Monday, April 28, 2014



Something Borrowed, Something Blue
28 Nissan, 5774; Yom HaShoah
13th Day of the Omer

Read the piece. Then read the comments. They're almost more interesting.

I think she makes a good point. In fact, I think she makes such a good point that her idea isn't just limited to Pesach. I think her piece is applicable to all kinds of cultural appropriation.

In the Talmud, there are four categories of people who are entrusted with an object that belongs to another person. These are things like a renter, or someone you ask to look after a possession. But of them all, the one who is required to take the most care for your object, the most liable to return your possession to you in the condition it was received - is the borrower. To borrow is to take on the responsibility for treating another's possession as they would wish, and not only according to the borrower's needs.

When we don't honor that responsibility to the owner, we no longer call what's happening borrowing. There is an uglier word we use: appropriation.

Appropriation happens all the time. Beyond the pain of seeing what are often a people’s most treasured possessions – their spiritual traditions, their greatest cultural achievements – taken without regard to their owners’ wishes, appropriation also marginalizes the group that was appropriated from. There is a reason that commercial rock stations all around the country will throw in some hip hop – when group played coincidentally happens to be white. Rock and roll itself only became mainstream after it was appropriated from African Americans.

There is great regard for Native American traditions in our society; a lot less regard for how we treat actual Native Americans. I was in Poland to witness the huge revival of klezmer music and Hassidic culture: tens of thousands of people who aren’t Jewish coming to festivals, some even dressing the part. But Jews don’t do so well in Poland.

As a rabbi, I know something about appropriation, mostly because I’m tempted to do it all the time. It’s so much easier to massage that Hassidic story to sound more palatable or support my point. It’s so great to borrow some spiritual technique from another tradition and toss it in – we all love a little something exotic. But it’s damn hard not to do violence to the people and the context from which that tradition arose, and we lose a lot of the real meaning in the process*.

This isn’t an argument against borrowing. Borrowing traditions and ideas is what’s going to save the world and get us all to understand each other. But we can't borrow without looking the owner in the face. The message has got to be that we can’t separate a tradition from its people.

*A friend with ample experience working with modern day descendants of the Mayans asked a villager he knew about the whole world ending in 2012 thing. The villager said that people couldn’t have misunderstood that tradition more if they tried.

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