I was always taught that pointing is impolite. Yet I have observed a widespread practice that has been taking ground in the past couple of years, primarily in the Messianic world during the Torah service: During the hagbah, when the Torah scroll is lifted and we sing “zos ha torah” and recite “this is the Torah that Moshe placed before the children of Israel… ” people point to the uplifted scroll with their pinkies.
I have to admit, that I really don’t like the practice one bit. To me, it looks kinda kinky. I was told by one ardent practitioner of this brand new tradition that people who just point with their pinkies aren’t doing it properly. The proper way, they informed me, is to wrap your pinky with your tzitzis and then point, which, I was informed, is how the Orthodox do it.
Maybe I’m missing something here, but I grew up and had my Bar Mitzvah in an Orthodox Shul, and no one ever pointed with their pinky or any other finger for that matter, at the Torah during hagbah or at any other time. I have been to synagogue services around the globe, and never saw anyone doing it in a traditional shul. In all fairness, I have noticed it done occasionally in a Reconstructionist congregation, but they tend to improvise and make up new ways of doing things.
Maybe its just me. After all, It is a harmless thing to do, no one gets hurt, but to me it seems a bit strange. It’s just not right. I’m not sure what bothers me more, that they are pointing, or that they have invented a fake history for it, trying to make it seem like this practice is ancient, and therefore, the right thing to do.
This is not the only widespread Messianic practice that has no basis in tradition. Another tradition recently invented, is that when the service ends and we bless the people, everyone stands and the husband or father covers his wife and children with his Tallis, so they are all covered and under the blessing. Wearing a tallit is definitely a Jewish tradition, but stretching it over your wife and family is not. That is a Messianic adaptation. Again, this is a harmless thing to do. No one gets hurt, and is meaningful to the individuals on some level. I don’t do it, because it’s not my tradition.
A third “tradition” we adapted, is shofar blowing. Some Messianic congregations open their service with someone covering their head with a tallit, and blowing a large shofar as loud and as long as they can. In some congregations, they blow the shofar intermittently during the worship service. Once again, sounding the shofar is a Jewish practice, however, it is never done on Shabbat, and only done during the month of Elul, and on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. When I point this out to people, they inform me they feel no obligation to limit themselves to traditional boundaries for these practices. In other words, they feel they can do whatever they want, in any way they want, regardless of how it appears to the people who had the original tradition handed down to them. To those people, adaptations of this type are doing violence to treasured traditions handed down by our ancestors.
The question in my mind, is where is the boundary between adaptation and abuse? Its one thing to adapt something and find new meaning in it, and another to take an established tradition and misuse it, taking away from its actual meaning in Jewish life. A tallit is a prayer shawl, but if someone takes it and covers a table with it, they may think it is a religious thing to do, but someone familiar with its actual meaning will be offended that something used for a mitzvah has been relegated to such a common use. Taking an item used in prayer and then using it as a table covering is a step down for that item. Similarly, taking a shofar, and using it like a starting pistol at the beginning of a race, or a stadium horn at a football game, takes away from its specialness.
The problem comes from our 21st century post-modern culture. We worship our own inventiveness and creativity, ascribing alternate meanings to things treasured by our people. It’s a good thing to find meaning in ancient practices, but not good to destroy the original meanings in order to create our own. Proverbs 22: 28 says, “Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set.” I don’t believe the Scripture is talking only about real estate markers. There are boundaries that are set around us by our faith and culture and those boundaries help define who and what we are. When we move those boundaries, we may think we are operating within Jewish identity, but in fact, those who live within those boundaries see us as outsiders. Is it really worth it? Not to me.