Re’eh: “. . . because of the dead.”

“You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.” (Deuteronomy 14:1)

Deuteronomy has in mind mourning rights of a kind that are found in many societies. But when I read this, I also think about the way that we can disfigure and twist ourselves out of a misplaced allegiance to the past.

Judaism is a traditional religion, which is one of the things I love about it. Yet one can make a distinction between “tradition” and “traditionalism,” as Church historian Jaraslov Pelikan does.  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”  (from a 1989 interview focused on his then-new book The Vindication of Tradition)

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