Monday, January 30, 2012

The Magical Minhag Tour

At the beginning of November, I posted about my curiosity when it comes to divorce and minhagim (customs) -- do you keep 'em? What if you're a convert, do you go back to being able to choose? Does it matter if you have kids? Does the length of the marriage matter?

Basically, I'm trying to figure out what constitutes minhag retention in the "frum" (religious) Jewish community.

In case you were wondering perhaps why traditions are so important. Check it, Proverbs 1:8.
I spoke with a rabbi recently about this question I had, and after some quick conversation, he said that he doesn't understand why I wouldn't be able to go back to choosing my own minhagim. So I'm researching and exploring Sephardic traditions, because for some reason, a lot of them seem to make a whole lot more sense to me. That and they're absolutely fascinating. (One Sephardic tradition has it that when you say havdalah, you are to look into the wine, and if you see your face, you laugh aloud after the bracha!)

But you're probably asking yourself: Wait, why would you choose your customs? Who chooses their own customs? Isn't the point of a custom that it's something that's passed down?

Well, when you grow up in a nominally Jewish family (you know, the kind of family where you know you're Jewish but have no clue what a lulav is) and become a ba'al teshuvah or when you choose to be Jewish and convert, you don't have customs. You don't claim any traditions, and when you do, they're typically the kind of things where you know what Chanukah is and you light the menorah. There are minimal traditional differences in lighting a menorah (right to left? gain candles or lose candles?)

So, in these situations, you're blessed with the opportunity to choose your customs, your minhagim.

Well, what if you're a convert, you practice nominal Ashkenazi traditions throughout your pre-conversion existence, then the moment you convert you get engaged, and then married to someone who also has nominal traditions that no one really practices, and then you get divorced from that person. What happens?

Let's say you grow up without any Jewish customs, you become religious in your early 20s, you meet a nice Satmar fellow and get married. You take on the stringent Satmar customs, and then, just a few years into your marriage, you get divorced. Are you bound to holding to those Satmar traditions until you meet someone new? And then what if that person isn't Satmar?

What if you're married, observing Lubavitch customs, and you get married and have three children. Then, you get divorced when your kids are all under the age of 5-years-old, and marry a Spanish Portuguese Jew. Do you adopt the customs of you new husband? Because your children are under the age of b'nei mitzvah and their father plays no role in their life, do your kids take on your new husband's traditions? Or do you raise them in the Lubavitch tradition of their father?

Is your HEAD exploding now!?

Over Shabbat we were considering all of the variations and complications that come with minhagim and the wide, expansive set of traditions that can vary from community to community and even family to family within that community. The glory of minhagim is that they are not law. As Rabbi Marc Angel says in "Exploring Sephardic Customs and Traditions,"
One needs to always remember that the purpose of observing minhagim is to bring us closer to God, closer to our tradition, and closer to each other. 
Furthermore, Rabbi Angel cites Rabbi Eliezer Papo who says that "God knows what is in a person's heart" and that minhagim are not meant to be oneupmanship. If the observance of a minhag results in presumptuousness, it's a very uncool thing.

So my question to you, readers is: Have you been married and divorced? How did you choose your customs, or did you just stick with what you  knew? Did you even think about it or consult a rabbi or was it just something that you didn't think about? If you did get to choose your customs as a ba'al teshuvah or convert, how did you go about doing so?