Dialogue with traditions

In initiatory Wicca, there have been some fairly heated arguments over the years about what tradition means, and what aspects of Wicca can be creatively altered to be inclusive. When I started talking about making Wicca more inclusive for LGBTQIA+ people, the response from some people was “but what about the tradition?”

In this post, I propose a new approach to questions of tradition: more of a creative dialogue, and a focus on the real purpose of a tradition (which is the approach I have tried to take all along, but some people assumed that I was throwing away all adherence to tradition).

It is possible that the debate has moved on significantly since I last discussed these things with the people concerned; I left the relevant Facebook groups some time ago, and then I left Facebook altogether, because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Previous posts on this topic

In my previous posts about tradition, I have talked about the purpose of traditions, the fluid and evolving nature of traditions, and how and why they evolve.

  • In Tradition and Change, I talked about the function of traditions in maintaining community cohesiveness, what are the criteria for keeping a tradition unchanged, and what are the criteria for changing it.
  • In Individuation in Pagan Traditions, I talked about one of the goals of Pagan religions: the discovery of the authentic self.
  • In But What About the Tradition, I pointed out that ancient paganisms and polytheisms were often inclusive of same-sex love and gender variance (though they had a different conceptual framework for these concepts).
  • In Authority in Religious Traditions, I described how people telling you that you are doing your Paganism wrong is often a bid for power over others: power to define the tradition, power to say who is included and who is not, and power to control others’ religious practice.

Discussion and interpretation

This morning, I read an amazing thread on the meaning of mitzvot in Judaism, and the purpose of living life according to halakhah, and how the mitzvot and ‘aggadah are interpreted through midrash. Rabbi Ruttenberg starts her thread with an analogy for Christians about the validity of doing communion with Oreos and Coke. For Pagans, the starting analogy could be, what if someone told you that a wand could be made out of plastic, wouldn’t that be a big Nope?

I am not proposing to adopt this approach wholesale into Wicca or other Pagan traditions (that would be cultural appropriation), but we can learn a lot from it.

In Judaism, mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) are a ritual means of maintaining the Jewish person’s covenant with God. They are a series of obligations fulfilled by the observant Jew in order to constantly keep the Divine at the forefront of their mind. Halakhah is the Jewish law and discussions around it. A Jewish gentleman at an interfaith event told me that each verse of Torah has 70 different interpretations and that Jews enjoy debating them. This debate, and the texts produced from it, are known as midrash. Aggadah or Haggadah are stories from the scriptures, and midrash aggadah is the rabbinical discussion of the meaning and implications of these stories. It was agreed in the second century CE that all scriptural exegesis should promote a humane outcome and be decided on Earth; and the story of the Bat Qol emphasizes and exemplifies this conclusion.

A similar process happens in Islam: there are hadith (sayings of the Prophet, which have different categories), sunnah (traditional practices), and there is a strong tradition of discussion about the meanings and implications of these for Muslim life (a fatwa is a non-binding opinion given by an imam on a question of interpretation of Muslim law). The process of discussing and interpreting Islamic law is called fiqh.

So, in Judaism and Islam, discussions about the impact, meaning, interpretation, and implementation of the norms and practices of their tradition happen all the time, and their traditions evolve. In Christianity, such discussions often resulted in violent schism, persecution of heretics, and rigid enforcement of orthodoxy, though even there, traditions also evolved.

Pagans who have escaped from Christianity often regard discussions of tradition in much the same way. They regard tradition as set in stone, and any departure from it as a heresy (usually punishable by making you start a whole new tradition based on your deviation from whatever they regard as the One True Way). I am happy to say that as the Wiccan community discusses our traditions more online, people are coming to a realization that different lineages do things differently, and that is just fine.

Wiccans from a Jewish background (who generally have a much more complex and nuanced attitude to tradition) have been known to respond to all this with, “but tradition is lovely, you can’t reject it”. To which I respond, I am not throwing out the whole thing, I just want us to have a dialogue with it, and interpret it creatively and inclusively.

Dialogue with tradition

So what would a Wiccan dialogue with tradition look like? We do not have a single unified Book of Shadows; there are different Books in different lineages, and there are many different interpretations of the rituals and writings passed down to us by the early Wiccans. We are unlikely to end up with categories resembling mitzvot, midrash, haggadah, and halakhah, and I don’t think we should try to do so. (It is probably worth mentioning that throughout this post, when I say Wicca, I mean initiatory Wicca; I am not excluding eclectic Wiccans, but much of this discussion is irrelevant to them.)

A first step in such a dialogue could be to discuss the purpose of Wiccan traditions. It is generally agreed that the purpose of Wicca is to deepen the practitioner’s relationship with Nature; another common goal is the discovery of the authentic self. You can probably find someone who disagrees with these goals in some way, but they are fairly widely accepted. Just as the purpose of a mitzvot is to deepen the observant Jew’s relationship with God, so the purpose of a Wiccan traditional practice is to deepen our relationship with Nature. Traditions should be a joyful and life-enhancing thing, not something that makes people unhappy.

Given these goals, we can then examine a traditional practice to see if it helps or hinders progress towards these goals. The fairly neutral example I gave earlier, the question of whether a wand can be made of plastic, can be decided according to these criteria. Plastic is a human-made material, and has a very tenuous relationship with the natural world (being made from oil). Metals are also wrought by humans, but they are usually not hugely transformed from their natural state (even in the case of alloys).

Another way of looking at a question like this is to ask whether the proposed innovation helps or hinders the creation of magic and mystery. I generally assume that magical energy can more easily be transmitted along wood or metal, because wood has a grain, and metal transmits electricity; whereas plastic has neither of these of these qualities.

Another fairly uncontroversial example is how you sweep a circle before a ritual. The purpose of sweeping the space is to get rid of any negative vibes in the space (as well as any physical dirt on the floor). Therefore, when I sweep a circle, I sweep all the dirt into the middle, and then sweep it out of the door, just as you do when you are sweeping the kitchen floor. Some people sweep only around the edge of the circle, which does not make sense to me. Sweeping a magical space in the same way as you would sweep up physical dirt makes more sense to me.

When it comes to more controversial topics, such as the role and purpose of gender and sexuality in Wicca, we can apply these same criteria to discussions of what to change and how much to change it. Does the proposed change (e.g. not making everyone stand alternately male-female in circle) help or hinder our stated magical goals?

We know from numerous scientific studies that biological sex is not binary (there are many intersex conditions, and there is more than one biological marker that can be used to decide which biological sex someone is). We know from numerous sociological studies of past and present cultures that gender is not binary. That being the case, an insistence on a binary definition of gender in a Wiccan circle makes no sense in the context of a stated goal to deepen our relationship with Nature. It also doesn’t work in a magical sense, because it ignores the many different types of polarity that are available.

In Judaism, when a mitzvot does not fit a modern context, the rabbis work out a new interpretation of that mitzvot that works in the modern context. If something that made sense to someone in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s no longer makes sense to us in the light of new understandings, we are at liberty to come up with a new interpretation of the concept that encompasses the new understanding.

If we truly want to decolonize our practice, this means examining every part of it to check for assumptions that we have unwittingly imported from a Christian understanding of religious practice. Even if you came from an atheist background, you have probably picked up all sorts of assumptions about how religion works that are broadly based on a Christian set of assumptions. If you came from a Jewish or Muslim background and absorbed the interpretative approach to tradition outlined above, you’re probably already taking a dialogue approach to Wiccan tradition.

It is worth noting that in ancient paganisms, a haeresis (from which we get the word heresy) was a school of thought. The word was morally neutral: it did not mean an erroneous school of thought, just a different school of thought. Similarly, in Hinduism, there are many different schools and approaches (Bhaktivedanta, Brahmo Samaj, Shaktiism, Shivaism, devotion to Vishnu, and many more). These can have sharp disagreements with each other, but they are all regarded as forms of Hinduism and viewed as being within the Hindhu dharma.

We can have a diversity of thought and practice within initiatory Wicca (even within the same tradition of initiatory Wicca) without the need for creating schism and insisting that the variation in practice should result in a new tradition. It is noticeable that this schismatic tendency has happened the most in the USA. I think this is for two reasons. The first is that the USA was founded by a group of people with a rigid adherence to a specific orthodoxy (Puritanism) which has also resulted in many schisms over points of doctrine and practice. The second is that we are seeing a version of diaspora effect, where a group of people who practice a religion in a different culture than the one where that religion arose tend to be much more rigid in their interpretation of that religion’s rules and norms.

Rather than dismissing others’ interpretations of traditions as wrong or heretical, we should enter into a dialogue about the meaning of the tradition or text, and how it can best be expanded or modified, both to ensure that the goal of these traditional practices is fulfilled, and to ensure that it includes people who might otherwise be excluded by it.

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11 thoughts on “Dialogue with traditions

  1. On the relation of tradition to Jewish practice, the writings of Mordecai Kaplan, 20th Century American Jewish theologian, founder of the very progressive Reconstructionist denomination, I believe is quite informative. His aphorism “The past has a vote but not a veto” is a signifier one of the roots of the quality of modern Judaism that you speak of in your essay. I would summarize his intellectual struggle as being how do the Jewish people manifest the essential qualities of Jewishness with respect to an tradition that of necessity evolves through time. A central issue being that the answers appropriate in previous time may not be appropriate, or even ethical, now. The following article gives a short summary of his thinking regarding Judaism, both its theology, its ethical structure, and the evolution of ‘Law’ over time. Any Pagan coming into Paganism from a Jewish background will, whether they realize it or not, have been effected by his thinking and his questions are informative to the issues your are exploring.

    The discovery of the essence of a tradition is, in my view, occurs of necessity as conditions change and the very process of religion causes unfoldment of new ethical, theological, and esthetic truths. Traditions will be judged by a ‘Meta-torah’ that is criteria that are not entirely from the past. Kaplan’s gift may well be clearly saying that the wrestling. the dialog as you call it, with finding what is essential in a tradition may in fact be the essence of the religious endeavor.
    Thank you for the excellent essay.


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    • I love this — thank you for sharing.

      I suspect that a lot of the disconnects on this topic in Paganism and Wicca are because people are coming at it from a very different set of prior assumptions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “I am not proposing to adopt this approach wholesale into Wicca or other Pagan traditions (that would be cultural appropriation), but we can learn a lot from it.” —

    I am not sure that any Jew, Orthodox or Progressive would really object to the use of Talmudic Exegesis or a ‘Kaplen’ian Wrestling with Tradition’ by Initiatory Wiccan’s and consider it ‘cultural appropriation’. A method of spiritual exploration and religious argument used within that tradition really can’t be copyrighted by a people, and if the method were to serve such a purpose for another tradition, ‘mazel tov!’

    Rather the issue you raised with you point is perhaps ‘appropriateness for its stated function’. The Jewish techniques address the question of how a tradition is passed on and evolves within a people, where one’s interaction with that tradition begins at birth (even for converts who embrace the tradition, the metaphor is very much ‘adoption in to a family, where the ‘family’ for those born to the group is not metaphorical at all ) The methods of finding this essence have been developed over the years to guide a people, what Kaplan called a civilization within a larger civilization, in maintaining coherence with respect to this essence, and maintain the continued existence of that people. In a sense the techniques are pedagogic in that, while they guide adult behavior, the question is asked, ‘what should be passed on to a child born within the tradition?’

    Initiatory Wicca perhaps raises a different question. That is, The adult candidate for a Degree will be changed by their initiation. In wrestling with the essence of the tradition, one might wan’t to ask the following questions.
    What is the nature of the change that occurs?
    What exactly will effectuate that change?
    With initiation as magical act the question, ‘should one make any changes to the tradition will a rite still serve its function, will it still work?’ becomes very important.
    This are different questions than those asked by within Judaism and a different method of exploration to find the evolving essence probably needs be developed?

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    • Well, it would be culturally appropriative if we started using the terms midrash and mitzvot to talk about exegesis and traditions in Wicca. But the main reason it doesn’t fit exactly is that the Wiccan relationship to texts is different than the Jewish relationship with the Tanakh.

      We certainly can and should have a more nuanced attitude to traditions within Wicca.

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  3. I see tradition as somewhat analogous to recipes. For example, white sauce is generally made with flour, fat, and milk, and there are recipes that mix them in different ways; if someone has those three things but has never made white sauce, they almost certainly won’t succeed; if you give them any recipe, suddenly their chance rockets; the existence of many recipes, each of which have produced white sauce well enough to be recorded and passed on indicates there are multiple “traditions” of making white sauce that are objectively functional but subjectively better for specific circumstances; and, someone with enough understanding of white sauce can pick which recipe is best for their specific circumstance at that moment.

    In the same way, spiritual traditions provide a method of achieving a goal that is very hard to achieve purely by chance and instinct but are ultimately only a path that is more or less effective for a specific person at a specific time, and can be set aside by someone who has internalised what the goal requires.

    The trick is to realise when the benefit from having the confidence of external support is less than the burden of being straitjacketed by rules that don’t apply to every situation.

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    • Yes, excellent analogy, and I have always argued something similar: that a thing only becomes a tradition because it worked for a specific group of people at a specific time; they liked it and did it again, then it became a tradition, so more people did it. Eventually someone comes along for whom it doesn’t work, for some reason. If the person is considered in-group, the group may modify the tradition to include them. If they are not considered in-group, the group will complain about changing the tradition to include them.


  4. Such a common misapprehension of tradition, that it is an ancient and dry husk of something once precious that must be preserved at all costs.
    Tradition is simply continuity, and traditions are born and die every moment, ever changing, ever evolving. Just like life itself.
    Sounds to me like some people are using it to try to rationalise their bigotry..

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