling that she was willing to engage in this argument when she felt "the road not taken" was right for her family, but when breaking with our collective tradition is done in an area that she does not agree with, then suddenly it is a communal "problem" that "the rabbis" have caused and must fix.

(Not to mention that I personally find it simply astounding that an Orthodox family should think it's more important to a child's Jewish upbringing that they make Pesach at home than it is to send the child to a yeshiva. If we say it depends on the child and the home, well then, can't the decision of where and in what way to celebrate Pesach also vary from case to case?)

The loss of the mimetic tradition is indeed lamentable in many regards, and I as well shudder at the amount of money being poured into material extravagances when there are so many better uses for it. But the notion that Pesach hotels are a "problem" that is the fault of "the rabbis" is offensive to me in all its particulars.

Thank you again for reading, and I do hope you comment in the future in cases where I am able to control myself.

Chodesh tov,

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Fischel Schacter in his introductory shiur on Maseches Berachos speaks about how the structure of any given maseches is counter-intuitive. Shabbos, for example, starts with very complex details around the melacha of carrying. In the list of 39 melachos, carrying is the last one listed. Chulin, starts with a discussion not what is shechita or its sources but who is eligible to perform shechita and so it is with most of the masechtos. We, Rav Shacter point out, would not organize a book or a lecture this way. We would start with a general proposition and then give the spiritual sources and somewhere in the appendix talk about the details. So why did Chazal set up the Mishna and the Gemorah that way?

The Chasom Sofer says that the reason this is so is because the essence of the Masorah was transferred from Rebbi to Talmid from Father/Mother to Son/Daughter by observation and experience. Chazal saw no need to write down the reasons for the mitzvos or how they were performed. These would be shown in the context of daily life. What needed to be written down were the very specific details that were getting lost and confused. The Chasom Sofer says this is why the Gemorah in Berachos says that it is of greater importance to serve talmidei chachamim than to learn torah. Because that is the essence of how the masorah is passed.

In fact, without this approach, it is very hard to understand three very strange incidents that are recorded at the end of Maseches Berachos where Ta’anim follow their rebeim into latrines and even to their bedrooms to learn how Torah gets applied to these very private areas of one’s life. Today, we are much more a sefer dependent society. Shiurim substitute for experiencing life.

The controversy around spending Pesach in hotels and not at home has been the subject of much heated debate in New York’s The Jewish Week. I am libertarian on this topic and people should be comfortable doing whatever they want to do. That being said, I do agree that in my opinion much more is lost than gained in not making Pesach at home.

The smell of a new tablecloth opened anytime during the year reminds me of Pesach. Sitting outside grating chrain and wondering if I could get away with using the food processor; showing my son how to hold the horseradish so as not to scrape your fingers; the first batch of Pesach cookies coming out of the oven; or running into everyone you know at the supermarket just before yom tov for the last minute things you are sure you bought but just can’t find. It is the excitement around the preparation that creates the lasting memories and inspires the questions.

In my opinion we put too much emphasis on the seder and the lamdanus to the exclusion of the experience. Rabbi Yochanan Zweig wrote that “the obligation of the Seder is not simply to impart information. It is to bond with our children. For only through bonding with their forebears will our children feel a true sense of connection with their heritage and their nation.” That to me means raw knuckles and long held memories.

Jeffrey said...

Fischel Schachter?

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey - R. Fishel Schachter is a relatively young right wing Brooklyn Torah Vodaas type speaker. More Hassidish than say, R. Yisroel Reisman, but from same YTV background.

emeslyaakov said...

I felt badly that this year that we baked matzos at a matzoh bakery instead of at home.

My kids grew up knowing what doing mitzvos is about. I have spun my own tsitsis, made my own klaph, baked matzos and made wine at home, etc. We kosher our own meat, and occasionally shecht at home. We have gone for the wheat harvest for the matzos, winnowing, grinding and sifting by hand as a family project.

Going to a hotel for pesach certainly misses out on a lot.

Forget spring cleaning, just make that kitchen really Pesachdik.

Aside from all that, how can anyone who really cares go to a hotel where everything is done on the basis of what they can get away with? How can you depend on nonJewish workers to really care that everything be 100% clean? If it is not 100% clean, then the only way to kasher it is with libun. If you think that it really is 100% clean, rub it with your white blouse and find out.

My 10th grade biology teacher was a dieticion who used to work in a treife hotel. She told me that once they had a rabbinical convention. The kitchen workers posted a lookout for when the mashgiach was coming.

I myself worked for a national hashgocha company until I quit in disgust.

If you want to go to a hotel for Tisha Bav, that might be ok, but for Pesach, forget it.