Riding with the Amish

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 our driverof 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.

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13 Responses

  1. Ellen Solomon says:

    We visited Lancaster last summer. It was a great escape from the commercial-laden life we live in New York City. Next time you go, I highly recommend the Cherry Crest Farm (www.amazingmaze.com) which is an optional stop on the railroad. Last year they opened specially for Chol HaMoed Sukkot.

    I also got some sense that the tour guides didn’t really understand the Amish lives they were describing. Particularly when one made some crack about the men making the rules for a certain dress code of the women – it just seemed way too familiar!

    While our buggy driver was an observant Amish, unfortunately she wasn’t much of a guide in answering my couple of questions about her religion.

    Regarding the rules, I would venture to guess that the purpose is to keep them distant from American society. I’m going to make a vague comparison to the prohibition of umbrellas on Shabbat – something about the integrity of Shabbat itself rather than 100% a problem of constructing a tent. I agree that we generally have many more principles operating when determining halacha, but don’t we also have some “spirit” type piskei halacha?

    (A major difference of course is that even if my characterization is accurate, the Amish laws are more spirit and no system.)

  2. Shlomo says:

    Every decree of the Rabbis CAME with reasons… but even when the reason has gone away, as with medicine on Shabbat or fish and meat, the Rabbinic decree remains. Are we really any different from the Amish in this regard?

  3. ilana says:

    We visited the zoo one day last summer, and it happened that a number of Old Order Amish or Mennonite families were there too (inspiring at least as much gawking as the animals). My daughter (age 8 and a fan of Little House books) asked why they dress in such an old-fashioned way. So I asked her – which do you think is more tznius – the way people dressed in the “olden days,” or the way they dress now? She answered – the olden days. So I explained that these people do not see any need to change from the good, tzniusdik way they have been dressing for hundreds of years in order to dress like everybody else in 2004. I also pointed out that where the new ways are an improvement, they seem quite willing to adopt them – I noticed that the women were wearing good, sensible black athletic shoes and that they were pushing modern (but simple) strollers of the type that certainly were not available 200 years ago!
    I don’t know how accurate my assessment was from an Amish perspective, and I certainly do not claim that their society is perfect, but one can learn a great deal from their emphasis on simplicity vis a vis material possessions.

  4. Neviah T. says:

    From what I understand, there is a sort of rhyme and reason to the Ordnung (Amish Halacha) – it’s built around concepts of modesty, humility and “plainness”. What we think of as Amish is actually a fairly broad palette of religious subgroupings within the Mennonite Church – it goes from a sort of “haredi” Schwartzendruber Amish sect to Mennonite fellow travelers who drive cars, for instance, but dress according to the Ordnung’s dictates on modesty. And so on. The Amish are facing pressures now, as their ability to maintain small farms falters (for a variety of reasons). So many have taken to other forms of commerce, which of course forces them into greater contact with larger society. I think there’s also a strong element, as Ms. Solomon has pointed out, of trying to stay “off the grid” as means of separation, not just electrically, but also financially (they won’t use typical medical insurance, but rather do a form of church-based self-insurance). However, it should be pointed out that they do pay taxes and most certainly vote (I recall hear that Republicans sought to capture the Ohio and Pennsylvania vote in 2004 – I have no idea how successful they were with those particular communities).

  5. joel rich says:

    “Every decree of the Rabbis CAME with reasons”

    I don’t believe this to be correct – they had reasons but in many cases did not divulge them so that people would not say “that reason doesn’t apply to me therefore the rule doesn’t apply to me” or perhaps because there were multiple reasons.


  6. Netanel Livni says:

    I think there is one example in the ashkenazi community of blindly following custom. Has anyone found a valid reason why we do not say Birchat Kohanim every day? Even those Achronim that try to find reason’s for the strange practice admit the their explanations are insufficient.

  7. Menachem Petrushka says:

    Rabbi Menken mentions “Traditional values, centuries-old practices, close families, long beards, and BLACK HATS —sound familiar? The first 3 items sound familiar, but if one looks at the picture that accompanies the article, the Amish men are sporting WHITE STRAW hats. The Amish wear black “felt” in winter and white straw in summer.

    In the past, centrist OJs practiced the same sartorial habits. With the advent of air-consitioning and brain-conditioning, white straw hats fell out of favor. Except for a few brave souls in Black Hats Hills where I live, Black is de rigeur even on the hottest days.

    Beards too have become the rage among the centrist OJs. Do not worry. One can still tell the hirsute Amish and the Charedi/Weekend Charedi apart. The Amish do not have mustasches.

  8. DovBear says:

    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

    So going without a car is a valuable tradition, a tradition that must be mantained? Says who? God? Certainly not.

    As usual, I don’t follow your reasoning. If there’s no outright law from God that says “go without a car” why are you wishing that burden on another human being, a burden you (presumably) haven’t accepted on yourself? To quote Bellow “Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you yourself enjoyed old-fashioned Values?” Why should an Amish man go without a convenience you enjoy? So you can and your family have the pleasure of sighing contentedly in his general direction once per year, on your chol hamoed trip? That’s close to monsterous.

    Also, what about dangerous “traditions” like the tradition of going without medicine and life-saving surgical procedures? Are you also disapointed to find that this “tradition” has been abandoned?

  9. Gil Student says:

    This past Yom Tov, I had the pleasure of visiting Atlanta. On Sunday, I heard R. Michael J. Broyde speak on the issue of whether the limitations of prohibitions can change when sociological realities change, such as shaving on Hol Ha-Mo’ed, pregnant women waiting to remarry and others. In response to a question about Kitniyos, he quoted the Hayei Adam as stating that customs are different from legal prohibitions: they reflect the common practice and do not have to follow logical rules, i.e. they do not have to be consistent or entirely make sense.

    If the Amish rules are considered customs rather than prohibitions–if they have such distinctions–then their inconsistencies might be quite comparable to ours.

  10. Yaakov Menken says:

    DovBear, somehow I don’t quite equate driving a car with access to medical care. The Amish do apparently ride in cars, especially in life-saving situations — in fact, they seem to have a community volunteer emergency service in conjunction with “outsiders”. As we were leaving, we saw three young Amish men race towards a pick-up truck with a flashing blue light on top. Several blocks later we encountered fire trucks pulling in to a hotel parking lot, along with another, similar vehicle, and Amish men were controlling traffic. So they seem to take lifesaving activities quite seriously.

    For them, the restriction on using automobiles means that the Amish live close together — the same way Orthodox Jews tend to live in walking distance of synagogues. I am sure many people think that not driving on Shabbos is an “inconvenience”, but would you say that the way this forces us to live in proximity to synagogues, driving up real-estate prices, is “monstrous”?

    I did not say that individual Amish shouldn’t drive or shouldn’t leave the church — that is a matter of individual choice. But there’s an American trend of watering down religious beliefs and practices, that both cuts across the board and directly (and negatively) affects American Jewry. I don’t believe that is a trend we should cheer.

  11. Mo says:

    It’s interesting to hear about the Amish ‘hatzoloh’ above ;-).

    Re the Amish voting, which someone raised in a previous comment, actually, I recall reading that it is a matter of disagreement among them.

  12. sma says:

    “I’m not saying this to badmouth the Amish.”

    Why the incessant triumphalism on this blog? This post is reminiscent of Rabbi Adlerstein’s post on the custom of wakes (the pope’s levaya looks kewl, but wasn’t RSZA’s levaya so much kewler and more spiritual?). Can’t we ever just admire? Why is the undertone always We Jews are The Best, and just in case anyone gets distracted, let’s subtly put committed Christians down. Let’s point out how we are better than them.

    The Amish are special; were chazal living in our times, might they not have instituted at least some material restrictions or some barriers that would have allowed us to use technology but maintain simplicity? We can all learn from the Amish.

    And if they appear to be better than us in this regard, well, let that be a mussar haskel. Don’t distract from that with a speech on why the underpinnings of our religion are more sophisticated and intellectual than theirs, or whatever your point was supposed to be.

  13. sma says:

    In any case, the proper analogy is not to Orthodoxy, but to some specific group, like Tosch or Satmar. The rules and subrules are communal, more than religious. The elders are the rebbes.

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