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Inoculated Judaism as Opposed to Allergic Judaism.

July 7, 2015

The hygiene hypothesis seeks to explain, among other things, why it is that allergies were very rare once upon a time, but have become commonplace in the developed world. Why should peanuts be lethal to anyone? The answer lies in the nature of the human immune system. The immune system is very powerful, and it has a God-given adaptability to recognize new diseases and foreign bodies, and build up resistance to them. This is the basis for the science of inoculation. Expose someone to a weakened pathogen, and let the body build up its defenses. In the developed world, some children are kept too clean. They do not get exposed to the ordinary germs that they should encounter by being in public places and meeting other children. They are made to wash their hands too often, and their healthy immune systems do not have any pathogens to learn to fight. Instead, the body seeks benign foreign bodies to learn to fight. The pet’s hair. Nutritious vegetables. Eggs. You name it. The immune system is our last line of defense, but we weaken it, and maybe even turn it against ourselves, when we do not clearly show it what it is supposed to fight. Just like we maintain strong muscles by challenging them on a regular basis, what Maimonides referred to as “exercise,” so too, we have to give the immune system a workout. 

During the millennia of exile, the Jewish people fought an ongoing war of physical and cultural survival. Through the guidance of our sages, we learned to inoculate our belief system against foreign influences and ideas. When Jews found themselves in a new host country, their religious immune system kicked in and saved them from losing the faith. The first tactic was maintaining outward appearances and mannerisms. Jews wear black, the gentiles wear white, so the Jews should stick to black and not wear white. Not doing like the other was a very useful policy for preservation. But what would happen if inoculated Jews were ever to encounter friendly outsiders, long-lost brothers who themselves had survived the crushing exile, and who were loyal to the same Torah? Would their culturo-immune systems recognize them as close relatives, or as yet another culture that needed to be avoided?

This has happened, and some have shown that they are incapable of distinguishing between different other versions of Judaism and foreign cultures.

When the gentiles speak one way, and the Jews speak another way, the Jews know to stick with their own way. But when Ashkenazim encountered Sephardim, there was an allergic reaction. Their chulent has beans on Passover, the text of their prayers is different, and they say sha-BAT instead of SHA-bis or sha-BOS. Some realized that perhaps, through the years of exile, each isolated group had preserved some traditions but had lost others, and that in this case, for example, the truth is really that it was sha-BATH. If they wished to know how things were before they were separated, they could look at their diverging practices, analyze the ancient and recorded traditions, and extrapolate. But most reacted to the other with a form of their usual reaction to something wholly foreign. If they say it that way, we must say it our way, and we may not say it their way. And we may not entertain the idea that we have what to learn from the way they do it. And the religio-cultural distinctions must be fortified and codified, concretized and enshrined in halacha so that they are maintained forever. 

Encountering a different evolution of Judaism was an opportunity made even greater by the ingathering of the exiles in the promised land, and today, we see whole communities where individuals are resigning from their artificial identities as Ashkenazim (lit. Germans) and Sephardim (lit. Spaniards) and learning to be Jews (Jews) just like each other. This has led  us to increase our love for each other, and to accept the greater likelihood of mixed marriages and thus mixed families, reuniting the House of Israel. There is even a minor holiday following the day of mourning, the day that was precipitated by baseless hatred of our fellow Jews, that celebrates the day when intermarriage was finally permitted between the members of the distinctive tribes of Israel. 

I hope that the Judaism of the present and future learns how not to react allergically to itself.

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From → halacha, original

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