Decluttering Judaism

Decluttering Judaism

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Ted Merwin
Ted Merwin

It may be sacrilegious to admit it, but my favorite day of the week is not Saturday.

It’s Thursday, which is when the garbage truck rolls through my neighborhood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Like a rabbi gradually getting ready day by day for the Holy Sabbath, I spend the week preparing for Thursday, schlepping seemingly endless bags and baskets of old toys, busted furniture, decaying lumber from last year’s sukkah, and other detritus to the curb.

Let me explain: Our family is decluttering our house in advance of relocating to Baltimore next year for my wife’s sabbatical. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how good it feels to throw things out. As novelist John Updike put it in his memoirs, “Mailing letters, flushing a toilet, reading the last set of proofs — all have this sweetness of riddance.”

The first use of the verb “unclutter” occurred in the London Times in 1930, in an article on the newly rebuilt Sadler’s Wells, in which a journalist noted that the theater, with its steeply raked seats, “appears to go farthest in uncluttering the conditions for witnessing the performance.” Two decades later, in Vogue, a design expert coined the word “declutter,” in the context of exhorting women to “de-clutter your living room.”

Now Americans are obsessed with decluttering. Japanese author Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and its sequel, “Spark Joy,” have sold millions of copies in this country alone. As the cover of the current issue of O: The Oprah Magazine proclaims, “Make room for a new you! Clear your closet, lighten your load.” Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump proposes to deport millions of undocumented immigrants whom he claims are turning the United States into the world’s “dumping ground.” And psychologists instruct us to “streamline” our lives, ridding ourselves of unnecessary tasks, meetings, and social obligations, learning to “say no” and “break away from the need to be needed.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Americans are also preoccupied with losing weight, an overstuffed house is often described as having an eating disorder. Ed Morrow, Sheree Bykofsky and Rita Rosenkranz advised last year in “Declutter Anything: A Room-by-Room Guide to Cleaning Your Home and Simplifying Your Life,” that you need to combat your home’s “obesity” and “put your house on a diet.”

Kondo has a simple formula for knowing what to keep and what to discard. If it causes joy, keep it; if it does not, throw it out. But I’m not so sure. Do I scrap the diaries from my angst-ridden adolescence? Photos of people with whom I used to be friends? The guitar that I never learned to play?

Throughout the ages, there have been many attempts to “declutter” Judaism. Maimonides’ 12-century Mishneh Torah (“Review of the Torah”) codifies the vast corpus of Jewish law in a handy 14-volume digest. Yosef Caro’s 16-century Shulchan Aruch (“Set Table”) condenses the Talmud by omitting the debates of the sages and presenting only their final rulings; it also leaves out the laws pertaining to animal sacrifice. And the Reform movement, in its 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, rejected all the laws relating to diet, priestly purity and dress because “their observance in our day is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.” If she had been there, Kondo would undoubtedly have cheered them on.

Nowadays, with an ever-decreasing number of Jews engaged in American Jewish life, dispensing of aspects of Judaism doesn’t seem kosher to me. My fellow Hillel directors and I often struggle to engage Jewish students, knowing that the vast majority of them have essentially disposed of the few connections to Judaism that they had, in a headlong rush to assimilate into the campus culture.

We know how involved these students are in other extracurricular activities that are available on campus; many of them are, in fact, leaders of these other groups. But we can’t help wishing that they would make some space for Judaism in their schedules, so that we could expose them to the tremendous breadth and depth of our religious and cultural heritage. If they did, would they find that our Shabbat services and dinners, holiday celebrations, klezmer concerts and Israel festivals “spark joy” in their hearts? Would they, at the very least, want to come back?

Or would they again jettison their Judaism, tossing it into the trash — or, best-case scenario, into the recycle bin? n

Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa.), where he also serves as Hillel director. His most recent book is the National Jewish Book Award-winning “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”

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