What’s The Point?

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.

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34 thoughts on “What’s The Point?

  1. Shofar blowing is a great example, Michael – the Torah authorizes its use in specific circumstances (not the same as the silver trumpet, either) and the Tradition shapes that practice further. The shofar blowers you mention conform to neither! They are appropriating biblical and traditional meanings but rejecting Biblical and traditional restraints. Oy.

    • Deborah, I’ve seen it in one conservative synagogue, however it was a very liberal leaning conservative shul. The more orthodox leaning conservative congregations I have seen do not do it.

  2. Rabbi Schiffman,

    The pinky pointing question came up recently on a blog closely related to yours. I felt a bit stung by the treatment there and here since (a) I learned pinky-pointing as it was modelled by other Messianic Jews who were generally more informed than I in matters of halakha and minhag, and (b) I recalled seeing it in other contexts as well (I posted some evidence from Google to the effect on that previous article.)

    I don’t mind the sting, however; I am perfectly willing (eager, really!) to be corrected on any other practice I’ve mistakenly adopted. FWIW, your take on the pinky pointing thing seems a little overstated, as the links I posted here seem to contradict your statement: “This is [a] widespread Messianic practice that has no basis in tradition.” How about: “This is a minhag which has inexplicably become universal in Messianic circles and perhaps should be reconsidered because random minhagim only add to our weirdness factor”?

    I have no issues with your critique of random shofar blowing…save it for Elul, folks! On the whole I would definitely like to see random minhagim be replaced by those synagogue practices which are more universal. You seem to be a valuable source of instruction on such practices, so, on that note, please carry on!

    Yahnatan

    • Additional notes: apparently the “faddish” nature of pinky pointing is not limited to Messianic circles–the links I posted indicate that it’s made the rounds elsewhere. Here’s what one poster had to say:

      The custom you are talking about is a Sepharadic custom. It is not Ashkenazic minhag. Ashkenazic minhog is, as brought down in the Rama in Shulchan Aruch, to bow toward the sefer Torah during hagbah.

      For some reason the pinky pointing has become a fad for some people. Maybe they picked it up in Eretz Yisroel, or in other places where they came in contact with Sepharadim. I guess it seems cute to them, but they should follow the Ashkenazic minhog if they are Ashkenazic Jews, which is more respectful to the holy Torah, instead of giving a finger to the sefer Torah.

      In general, this is representative of a larger phenomenon, which is problematic, of people finding some custom which seems cute to them and adopting it, at the expense of their own tradition/mesorah. Not the way to go. Cuteness and style are not supposed to be the determining factors in minhogim.

    • Yahnatan, It may very well have originated in Sephardic circles, and as an Ashkenazic Jew, I am not familiar with most Sephardi minhagim. If it is indeed a Sephardic ritual, then I stand corrected as to the pinky pointing, however, that brings up a whole other issue; namely the mix and match attitude people have toward adopting Jewish traditions. In any event, it is not a universal tradition in Messianic circles, and I truly hope it doesn’t become universal. Most Jews in Messianic congregations are not Sephardi and they should follow their own traditions. I was taught that the way to honor your ancestors is to follow the traditions they followed. In other words, if my grandparents were Ashkenazi, then I need to follow Ashkenazi traditions. I became aware of this phenomenon at Passover. Sephardim eat rice and beans on Passover, Ashkenazim don’t. When people around me started eating rice and beans on Passover, I told them they weren’t observing properly. They said they could, because it was Sephardic. I pointed out to them, that they weren’t Sephardic. They smiled and said “Its easier this way.” The reason I don’t follow Sephardic traditions, is because I’m not a Sephardic Jew. The real question is, “Am I justified doing some practice, just because I can find a precedent of doing it that way by some other group?” I know Jews who eat pork in Chinese restaurants, is that okay? and by the way, Jews eating pork in Chinese restaurants make up a large number of people; more than those who pinky point at the Torah. Does that make it an American minhag? In Israel, I speak sephardi because its the common language. When I pray, I pray in Ashkenazi, because that is how my ancestors prayed. Just because people use Sephardi hebrew doesn’t make them Sephardim. In any event, thanks for the info on the Sephardi minhag. It is helpful and now I won’t criticize the practice IF I am in a Sephardic shul.

      • Thanks for sharing your additional reflections on this matter, Rabbi Schiffman. I also will be reconsidering my practice of pinky pointing. Thank you for bringing this up–I appreciate when people share these sensibilities because it’s the only way we can balance out the tendency to accumulate all sorts of quirky minhagim.

  3. “I told them they weren’t observing properly.”

    Isn’t it true to all traditions and Halachot? One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor…..

    • I tend to agree with you Dan. The issue is not between doing a tradition according to one community’s tradition or another’s, but between following a tradition and making something up as you go along. We are not just individuals, we are supposed to be part of a community. The shul I used to belong to had Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, who each followed their own traditions, and everyone respected each other’s traditions. Making things up and calling them a tradition seems to me to be more fantasy than reality, but maybe I’m just too critical? Its possible.

  4. I believe I’ve personally seen pinkie pointing beyond the messianic community, but my memory is not clear. This from TorahLab, a site founded by the the former National Director of Jewish Education for the Orthodox Union: “Many have a custom to point at the Torah as it is being shown. This is not based in Halacha, but does have sources in Midrashic and Kabbilistic sources. According to those sources one should point with the right index finger of their right hand. (see Sefer Hachaim from Rav Chaim Palagi 3:6).” http://www.torahlab.org/doitright/hagbah_and_gelila/

    It seems the earliest source describing the pinkie finger salute is the Meam Loez, written in the 1730s by Rabbi Yaakov Culi for Turkish Jews. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Me%27am_Lo%27ez The work was written in Ladino, intended to make torah learning accessible to the ‘common man,’ and gives commentary on Torah portions based on midrash & talmud. Parshat ki tavo, perek 17 is cited for saluting the torah with the pinkie finger. I’ve also seen mentioned, as a possible influence for this custom, a midrash that says the Jews “pointed at God” when they said either [This is my God] or [Etz chaim he…] at the splitting of the red sea, but I’ll have to ‘phone a friend’ to find it…
    ~ecd

    • Yes, Yahnatan already pointed out its a Sephardi tradition, but not one that is widespread. As I said in my post, its a harmless practice, but the bigger problem I have is the pick and choose approach people take toward tradition. Just because we find some Jews that do something, does that make it Jewish tradition? I’m more concerned the way people will glam on to something without considering the roots. if it looks cool, do it, leaves me unmoved.

      • I think I’m hearing the heart of your post in the question, “…where is the boundary between adaptation and abuse,” and in the concern for not appearing alien to the larger Jewish community. Am I reading you right?

        I would submit that Jewish communities have been grappling with that particular question for millennia. Reading this post flooded me with memories from a class I took a few years ago at AJU (American Jewish University, formerly University of Judaism): History of Modern Jewish Religious Movements in America.

        My professor, who is Orthodox and a self described yekkologist, mentioned an emerging practice that made his “skin crawl” — The rabbi sits on the bimah steps surrounded by the congregation’s children, unrolls the torah scroll across his/her and a child’s or two’s laps, and proceeds to read the week’s portion. One of my classmates at the time, a Conservative Jewish Educator, considered that practice the most beautiful and moving thing ever.

        For that class I read a lot of primary sources (ok, mostly skimmed) written by both traditionalists and reformers during the 19th & 20th centuries. That dichotomy came up a lot – more reform minded Jews would find innovated practices so meaningful and beautiful, while traditionalists were utterly repulsed by anything novel in Jewish religious practice. What I found most poignant was that each side in the debate, despite the stinging and deprecatory things they said about each other, really felt an impetus to preserve a unified Jewish community in light of the haskalah (pun unintended) but they had diametrically opposed mindsets as to what that entailed, and could not find any place to agree. I also learned that no group, not even those classified as Orthodox, is monolithic in its approach to minhag.

        I’m curious – is there any demographic data as to which backgrounds Messianic Jews come from, i.e. what percent come from orthodox, reform, secular, etc. and what percent are born into the movement? Could at least some of the ‘pick & choose; mix & match’ approach to traditions be a function of trying to accommodate and honor traditions from people of multiple backgrounds? As to the location of the boundary between adaptation and abuse, I think that’s an important discussion to keep going – it is the sign of a healthy and dynamic community. As to the concern for appearance to Jews from non-messianic backgrounds, I have mentioned to many the existence of discussion and diversity of approach to halachah and minhag within Messianic Jewish communities – without fail they chuckle with self recognition… At least two jokes come to my mind; one about the guy stranded by himself on a desert island who built 2 synagogues – one to attend and one he ‘wouldn’t be caught dead in;’ the other about the congregation whose tradition it is to argue about what their tradition is 😉

        Be well, Rabbi Schiffman,
        ~ecd

      • Erica,

        I found your comments insightful and helpful. You are right, and I do believe the diversity in the Messianic movement is partially a reflection of the diversity in the Jewish religious world. It may just be, that as a traditionalist, I am not very comfortable with innovation, whether it be in the Messianic world, or in the Reform/non-traditional Jewish world. Your point is well taken and has given me a great deal to consider.

  5. Great comments, Erica. I learned a lot from a similar course at Spertus College (Chicago).

    One of the issues in MJ is that so few of us are vitally connected even to the tradition we grew up in. We may remember certain practices (through child’s eyes) but we didn’t, and don’t, know the connecting fabric that had been worked out for decades, centuries, or millennia. So individual practices can become dis-embedded from that fabric and lose much of their meaning and coherence.

    Likewise, when we pick up practices from others, we don’t necessarily understand their broader significance. For example, we know that many of the innovations of early Reform were actually imitations of the German Lutheran church of their neighbors, including holding their services on, gulp, Sundays instead of Shabbat and preaching in German. Likewise, the practices of Orthodoxy became super-stringent in response, forbidding preaching in German even though it is halakhically permissible!

    IMO the issue isn’t so much our diversity of practice but a serious lack of knowledge of tradition. And underlying that is that we don’t have a strong culture of learning that will remedy that lack.

    • Thanks, Carl,
      Yes, I dropped my jaw occasionally throughout my years at AJU – in learning how much 19th century protestant churches influenced modern synagogue service, but also in learning how Jewish religious practice has always been influenced by surrounding gentile cultures.

      I think you hit the nail on the head about the need for knowledge of tradition, and Jewish learning in general, among Messianics. It will never do for messianic congregations to simply imitate “authentic” Judaism(s). To maintain integrity with Hashem’s commission, let alone gain legitimacy -or at least validity- in the eyes of other Jewish communities, genuine understanding of the reasons for decisions on practice and the ability to articulate that understanding need to be prevalent among the movement’s members. The school of Hillel could articulate Shammai’s position, and could explain why they went with a different ruling.

      I clicked the link in your name – The New School for Jewish Studies looks like a promising step in the right direction. After roughly 200 years of post-emancipation fallout, it’s clear that neither the reformers nor the traditionalists “won,” and neither “lost” in their vision for preserving Judaism into the modern age. Further, a 3rd & 4th movement rose up, and innovative groups are continuing to spring up; most all are making attempts to communicate and cooperate with each other to some extent despite their diverse, and sometimes diametrically opposed, viewpoints. From my perspective, it seems just one generation of Jewish youths who came to faith in the mid century “Jesus Movement” have made enormous progress in working out an identity the world -especially the Jewish world- sees as oxymoronic. Infants first learn by imitating. MJ is moving from early childhood; on the one hand learning from the church who is not equipped to support development of Jewish identity, and on the other from Jewish learning communities largely enraged by its presence. MJ is ready for some autodidacticism. May Hashem bless your endeavor by blossoming in messianic communities that strong culture of learning so salient among Jews of all stripes.

      b’shalom,
      ~ecd

      • Great comments, Erica. I was especially moved by your reference to Beit Hillel. As you well know, their ability to listen and articulate Beit Shammai’s opinions fairly, combined with their gentle speech, was a major force in shaping Judaism. We need that combination today, eh?

        I’m very aware of the 3rd and 4th movements and independent efforts in Judaism today. Turns out that my chevruta is a Renewal-ordained rabbi who leads a Reconstructionist congregation! And nearby we have “the Firepit Minyan” that meets in a home. All if these have a “theme + variation” approach to tradition (rather than just “variation”).

        Your comment about autodidacticism also rings a bell. So far, everyone who has expressed interest in studying at the New School are autodidacts. They have done amazing things on their own but are also looking to learn with others. That combination (self-study and communal study) is a winner. Done well, it produces knowledgeable, critical thinkers who know how to operate in a common framework. That’s our future.

  6. Thanks, Rabbi Schiffman; you rock!
    ~ecd
    btw, i’m fairly resistant to change myself, so I do feel you on all the points you raised.

  7. I have also seen this problem with churches who have established relationships with Messianic congregations. There is a large charismatic church in my area that has a replica of the ark of the covenant behind the pulpit, an Israeli Flag, wave tallits, shofars are blown during worship, etc. and the Messianic visitors encourage this church. Shouldn’t Messianics be offended and discourage this? Meanwhile, I attend a Lutheran church who took members to visit a local synagogue, meet the Rabbi and learn about Judaism. In response, the members have a high respect for the Jewish faith and would not seek to do violence to treasured traditions or deface Jewish objects. Yet the Messianics I know are more concerned about their eschatology and where Israel fits into their view of the end times.

  8. I was very pleased with this discussion because even though I lacked certain facts about the finger pointing minhag, I learned a few things about other Jewish communities that do point, and even more, it made me realize that I may be too intolerant with Messianic variations. I still abhor the do anything you want because we think its cool view, but if something is solidly based in tradition and done within the parameters of that tradition, I am comfortable with it. I also need to be willing to venture beyond my comfort levels at times, which for me is difficult because I don’t even like to venture past my front door. The main thing is that this topic sparked really stimulating discussion, which is what my blog is all about. Thank you everyone for your thoughts and participation.

    Be well,

    Rabbi Michael Schiffman

    • Mercy me – I am moved and honored, Yahnatan – thank you!
      No, I don’t have a blog; I barely have time to read my e-mail, but every now and then I wander into someone’s online conversation and add my two cents 🙂

  9. “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.”

    I haven’t been to a Messianic service for some time, but was at a local Chabad House for Shavu’ot, and that is where I first saw some of the men wrap the tallit around themselves and their invited children during the blessing… not the wives. So, it’s not solely Messianic Jewish…

    • It doesn;t matter if you found some obscure congregation that did it..not all chabad houses do it, and we don’t know that one does it every week. It still is not a mainstream Jewish practice.

  10. It seems to me that we’re looking at practices that are non-normative yet permissible at times in certain mainstream settings. If the practice is not halakhically forbidden, the rabbi (as mara d’atra or halakhic master of the place) may permit it.

    The real problem arises when the congregational leader is not a genuine mara d’atra? What happens when individuals simply decide on their own and others follow? More fundamentally, what happens when the congregation as a whole has not been taught first of all to value and practice what is normative?

  11. This blog posting has made me think about a related issue that I have ruminated on many times before. Many messianic Jews did not grow up in a religiously Jewish environment (ie. sensitive to nusach of the prayer book and other customs), and therefore do not have much of a strong basis on which they can rest their source for customs. So, where does a person turn to? One could say to just follow the customs of your local messianic shul, but honestly many shuls in our movement are not sensitive to what nusach they pray or customs they take up. Many synagogues do things the way you have described — piecemeal together various cool looking customs. So for a person becoming observant in the MJ world to where do they turn? Ashkenazi? Sephardi? Who is to say? Will our movement have its own customs or be a conglomeration of Jews who practice the customs from their cultural heritage no matter how many years removed from practice in their families? What about converts? What custom do they take up?

    I realize this may be a question that is less important than others, but I just am wondering 10-20 years down the road, and wondering for myself as I grow and look forward to what my family will be like some day. Any thoughts?

  12. Interesting you mention the Talit being used as a table cloth….b/c I have seen it done countless times at my local Chabad. Granted it is not for a eating table, but I have seen a Tallit spread over a table during weekday shacharit services. The table usually has just a tzedaka box on it, and functions as a makeshift bima of sorts during the week.

  13. On standing under the tallis: the venerable and indisputable knowledge source called Wikipedia also says:

    “In many traditional Jewish communities it is the custom for congregants to spread their tallitot over their own heads during the blessing and not look at the Kohanim. If a man has children, they will come under his tallit to be blessed, even if they are quite old.”

    This blog also contains some persona recollections from a rabbi about standing under his father’s tallis during the administration of the Birkat Kohannim (i.e. duchening):

    …when the Cohanim would begin their preparations for Birchat Cohanim…We [children] stroked our imaginary beards and determined that since none of us were Cohanim, we should join the “other” [adult] davening to be blessed by the Cohanim. We all would run out to the Yeshiva Beis Medrash to stand with our fathers. I admit that my decision had nothing to do with the absence of a Cohen in our shul. In fact, I didn’t even think about the Cohanim: There was no way that I would miss an opportunity to be wrapped up with my father under his Tallit.

    If I were to venture a guess, I would say that some Messianics either remembered or read about the “standing under the tallis” thing and started doing it for the Aaronic benediction…not realizing that the tradition being referred to takes place during duchening–the full Birkat Kohanim which (nowadays) is typically only performed on moadim.

    So: is the father-spreading-the-tallis-over-the-family thing really the innovation? Isn’t it connected to a larger innovation: the practice of pronouncing the Aaronic benediction over the congregation at the end of the service as a closer. Isn’t this also a “Messianic transplant” of the “recitation” of the Brikat Kohanim which occurs in the musaf amidah (to which the congregation responds “ken y’hi ratzon”–or “amein” when an actual Cohen pronounces the blessing, the afore-mentioned duchening which in many shuls is only done on mo’edim)?

    Once upon a time I did a blog post on this topic. That was before I attended Conservative shul on Hag Pesach and experienced the full Birkat Kohanim for myself. Not knowing better, I totally stared at the Kohanim as they pronounced the blessing. And while I for one am grateful that there weren’t any Raiders of the Lost Ark pyrotechnics, such a manifestation of the reality of God’s g’vurah would be certainly a powerful wakeup call for us 21st century believers.

    • Thanks, Yahnatan. This helps clear up what I experienced with Chabad on Shavu’ot. It was only a one time visit, so I couldn’t say that it is a weekly event at an ‘obscure congregation’ as Dr. Schiffman may have supposed. I only noted what I saw at that particular mo’ed.

      • Contrary to popular perception Chabad is not the last word on Judaism, and not really mainstream Judaism. They have their own quirkiness, and just because some of them do certain things, it doesn’t make their practices normative.

  14. When I first became invol;ved with Messianic Judaism, I was told by the Rabbi, that the sole and only reason for the tallit was as a means to put the tzitzit on myself.

    If that is correct, then it seems to me that anjy other use of the tallit is demeaning to the tzitzit, and distracts one from their presence.

    By the way, Wikipedia is perhaps the most unreliable source of information about Jewish practice I can think of. If I saw anything purortedly authoritatve about Judaism on Wikipedia, the first thing I would do is not to believe it.

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