[Previous posts: Intro]
Before I begin, I should note that the people described in this guide are largely ideal types. They are meant to convey the different attitudes towards Judaism among non-observant Jews. Most usually combine different attitudes with regard to different things.
OK, now that we have that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get down to the first type of non-observant Jew: the traditionalist. The traditionalist, much like the searcher (whom I will discuss later), is something of a frustration for people who like to put all Jews in neatly defined boxes.
The traditionalist drives to shul on Shabbat, says Kiddush and then goes to watch TV and fasts on Yom Kippur while watching their favorite movies. He or she is often familiar with religious Jewish sources on a level equal or higher to non-yeshiva educated Jews. They often attend shi’urim and learn Torah on various occasions. Many of them often have a more heightened sense of God-awareness and inner religiosity than frum Jews who just go through the motions.
1) Traditionalism is not a doctrine. There are few, if any clearly defined rules, and most traditionalists ‘pick and choose’ which traditions they adhere to.
2) Traditionalism is neutral on the matter of God – one can be a traditionalist regardless of the nature of one’s belief in God (atheism, agnosticism, Orthodox or otherwise).
3) Traditionalism is focused on observing customs and rituals (albeit selectively) that have been practiced for generations, i.e. ones which have religious significance or undertones such as Kiddush, a traditional sedder &c. Even if the acts (such as sukka-building) are not by halachic standards, the concept is still there.
Contrary to popular perception, this phenomenon is most certainly not an exclusively Mizrachi (as in Middle Eastern Jewry) one. There were many ‘traditionalist’ Jews in generations past among Ashkenazim – just read any history of Polish Jewry between the wars or of American Jews in the first half of the twentieth century. They were the Jews whom Prof. Hayim Soloveitchik spoke of in his famous essay ‘Rupture and Reconstruction‘ – the old Jews who cried in shul on Yom Kippur even though they weren’t observant. Even among the so-called ‘secular Jews’ of the Yishuv and later the State of Israel – carefully read their biographies and you’ll find that many of them kept at least some traditional customs.
Now, that caveat aside, it is nevertheless true that the phenomenon of traditionalism is far more recognized and public and possibly more prevalent among non-Ashkenazic Jewry. Why is that? In my opinion, there are two key reasons:
1) For a variety of reasons, Middle Eastern Jewry places far more emphasis on inductive aspects of religion – experience, religiosity, family and community. While hard truths are certainly no less important, they are not the only focus. As a result, many people who go OTD do so as a matter or drift or laxity rather than a hard break. Also, it means that much of the meaning of religious experience has a greater chance of survival, since it based on personal experience rather than hard, objective analysis.
2) More importantly, most families (and many Rabbis) in that cultural milieu do not share the “my way or the highway” attitude of Ashkenazim whereby you are either frum or nothing. Rather, both families and shuls have an “open door” policy that lets non-observant Jews attend meals and ceremonies without looking askance at them.
So that’s the traditionalist Jew. Next week we’ll discuss its kissing cousin: the cultural Jew.
Avi Woolf AKA AIWAC