Saturday, September 15, 2012

What's in a name?

So, it turns out that a lot of people don't get the "traif banquet" reference (which is, come to think of it, kind of obscure).  A very short, overly simplified, quite biased history lesson follows.  If you already know the reference, skip to the *** below to hear why I chose the name.

From the fall of the second temple until the mid 1700s, there weren't really any significant Jewish sects.  I don't want to romanticize it as some sort of golden age of klal yisrael, but modern notions of "orthodox" and "reform" just didn't exist until quite recently.  There were, absolutely, wide variations is practice, both from one community to another and also from person to person within any given community, but these differences mostly weren't seen as separate "forms" of Judaism.

As the enlightenment began, marked divisions began to appear.  On one hand, a new sort of rural, populist, mystic, results-driven folk religion called Chasidism, or the Pious Ones, started to take hold.  (Seriously!  Chasids used to be revolutionary pagans!)  At around the same time, many urban Jews (Baruch Spinoza is my favorite) advocated for an enlightenment/humanist idea of Judaism.  This movement came to be known as Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment.

In the 1800s in Germany, the more religious Haskalah crystalized into what we now call Reform Judaism.  In the US, Reform Jews (including my great grandfather) ratified the so-called Pittsburgh Platform, which (among other things) says: "all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state..."  In 1883, the first class of new rabbis was about to graduate from the Hebrew Union College (the school that "authenticates" Reform rabbis).  They threw a lavish banquet to celebrate, at which several overtly non-kosher (ie, "traif") things.  Many of these attendees walked out, shocked that the reforms had gone too far.  (This constituency would go on to become the Conservative movement.)  The radical reformers who remained sat down to a meal that has become known as "the traif banquet".  

Historical note: Actually, the traif banquet happened 2 years before the Pittsburgh Platform was actually ratified, but the ideas in it were already in place when the dinner took place.

For me, that traif banquet is an extremely important act of Jewish magic.  As many of you know, my magical practice especially values transgressive ritual.  For me,  the Work of the Jewish people, both individually and collectively, is to engineer the liberation of all sentient beings.  What makes me a satanist is that I sometimes think the thing we need liberating from is the same thing a lot of Jews worship.  Read the post called "Idolatry in my heart".    However, my point is, "Israel" means "wrestles with El", and the central mythology of our people is walking out of the house of bondage.  I think in 1883, it was important to liberate our people of the tyranny of mindless kosher observance, to let people know that our essential free will and autonomy made keeping kosher a joyful choice, not a dismal duty.  I've gone back and forth about keeping kosher over the years.  Most of you who know me know that when I started teaching at Jew school, I (sort of) kept kosher, and that I started eating pork soon after I started.  Overwhelmed by the (relative to me) conservativeness of the community, I too needed that sort of transgressive magic to hold on to my own Jewish identity.   

ps: My school really walks the walk when it comes to pluralism, and also has amazing hard-core academics and full merit scholarships.  If you doubt that, remember that the lead math teacher, when not teaching topology to 15 year olds, writes a blog about being a sorceress.  If you mean it too, put your money where your mouth is. :) 

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