Throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It’s a well-worn idiom. We see far too many examples of it in practice. We certainly see examples of it in Torah. We may have to stretch a bit to make the idiom fit, but in this week’s parasha, we have the example of Esau throwing out the baby – his birthright to assuage his fierce hunger which could be thought of as the bathwater. In the haftarah for Makhar Hodesh which we read this Shabbat, King Saul throws out the baby (literally, his son Jonathan) for the bathwater of trying to protect his own son’s future kingship from being usurped by David.
We can extend the idiom. Perhaps Rivka (Rebekkah) throws out the baby (literally her son Esau) in her effort to assure a better future for her favored son, Yaakov (Jacob.) Or we can look at it another way – in seeking to assure her favored son his father’s blessing, she exhorts him to deceit. In a way, that is throwing out the baby of ethical behavior with the bathwater, her son Esau, who has displeased her by marrying out of the tribe.
While none of these are clear cut examples of the idiom of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, they’re close enough to allow me to go where I really want to go in this musing today. In recent days, I came across use of the throwing out the baby with the bathwater idiom in a number of places, and in a number of different Jewish contexts. In fact, I think it’s an oft-cited idiom when it comes to discussions and debates about Judaism.
For liberal Judaism, and in particular Reform Judaism, there has been a realization that in the effort to liberalize and reconcile Judaism with modern knowledge and practice we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. This has precipitated a renewed interest in traditions and practices once considered quaint, pointless, meaningless, and not in keeping with modern realities. I make no secret of my belief that this is a good thing.
Nevertheless, every time I encountered this idiom in the past few days, something was niggling at me. My feelings as to what was bothering me were crystallized by the mere random chance of seeing a tweet on Twitter that contained a quote from the Dalai Lama that appeared in Roger Kamenetz’s “The Jew in the Lotus.”
“Could we make Judaism more beneficial instead of asking Jews to just hold on out of guilt?”
The Dalai Lama’s question really resonated with me. I also sensed this vague connection with the baby/bathwater idiom. On a whim, I decided to look up “throw out the baby with the bathwater” on Wikipedia. Initially, it explained the idiom as most of us understand it:
an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad, or in other words, rejecting the essential along with the inessential. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Throw_out_the_baby_with_the_bath_water)
However, it went on.
A slightly different explanation suggests that this flexible catchphrase has to do with discarding the essential while retaining the superfluous because of excessive zeal. In other words, the idiom is applicable not only when it’s a matter of throwing out the baby with the bath water, but also when someone might throw out the baby and keep the bath water. (ibid)
Aha! There’s what I was feeling and sensing. I think both traditional and liberal Judaism are equally guilty of this meaning of the idiom (as well as the usual meaning.) As a liberal Jew, I can certainly see how, from my perspective, traditional Judaism, in its narrow focus on jot and tittle rather than essence, has kept the bathwater and thrown out the baby. At the same time, I can also clearly see how liberal Judaism can hold on to its own bathwater (witness congregations where the wearing of a kippah is still banned or frowned upon.) In fact, I see examples of people, groups, religions, etc. holding on to bathwater having thrown out the baby throughout our world. Is that what happened this past election day? Or is that what a majority of voters think the administration has done? It all depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?
It’s all a matter of perspective of course. Which is the baby? Which is the bathwater? The practice of hakafah is an interesting case in point. Is it essence, or external trapping? Is it due kavod to Torah, or is it, as some suggest, actually idol worship? Is it baby or bathwater? Or both? Or neither?
In musing on this, I come to a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion. It may not be possible to clearly define essential and superfluous when applying this idiom to Judaism. Distinguishing between baby and bathwater seems rather clear cut. When baby and bathwater become metaphors, it’s not so simple.
So it is with Torah. It’s easy for us to deride Esau for his actions. It’s easy for us to be horrified at the ethical lapses of Rivkah and Yaakov (not to mention Yitzkhak’s probable tacit complicity.) Saul becomes an easy man to dislike. Each of them may be thought of as having thrown out the baby with the bathwater. From my perspective, traditioanl Judaism seems to have held on to a lot of bathwater and discarded at least some of the baby. Yet we need to be cautious here. What better place to find a way to urge this caution than in another idiom, the one about not judging someone until we’ve walked in their shoes (or worn their skin, etc.)
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester