Friday, October 15, 2010

Guest Post: How should we be observant?

Another guest post from Jonathan R.  At first I was thinking to call it "How observant should we be?" but I think the title above is perhaps more reflective of what J is saying.  Enjoy, and Shabbat shalom!

Recently, Yahnatan came across this blog post which talks about how observant this particular family is willing to become and the reasons why.

Per our usual online habit he sent it to me with one word: "Thoughts?"

My first thought was another blog post that I read recently: A La Carte Observance.
Towards the end of the post (which you should read in its entirety), Rabbi Schiffman touches on the issue of Kashrut (keeping kosher):
"When I am home, I maintain one level of Kashrut, and when I am outside the home, I maintain a different level. On the surface this looks like what so many people I knew growing up did; having a kosher home but going out for roast pork at Chinese restaurants, or for shellfish if you live in Maryland. That’s not really what I do. I will avoid forbidden animals when out in public, but maintain a higher standard in my home, since my home reflects my most deeply held values. It means I can eat beef or chicken in restaurants or in people’s homes even if the meat was not from a kosher butcher. It means I place table fellowship with people more important than food.* Some people will find fault with this approach, but I’m not doing it to please them, impress them, or antagonize them. " (* emphasis mine)
This, to me, is the heart of our observance. The love of people should guide us not to separate ourselves from other peoples' journeys. To put it differently, our love for God and His law should guide us to interact and interface with people. Ultimately, I believe this puts us in a position to converse with and (perhaps, G-d willing) to instruct those who we would otherwise have shut out due to our practice.
Could I make the arguement that our following G-d's instruction to the best of our ability IS a sign of love for mankind and that to "compromise" would be to show disregard for mankind? Probably. Historically, I just don't see it working though. Those who shut themselves off to the many will only ever find a few.
Lest you read me wrong, I am not advocating that we throw Torah practice out the window so that we can embrace "the people of the world" and therefore repeat the mistake of Esau (Genesis 25: 29-34). G-d forbid! What I AM advocating is a deliberate, pragmatic engagement of our practice and how it can further or limit the Light we are here to represent.

Are we looking to make people come after us? Or are we about going and seeking after them? The parable of the good shepherd comes to mind.

To sum it up: Yeshua said that the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27). Not the other way around. Doesn't this apply to the whole of Torah as well?


Rabbi Joshua said...

Jonathan R.,

Great post! I actually blogged on a similar idea in a post on Yeshua and Halachah ( In that post I discussed the application of the "weightier matters" in the halachic process, and the consideration of practical ethics.

You hit on an important topic that should continue to be discussed.

Anonymous said...

You, and Dr. Schiffman, have obviously put a lot of introspection into your analysis of your view of Jewish religious law and it's importance relative to your other personal values, such as "table fellowship".

The Jewish Bible itself makes plain that the Laws are absolute, non-negotiable and authoritative, so practitioners of the Jewish religion, who look not inside their hearts to ascertain their value systems but rather to their tradition from Sinai for the definition of right from wrong, won't be able to join with you at the table of forbidden foods.

But, I can certainly see how a POV wherein the Jewish Bible is only one of a variety of equally important competing sources for ethics could lead people of conscience to believe transgressing the word of G-d was somehow acceptable to Him in light of a greater good He never anticipated when He issued His rules. But it is the Jewish view that G-d anticipated every eventuality and that He knows better than anyone else what's best for us, not because we make that judgement in our hearts, but because it says so in the Jewish Bible.

Gene Shlomovich said...

This makes me think - was Shaul, the Pharisaic Jew that he was till his dying day, as pragmatic in his approach to Torah (for the sake of love) when say eating with Gentiles he reached out to? I mean, did he freely violate his avowed commitment to both "Torah or traditions" (which he swore on more than one occasion to continue to keep), did he let his observance somehow impede his interaction with people, to thwart his outreach of love, or did the apostle somehow find a way to do both (be uncompromising in Torah and Jewish lifestyle, and still be able to reach out - in love - to more people than anyone else could ever dream of?

jonroush said...

Let me attempt to clarify.

I agree with the destination (of total observance) that you are talking about.

For the record I don't believe that Shaul violated "his avowed commitment".

However, I don't believe that most modern, practicing Jews have grown up as fully practicing Jews (I suppose I could be wrong, but that is just my experience). It's like comparing apples to oranges. This changes the dynamic rather drastically.

I don't believe that anyone miraculously wakes up fully observant one morning. It's a learning process. So what I am trying to highlight and advocate here being mindful while in that process.

James said...

There's a tremendous humanity and authenticity to Dr Schiffman's blog post A'La Carte Observance that I think we can all learn from. Did God intend for the commandments to be a straight jacket or a journey? If the latter, then learning to obey the will of God is something we all move towards during all the days of our lives. Like all human beings, no one becomes perfect at anything, including an intimate relationship, but as we continue walking on the road with our companion, we slowly learn more about him and see our footsteps conforming to His.

I realize that the primary audience of this particular blog post is a Jewish audience, but in our own manner and fashion, all disciples of the Master walk the road set before us, no matter who we are or where we come from.

I once heard it said that God is a teacher and we are His students. Do we enter His classroom dreading the day's lesson or are we eager to learn more today than we did yesterday...even if we make mistakes?

Anonymous said...

I'm writing to agree with Jonathan R's comment, above, and to disagree with James'.

Jonathan, thank you for clarifying where you were coming from. You're right that Jews are returning to their religious roots as adults of secular upbringing in droves. Yet that does not diminish the reality that those in the observant community have big families, and in the large religious community in which I live the returnees are a small minority. In both cases, by the way, you're right to say that observance of the laws (in two phases: first the learning, and later the implementing) is a gradual process, and like the game of chutes and ladders it involves advances and periods of losing ground. But fighting that battle is what makes one "fully observant", not actually discharging each commandment with complete accuracy to the nth degree, which we all know almost none of us can hope to perfectly achieve. That's why we have repentance.

And James, I'm afraid you approach your relationship with your Maker with kind of an unhealthy attitude. Your "straight jacket" quip reflects what appears to be a lack of faith that He really exists. If you didn't think the state police really existed, you might be tempted to view those speed limit signs as "straight jackets", but since your faith in speed traps is solid enough you "burden" yourself with observance of the rules of the road. If you had complete faith in G-d, and His gift to the Jews of the Law, I don't think you'd call it, or think of it, as a "straight jacket". This is not to insult you, or to elicit a response. You don't need to respond to me, unless you want to. But I do hope you'll consider where your contemplation of the Law as a negative thing to be ditched or at least minimized is coming from vis-a-vis your faith.

Yahnatan said...

Great discussion, all. Just wanted to chime in with a few points:

- Anonymous, I read James' comment differently than you did; perhaps you might have misread him. In any case, your characterization of him as having an unhealthy attitude/approach to his relationship with the Creator doesn't fit what I've come to know of him through his writing.

- Responding to Jonathan's comment highlighting the "learning process" aspect of Torah-observant life: perhaps one question we should ask ourselves is "How well am I doing at drawing others into observing the mitzvot?" Or (more generally): "how well am I doing at drawing others into a relationship with their Creator?"

Anonymous said...


Your response to Jonathan's comment had the right idea, but I'd suggest a slightly different approach.

You seemed to prioritize outreach at the top of the list--please correct me if I misread that.

But the Torah seemingly has a different prioritization scheme for Jewish religious observance: the Ten Commandments. And while of course outreach to fellow Jews and encouragement in their growth in commandment performance can be derived from those, in its own right outreach isn't prioritized in the top-10. Please understand: I am not downplaying the importance of bringing our fellow Jews along in the movement toward greater observance--your thought to help all Jews grow is a good one.

But as we look at the Torah's prioritization for Torah observance, we see that we should really be starting with the First Commandment--that's the number one priority. Understanding well that there is but one G-d, an indivisible unity, a singularity without compare, was listed by the Torah as the First Commandment. We can learn many things from this prioritization. One message, for instance, is that without abandoning trinitarianism and all other forms of polytheism, the value of our performance of the other commandments is vastly diminished since we are doing those actions for the wrong reasons, out of love for and obedience to a false god. So, while bringing others close to mitzvah lifestyles is important, the first question we should be asking ourselves in terms of growth in our relationship with G-d is, do we believe in the strict unity of the one and only, single, indivisible, lone G-d of Israel?

James said...

Thanks for your kind words, Yahnatan.

Actually, I was agreeing with jonroush about the commandments being a learning process (hence my teacher metaphor). I was trying to express how, as Jon says, we don't learn to obey all that God requires in an instant. We have a choice in our attitude, to live in fear of breaking any of the commandments in the slightest way all of the time, or to approach God and the commandments as an opportunity to become a better person every day.

jonroush said...


“Yet that does not diminish the reality that those in the observant community have big families”

Great point. That is a blessing.

“But fighting that battle is what makes one "fully observant", not actually discharging each commandment with complete accuracy to the nth degree…”

Well put. You hit the nail on the head for me.


“I was trying to express how, as Jon says, we don't learn to obey all that God requires in an instant…”

Agreed. Still we try.