For Jewish day school children everywhere, one potential highlight of the holiday season is a biannual ritual known as the “Chol HaMoed trip,” a family outing taken during the “intermediate days” of Pesach and Sukkos. These are the times (except for summer recess) when all the schools are on break, and thus ideal for excursions as a family. In a year (like this one) when Pesach does not coincide with spring breaks in the secular system, one can enjoy various attractions without competing with large crowds.
Our major excursion this year was a drive up to Lancaster, PA, which is a tourist destination for two reasons: railroading, and the Amish. For railroad enthusiasts, Lancaster is home to the Strasburg Rail Road, which at over 150 years old is the oldest short line railroad in America. It was restored as a tourist attraction, and various resources for railroad and model railroad buffs have popped up around it.
The other highlight of our trip was an opportunity to ride in an Amish horse-drawn buggy, one of the area’s other major attractions. My wife and kids enjoyed the buggy. What I was looking forward to, though, was meeting the Amish driver. He’s the gentleman to the left in this picture.
Traditional values, centuries-old practices, close families, long beards, and black hats — sound familiar? Chassidim and Amish have shared roles in jokes told from the shteibl to Hollywood, and admittedly it was amusing to watch a family of Chassidim meet a different driver and board in front of us. [Perhaps I should have asked if the Amish tell jokes involving Chassidim.] Both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch (the home language of the Amish) are derived from German, but I wonder if they could communicate without English — since I can’t really follow rapid-fire Yiddish, my inability to understand the few sentences that I heard of the latter tongue isn’t a valid indicator.
There are other, more subtle similarities as well. I read in a guide that the Amish may own phones in their barns as well as cell phones; their rule says that no wire can run to the house. When I told this to the driver, his assessment of the reliability of this information was familiar to any Orthodox Jewish reader of press articles about the Orthodox. Given that the Amish aren’t writing articles in the secular press, what you have are articles written by outsiders, who often simply don’t understand the “why” behind what they are observing. No, he said, wires to the house are not the problem.
I was asking about the phones because I wanted to understand more of the Amish system. This was not in the vein of asking about foreign religious practices — like how they worship on Sundays — but how the church establishes the rules that make them a distinct community. And here is what I found somewhat surprising: the rules do not necessarily tie together.
Why can they own gas-powered heating and refrigerators, but not gas-powered tractors? Why can the kids have ultra-modern “Razor” scooters, but not bicycles? The answer is that these are the rules of the church, and as the son (and owner of the business) told me, the rules don’t have to make sense.
I’m not saying this to badmouth the Amish. Their way has a lot to say for itself, especially in comparison to the media- and advertising-driven society of our day. I was a bit disappointed to learn that the “New Order Amish,” of which our driver is a member, drive cars — just because it is another sign of people losing their attachment to traditions. But as far as why we do the things that we do, the Amish and observant Jews could hardly be further apart.
At this point I anticipate the Orthodox readers sharing my surprise at my discovery — while I can imagine others reacting in the other direction: you mean, all of your rules do make sense?
The distinction is this. We only accept chukim, decrees, from Torah, because we view the Torah as the Word of G-d. If something is Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai, a Law given to Moses at Sinai, then it is the product of a Supernatural Intelligence, and we do not demand the ability to comprehend it (though we can and do try to understand even these). Every decree of the Rabbis, on the other hand, comes with reasons. We get to ask why — not to challenge, but in order to learn and understand. The Amish way is one of quiet acceptance; the Jewish way is one of constant argument, debate and intellectual exercise.