Don’t Ask Me Why

Are you an observant Jew? The question itself is often a code for living an Orthodox Jewish Life. But is that what it really means? For a Conservative Jew what would that question mean? Conservative Judaism permits, in some circumstances, riding on Shabbat. It means that there are certain disagreements concerning keeping kosher between Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. Conservative Judaism claims you can be observant and still count women in a minyan or have a document witnessed by a woman of legal age. It also means that you don’t have to believe that the Torah as we have it today was handed to Moses at Mt. Sinai. So if you are a Conservative Jew, are you an observant Jew?
Of course you are!
We observe what we observe and we try and do what is right in our lives. Perhaps we are not perfect in our observance but then, who is really perfect in observance? Why do I have to believe that I must observe “everything” if I want to be considered observant? Does it have to be all or nothing? Of course not!
Are you an observant Jew? Do we really care about this question? We live our lives as best we can. We try to be fair, honest and earn a living. Do we care at all what Judaism says about our lives? Do we ever really stop and consider what Judaism would have to say about what we do every day and if we find that we could be living lives that are more observant, does that fact alone inspire us to try harder to be an “observant Jew”?
Thus there is a question behind the question. Why do we bother with any Jewish observance at all? Is it only nostalgia about what our parents or grandparents used to do? Do we feel, somewhere in our hearts, that living an observant life is somehow better, like the old Hebrew National slogan that we are living “according to a higher standard”? That rabbis in every age have argued and refined Jewish Law to give us this pure way of living a spiritual life; does that matter to us at all? Would we be motivated to keep kosher, go to shul on Shabbat or on weekdays, learn to pray, wear tephillin because ancient and/or modern sages tell us that we should be doing these things? Do we feel at all guilty that we are not doing them?
Are we all really “Jews by choice” – we do what we choose to do, and we choose not according to what rabbis say, but according to what make “sense” in our lives? Are we motivated to observe because the action is a mitzvah, a command from the Torah? Are we less motivated if we discover that it is only a command of the later Sages? If someone gave you a set of dishes to use in your kosher kitchen, would you refuse them if you discovered that the rabbis say there may be no way to make these dishes, used in a non-kosher home, fit for use in your own home? Would you ask your Rabbi to find a heter/permission to use the dishes? Would you even care to ask?
These are the kinds of questions that rabbis discuss all the time. Are we making laws and granting permission to people who care one whit about the nuances of our discussions? Certainly there are some for whom these issues are important, but will any of this help most Jews find their way back to Judaism? It is not an easy question. When a Jew wants to find his or her way back to an observant lifestyle, more often than not, they are looking for a very “traditional” life style, one that is somehow “pure” and not “tainted” by modernity. Perhaps this is why Chabad seems to do such a big business in people returning to Judaism. The strict observance of Chabad often strikes returning Jews as more “authentic” then the requirements of other liberal forms of Judaism.
Does the reason for performing a mitzvah matter more than the fact that it is a commandment of God? Do we want to know what God requires of us or do we want to know that our actions will make a difference in our lives and make a positive difference in the world? This question alone fuels rabbinic debate whenever rabbis get together and discuss the state of Judaism today. Philosophers and legal theorists defend their positions and all the while we cling to the latest sociological surveys to see what motivates Jews to bring more observance into their lives. Will it really make a difference if we have students spend less time in Hebrew School or would cutting Hebrew School hours only tell parents that a Jewish education is not really that valuable? Is learning Hebrew and teaching Hebrew prayers important in the life of a Jew? Is it more important that we teach about the State of Israel than teaching about the Holocaust? Than teaching student s how to read the Bible?
Perhaps every family is different and has its own unique approach to Judaism in family life. How will that affect the way synagogues provide Jewish services? How will that change the way we teach Judaic subjects to children and adults? How will it change the way we pray, the way we study, the way we relate to each other as Jews?
Are you an observant Jew? What does this question mean to you? What would motivate you and your family to seek an answer to this question? The future of Judaism depends on your answers. Does that motivate us to answer the questions? What would motivate you?
If I have made you think about these questions and if I you have begun to form some answers in your mind, how about writing them down, and attaching them as comments to this blog. Just click on the link below and share your answers.
Write your take on these answers today. “Rabbis are standing by to read your answers.”

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