Judaism is a wonderfully odd thing. Those who want their religion to be more rationalistic can find a home in the thought of Maimonides, the Lithuanian yeshiva world or the Reform movement. If you like your Judaism with more of a mystical bent, Hasidism, some Sephardi schools of thought and Renewal might work for you. It’s a big tent, with plenty of room for you.
It is particularly in that mystical group, though, that Jewish folk religion finds its most fertile ground. People who hang their hats there are not as bound by the need for extreme rationality and are fine with what others would refer to as “magical thinking.” Some of the most ingrained Jewish practices grew in the mystical, Hasidic and Sephardi world (and were opposed by the above-mentioned rationalists). For instance, hakafot with dancing on Simchat Torah and tashlich on Rosh Hashana were practices the Jewish public wanted, even as the rationalist rabbis opposed them. To this day, the rationalists are appalled by kapparot (or kapores, as they are more commonly known), decrying pagan and other roots. But not only has the practice not gone away, it seems to be growing. Not cutting the hair of boys until they turned three years of age was rarely encountered outside of some Hasidic and Sephardi circles just 25 years ago. Today, it’s found surprising popularity beyond those limited groups. And even the rationalists among us can’t leave Israel without a red band on their (ok, OUR) arms, regardless of knowing that the woman who tied them on us purchased the string at a plain old fabric store.
In the old countries, folk practices were often localized. They were spread by traveling merchants (indeed one theory behind Rabbi Gershom’s Ashkenazi decree against polygamy was that it was in response to travelers who encountered and tried to adopt polygamy on the road). But the cross-pollenation of practices and ideas took time to travel.
In today’s connected world, Jewish folk practices spread like wildfire. When I see what to me is a new Jewish practice, I invariably try to track down its origin. More often than not, the person who has just posted the latest and greatest Jewish practice has no idea where it came from.
These days, my Jewish social media is blanketed with folk practices that I had never heard of: Baking challah as a “segulah“, a type of transfer of positive energy, often on behalf of an ill person. Schlissel challah, challah with either a key hidden in it, or in the shape of a key, again as a segulah. These, as well as the earlier mentioned customs, were largely unknown outside of Chasidic and mystical enclaves in places like Jerusalem, Tzfat or (l’havdil), Brooklyn.
Is the proliferation of folk traditions and practices good or bad for the Jews and for the world? The answer is probably: both.
What’s good about it: Well, frankly, some of the traditions are just plain interesting, and they do capture our attention and get us thinking. Also, in a world that spins out of control, these practices give us the sense that we can do things that make a difference. They’re rituals, and studies show that rituals can be healthy for us emotionally.
The bad news: These practices blur the lines between what is “authentically Jewish” and what is a folk practice (assuming that such a line ever existed…). People who perform them often do so mindlessly, without meditating on their value. And, when the action doesn’t have the desired impact (for example, when baking magic challah doesn’t result in a person’s healing), it can diminish a person’s belief in all Jewish ritual.
Lesson learned: Nobody, not Maimonides, not you and me, not even the Reform folks, are going to do away with folk religion among our Jewish people. What we need to do is to constantly ask the questions: Why are you doing this? Where did this practice originate? Are you sure this is a legitimate Jewish practice? And when the answer often is: I don’t know, we need to take a deep breath and appreciate that these rituals reflect the fact that being Jewish is nothing more or less than the Jewish people’s attempts to figure out what the universe wants from them.