This began as a Facebook post, but it turned into something substantial enough for a blog post. This week is Schlissel Challah week. For several years I have questioned the virtue of this custom by posting criticism of the practice, suggesting that it has pagan roots, or made jokes about baking keys into bread for money. In doing so I seem to have created a caricature that does not even remotely resemble my actual position on this issue (and a few others).
Here’s my actual opinion on Schlissel Challah (as opposed to quoting R’ Schachter or posting irreverent memes):
You want to bake a key in your bread and use it as a way to connect to God? Go for it. You want to be cool with religious traditions that are subjectively meaningful and clearly manmade? Amen. You want to introduce new rituals into Judaism and call that Orthodox? I’m with you.
All I ask is that you acknowledge what you are doing. See, R’ Schachter (and to his credit, Daniel Oppenheimer) is super consistent. He is against Schlissel Challah and he is equally against modern innovations shaped by liberal ideals. I can deal with that.
The problem is when we elevate Schlissel Challah, Tu B’Shvat Seders, Hillula d’Rashby, upsherin, and even Simanim on Rosh Hashana, into hallowed rituals that are treated as the word of God while at the same time insisting that Orthodoxy does not change. Then, to make things worse, when other innovations that we don’t like start to creep into Orthodox Judaism, we become strict traditionalists and we claim that everything in Orthodox Judaism is the same as it ever was and manmade rituals are really the Word of God.
So my purpose in discussing the criticism and folly of some of these traditions is to demonstrate that they also had to leap theological and religious hurdles. Yet, they are mainstream now and to question their validity is sacrosanct.
I welcome an Orthodox Judaism that is comfortable adapting and adopting from wherever. That’s the kind of Judaism I believe in. I actually don’t agree with R’ Schachter on this issue. I think there is a legitimate version of Orthodox Judaism that is more flexible than R’ Schachter’s. But the greatest challenge to that Judaism is the willful blindness about the external forces and ideas that influence contemporary Orthodox Judaism. Spinning the Partnership Minyanim or Yoatzot of yesteryear, like Schlissel Challah or Lag B’Omer, from questionable innovations into obligation hurts the cause.
Instead, the approach should be that Judaism absorbs foreign things into its culture all the time. They are subjective and work for some people and don’t work for others. Those things continue to evolve and are voluntary. In the same vein, we should embrace other subjective innovations that work for some people but don’t work for others as long as they can be justified within a valid halachic context. Not everyone has to like them and not everyone has to think that every halachic authority would approve. But it’s wrong to freeze Orthodox Judaism in 1875. There is no frozen date for manmade innovation. If Judaism had been truly frozen in 250 or 1250, or 1520, many of our most cherished and celebrated traditions would have been jettisoned long before they reached broad appeal.
The myth that every tradition we have goes back to Sinai, and that they all came from God, and that all our customs today were never criticized or questioned when they were introduced, is a destructive and cannibalistic lie. But more than the pain of being told a lie and the pain of discovering the lie, is the insistence that there is no lie.
Own it. Acknowledge it. Things change in Orthodox Judaism. The factors that transition something from fringe to mainstream are not articulable nor do they follow a set of rules. And that is okay. We are comfortable admitting it. When new innovations (that can be justified in halacha) are proposed, don’t say Orthodox Judaism doesn’t change. Don’t say it doesn’t change unless it fits a subjective, easily debunked formula. Say, “my subjective preference is that this innovation not be adopted because of [insert subjective reason].” I think this approach can be the key that can unlock a new conversation and provide a viable path toward an evolving future.
Enjoy your Challah, key or keyless.
What I Really Think About Schlissel Challah http://t.co/KTUyriYxB1
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) April 25, 2014