Monday, March 5, 2012

Amish Torah

Having been out of blogging action for a couple of weeks due to the interference of life, this week brings two posts, right after one another.

Recently, Julie and I took a quick two-day getaway to Indiana (which we can’t recommend), to Amish country (which we can recommend highly).

We learned a lot about the Amish while we were there. I knew very little about them, prior to this trip: only that they were Anabaptists (a Christian belief wherein baptism of a child at birth or in early childhood is considered insufficient, and a second baptism at maturity is deemed necessary, because they believe acceptance of salvation requires kavanah [intent] to be a ma’aseh [effective deed]-- although they don’t put it quite like that). I knew that they lived separately, and (I thought) entirely rejected technology much past the level of around the seventeenth century.

But it turns out that while they do live comparatively separately, and there are indeed many aspects of technology they reject, they have a complex system of rules and guidelines for what kinds of technology are entirely forbidden, and what can be used but not owned, and what can they neither own nor use themselves but can derive hana’ah (“enjoyment” or profit) from in its use by an English person (in Amish parlance, all non-Amish people are called English, which suits me well, since I have always sort of wanted to be English anyhow). In short, they have a de facto system of halachah. And in many ways, as far as I have been able to tell, it has many parallels to hilchot Shabbat (the halachot of Shabbat observance) and hilchot aku”m (the halachot of dealing with non-Jews).

For example, our Amish host took us for a brief ride in his buggy (I felt a little sorry for the single horse pulling four of us in a wooden buggy, but she seemed to be fairly fatalistic about the experience): though the buggy itself is “handmade” wood, drawn by a horse, it has running lights for night-time driving which are electric, powered by batteries. Also, we noted that though there were no electronic devices in the spacious sitting-room/dining room that we were entertained in, our hosts did have a refrigerator, powered by natural gas (also a gas stove/range, and gas lamps, which were cool, like being in a 19th century parlor).

It turns out that they are prohibited from being connected to the electrical grid (part of their living “separate” lives), and so shun major electrical appliances or electronic devices. But they have no prohibition about natural gas power (though they are not connected to gas lines, but use large storage tanks instead), and they make exceptions to the electric appliance rule for some small things, especially those which can be powered by batteries and cranks (we didn’t get to ask about solar or wind, although those kind of seem like they should be permitted-- but then, what do I know from Amish halachah? There’s plenty of things in our halachah that seem like they ought to be permitted, but are not, or occasionally vice-versa).  And they will use even from-the-grid electricity if they are working for an English person, and it is done in their place of business. They will accept car rides from English people, and even charter buses for communal trips.

The atmosphere of the Amish dinner table (and they were lovely hosts, though Julie and I couldn’t really eat most of what they served-- they like their fleischigs, which of course are treyf) was convivial, warm, welcoming, friendly, familial, and full of storytelling and joking. In sum, much like a frum dinner table.

We learned that these very plain-living folks who were our hosts, unable to have children (in a prolific culture with significant stigma attached to infertility, much like the frum world), had adopted and raised seven kids. We had to learn from our mutual friend that they hadn’t mentioned the twenty kids whom they had fostered over the eyars.

And it got me thinking, how like and how unlike Haredi Jews the Amish are. The Haredi world has some really good qualities, some of the best being their willingness to open their homes and their hands to aid those around them (even when they themselves might have little), and the tight knit communitarianism that helps keep frum kids educated in frum schools, keeps frum shul memberships free or on sliding scales, keeps food on everyone’s plate for Shabbos. In that sense, they are much like the Amish. The only people I have known whom I would’ve bet would raise seven adopted kids have been frum.

But the big difference I noted was that the Amish understand and acknowledge that their lifestyle and their rules are chumrot that they take upon themselves. They acknowledge that one need not be Amish to be a good person, or even a good Christian. It is their way, and it is not for everyone. It is deeply ironic, I think, that this attitude, so similar to how we as Jews approach the idea of conversion and Judaism (in other words, we don’t proselytize, and we don’t necessarily rush to encourage converts, because we understand that one need not be Jewish to be a good person and please God), is so utterly at variance with how Haredim understand Haredi Judaism. Built upon a vast network of ever-denser chumrot, ascetic minhagim derived from mussar and mussar-influenced Kabbalistic teachings, and stultifyingly paralytic interpretations of halachah, Haredi Judaism nonetheless sees itself as entirely authentic and normative, the beau ideal from which all other forms of Judaism are deviant.

As devoted to interfaith dialogue as I am, it still sometimes shocks me when I come across a particularly blatant example of how Jews can need a lesson in Torah from non-Jews.

The Amish, without having any knowledge of the concept as we have it, have put into practice the idea from Eruvin 13b of elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim (“these and also those are the words of the Living God.” They have put into practice the belief that one should take upon oneself and one’s community a set of strictures for a purer, more ascetic life, while retaining the awareness that doing so is a choice, not a matter of universal requirement: and that, my friends, is tolerance. That is the knowledge-in-action that pluralism creates shalom bayit (internal peace) in the community at large.

You take a look at what’s going on with the Haredi world in Israel, between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities there and here in the US. And you tell me that Haredim don’t need what the Amish have to teach. It is a lesson that would lead us steps closer on the path to tikkun olam, and bringing the coming of the moshiach


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