Observing Observance: A Surprising Reality Check


Regardless of whether one is a convert or a Jew by birth who was raised in an unobservant family, it’s all too easy to make (often inaccurate) assumptions about the role that religious observance plays in the lives of other Jews. For example, it’s easy to assume that someone who self- identifies as “orthodox” is going to be very observant while someone who identifies as “Reform” is probably going to be less committed to religious observance. Or said another way, that somehow “Orthodox” Jews are (in some important ways) more committed to Judaism than their “Non-Orthodox” counterparts. I don’t expect most Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Jews to cop to this in public but I know (based on what seems like hundreds of conversations I have had) many do indeed feel this way.

Now before I go on, I would like to take a moment to make it clear that this post isn’t about suggesting that the Orthodox are more observant, or that one particular style or approach to observance is better than another one. Sure, I have my feelings on the subject but I’ll save those for another time because this post is really more about some recent insights I’ve gained around the issue of observance and my own preconceived notions about how some of this plays out.

Before moving to Los Angeles I didn’t have much experience with Jews or the Judaism outside of the Reform community I converted into. So, I think it’s easy to understand (at least to me) how I wound up with some of my assumptions about patterns of religious observance in the broader Jewish community. But it’s not just me who has assumptions. My wife, who before meeting me, had spent the last several years participating on the periphery of various Chabad communities. She was by no means Frum but she associated with people who mostly self identified as being Orthodox and I think she (as well as myself, through her) made some very inaccurate assumptions about our “Orthodox” friends. However, since arriving in Los Angeles and getting married, I’ve come to realize that many of our assumptions regarding the differences between our respective levels of observance, were simply incorrect.

NOTE: When I say Orthodox I’m not talking about black hat Ultra- Orthodox but rather people who self identify as Orthodox and by my definition would fall into the Modern Orthodox camp. Basically what I would consider to be the average Orthodox Jew as opposed to someone who is super Frum.

What I’m getting at is that basically, regardless of one’s affiliation or self-identification as a Jew, individuals often pick and choose and more importantly make compromises when it comes to observance. Here are a handful of examples (with a couple of comparisons from our own observance) to help illustrate what I’m talking about.

We have an Israeli friend who (I would say) strongly identifies as a committed Orthodox Jew. He will not spend money on Shabbos because it is prohibited, but he likes to have a cup of coffee after services on Saturday afternoon, so he does the following. He usually prepays for his coffee sometime during the week, this way he can just walk into the coffee shop after shul and pick it up so that he can drink it as he walks home. So, here is the catch, in walking with the coffee he’s breaking another Sabbath prohibition,namely carrying which is prohibited on the Sabbath outside of the home. He’s not living in a part of town that’s fenced off by an Eruv which means he’s definitely violating a Sabbath law but for him this is okay.

This same friend also claims to keep kosher; however, he eats unheckschered bread and will eat vegetarian food prepared in non-kosher restaurants where meat and dairy dishes are prepared in the same kitchen. In a recent conversation, this friend was very surprised to find out that Tamara and I will not eat unheckschered bread, nor will we eat in a restaurant where meat and dairy are both prepared. Yes, of course we eat in non-kosher restaurants but only vegetarian ones (and primarily vegan at that) which makes it pretty safe in terms of adhering to the laws of Kashrut. The point being that, he saw that in this respect we are in fact more observant than he is.

I also have another friend who clearly self-identifies as Orthodox, who I just assumed was completely observant, that is until a recent conversation I had with him. He told me that many days he does not even hit the minimum requirements for daily prayer, which is barely anything at all. It basically requires reciting the Shema two times and the Amidah three times during the day. For someone who is familiar with the prayers, I doubt in total this would take more than 10 to 15 minutes a day. I was in shock when he told me this because I figured how could anyone who identifies as Orthodox, not even do the minimum of daily prayer? But this is just another example of my own assumptions at play.

We know another couple who identify as Orthodox, who will not light a flame on Shabbos but are willing to surf the Internet and occasionally watch television. These are things which are certainly prohibited by Orthodox standards however they are compromises this couple is prepared to make.

And I could go on for quite a few more paragraphs with other examples but I’m sure you get my point.

I’m not trying to drag Orthodox Jews into the mud or prove them to be frauds, far from it. I’m just trying to point out, that everyone (or at least most of us), regardless of whether we are converts, Jews by birth, or whichever denomination we adhere to, all struggle with our observance. More importantly, all too often many of us unfairly compare ourselves to others, based on standards and assumptions which are usually creations of our own imagination, rather than based on facts. Last night during a discussion with a friend, I came to the realization that when it comes to committed Jews and observance, it does not have to be about being more or less observant but can in fact be about being “differently observant”. That in many ways, we as Jews, often legitimately pick and choose how we approach observance and the Mitzvot (to the best of our ability, at that time), based on our predispositions, strengths and weaknesses, not to mention a variety of other circumstances, based both on ourselves as well as the communities to which we belong.

Of course I think there’s a caveat to this and that is that one needs to be actively engaged and willing to struggle with deepening their observance (however that’s defined) in order for it to truly be an instance of being “differently observant”. I guess that it all boils down to something of a balancing act, in terms of our preconceived assumptions about other people’s standards, our own sense of commitment, our own need for external validation, as well as combating our own ego and laziness.

I suppose that at the moment, for me at least, the bottom line is that making too many assumptions about others and their level of observance, is counterproductive to better understanding where I am at myself in terms of Mitzvot and observance. Yes, some people do more and others do less. And yes some people are engaged in observance with more kavanah than I am but I’m not sure that assumptions are the best way of gauging any of it; especially in terms of figuring out where I am on the spectrum of things because the more I learn about what other people are doing, the more I come to realize that I (in many ways) actually hold my own quite well. But also that the more I learn about others, the more I realize that although they may not observe the same Mitzvot I do, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are less observant than myself. That in fact, often times they are already observing many Mitzvot I have not even begun to think about taking on.

Anyhow, until next time be well.

About the Author

Avi M

Avi is a Jew by choice who converted to Judaism in the spring of 2006 after two years of study and participation in Ottawa’s Jewish community. Although he began his Jewish journey as part of a Reform congregation, he now calls the Conservative movement home. Read More

5 Responses to “ Observing Observance: A Surprising Reality Check ”

  1. Avi,

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. You make the point about assumptions based on what label people attach to themselves. A related point I came up with was the value (or lack thereof) of the labels themselves. For example, one Purim my Newton, MA, shul’s shpiel had a song about aveirot (transgressions) large and small that people admitted to committing, including “eating fish out.” I know a family who have long associated themselves with an Orthodox/Traditional shul, but who eat chicken out. And shortly after making my own decision to convert Orthodox, my mother (who was concerned about what my future eating habits would be) told me about “Orthodox” friends of hers from Salt Lake City who kept a kosher home, had their kosher meat sent from the kosher butcher in Denver, but who ate BACON out. “Could you be THAT kind of Orthodox Jew?” she asked hopefully.

    All of these people admit to being Orthodox. Most of the Orthodox Jews I’ve known would not do any of these things, but there are other factors and pressures that come into play in decisions about observance. One is the attempt many people make to hang on to their non-Jewish or non-religious friends. For me, it’s how I and my family negotiate eating in my parents’ and parents-in-law’s non-kosher homes. I know we are much more lax about the details than our rabbi would recommend, but the mitzvah of kibbud av v’em (honoring parents) is a biggie, and kashrut didn’t even make it into the Top Ten.

    Everyone negotiates their own way through personal prayer, and other forms of observance. With 613 commandments to observe, personal priority is bound to play a major role. For some, private meditation trumps the prescribed daily prayers. For others, being overwhelmed with family responsibilities may take a front seat to certain observance. I think people’s priorities shift at different places in their lives.

    Other thoughts?

  2. On assumptions: I have a classmate who’s M/O and got chased around in circles by the law school’s Irish student group our entire first year (he’s a pale redhead with a surname that COULD be Irish and a given name that is, so it was a fairly reasonable mistake). They didn’t realize he was Jewish despite all the observance-things that might’ve lead them to realize he was (he keeps very strictly kosher, ect) because, unlike most of the Orthodox men at the school, he doesn’t wear a kippah all day. It wasn’t until, upon being asked what he was doing for St. Patrick’s Day and, further, why he wasn’t going to church (”You’re Irish Catholic, aren’t you?…”) that they all caught on, them to why he kept refusing to join their group, him to why they kept asking him to join and stuffing fliers in his locker.

    You see what you expect to see. They looked at him and assumed he was Irish. He looked back confused because he assumed they must know he was Jewish. They all thought it was very funny, so at least no feelings were hurt.

    On Observance: I’m of the mindset that to live is to rationalize to some extent. I’m not a moral relativist (although from prior statement, one might reasonably think I am), but I think (right now, perhaps later my opinion will change) that there’s SO much stimulus and so many variables and options that to make any sense of the world, you pick and choose your battles and settle somewhere that seems to make sense to you (whether or not it makes sense to anyone else, and it seems often it doesn’t). In my boyfriend’s family (Conservative all), I see a full spectrum of kasherut observance: from his father, who is fairly observant (although he will eat vegetarian food prepared out), to my boyfriend (who keeps “Biblically” kosher= he will not eat anything that is specifically listed as forbidden in the Bible and sort of chucked the entire oral law on that subject), to his sister, who will not eat shellfish but eats snails (”They’re not shellfish nor insects as I understand an insect”), to his mother, who keeps kosher in the house (as the house is kosher for his father) but doesn’t keep it at all outside the house and has very strong feelings about why she thinks the entire kasherut system is a racket.

    I’m not entirely sure at the moment what I think, but I can say that when it comes up at the dinner table (which is often) they all can give very reasonable reasons why they do what they do (except maybe the snail thing: I just don’t get that) and why it isn’t at odds with other things they do when it seems like it should be.

  3. There is also the factor of what sect one was born under (for born Jews). My grandmother grew up in Morocco and considers her past to be “Orthodox” (technically, there was no “Orthodox” at that point – it just means she has been Jewish as many generations as her family can remember and that they were strictly observant).

    To this day, she lives on a Conservative level, and has done so since coming to the United States, starting with her inability to find a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue, and then just falling into the Conservative stream. Despite this, she will still say she is Orthodox. She doesn’t deny that she isn’t following Jewish law to an Orthodox by-stander, merely reaffirming that she is just as Jewish to an Orthodox Jew as she is to a Reform Jew. Which, from what I understand, that is technically true.

    Likewise, there are Reform and Conservative Jews who follow many Orthodox customs and rituals but do not consider themselves Orthodox (or do not convert Orthodox) due to qualms with what they will be required to agree with on an Orthodox level. So they may occasionally be ritually very strict and not Orthodox – as you admit yourself here. In many ways, the practice I do at home is closer to Orthodox than Reform, but I couldn’t imagine not wearing the tallit at synagogue after conversion, or not being allowed to wear tefillin or go to the bimah. Hence, even if I’m very ritually observant, I’m obviously not Orthodox, because I do not remain solely in the realm left for my sex.

  4. Avi,

    As I’ve already told you, I loved your post. It’s fascinating to examine our assumptions about individuals. I have an Aunt/Uncle/Cousins who are Mormon converts. My uncle was very strict when they converted, but my aunt LOVED watching TV, so she’d sneak off and watch it when he wasn’t home. Likewise, he has this thing for M&Ms and even COLLECTS the little M&M dispensers! Oy! For Mormons these things are definite nos! Unfortunately for them — there is not different branches (I think the word “sect” doesn’t necessarily work right with Judaism because it seems to have this negative connotation).

    I have a friend who is Modern Orthodox (MO) and she’ll admit that there are things that get fudged on. She lives in the Orthodox neighborhood in Chicago and thus it is necessary to live a certain way. She tells me, though, about a friend she has who will do certain things when her husband is not home — and if I’m not mistaking my memory, they’re Orthodox, Black Hat in Israel.

    I think the reason that “fudging” on things — whether Orthodox or Black Hat or whatever — is valid, and completely acceptable in some sense is because Judaism is so much an evolutionary process for the individual. There is room to consider halakah, to explore the how’s and why’s and what’s.

    Does that make sense? I hope it does :)


  5. Shimshonit:

    You are absolutely right about everyone negotiating their way into “observance”. I just think it’s easy, possibly because I’m a relative newbie, when it comes to observance, to fall into the assumption trap big time. Also (I think because I’m a Jew by choice) my Judaism (or lack thereof) is intrinsically wrapped up in denominational ism, which in some ways encourages such assumptions. For better or for worse up until the present at least, I orient myself Jewishly speaking, according to denominations. You know “more Jewish than reform” and “less Jewish than orthodox” at least in terms of my own observance. However, I think there something at play a little deeper here, in that as a convert who wasn’t born to a Jewish mother, my very identity is intrinsically tied to a denomination. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, simply stating it as a matter of fact. I may even be projecting some of this on to others, as well as in to these assumptions.

    Anyhow I’m rambling and have gotten a off-track.

    Bottom line (as I think you would agree) is it’s probably a mistake to base one’s own sense of Jewishness on the a soon to observance of others around him or herself.


    You wrote:”You see what you expect to see.”

    Amen Sister! Well, at least until you stop to look at what’s actually going on and then you wind up realizing a thing or two, and write a post like the one above.


    You wrote: She doesn’t deny that she isn’t following Jewish law to an Orthodox by-stander, merely reaffirming that she is just as Jewish to an Orthodox Jew as she is to a Reform Jew.
    This is something I alluded to in my reply to Shimshonit above. I think that’s why (at least in my case) why I’ve made so many assumptions along denominational lines. I unlike your grandmother am not a born Jew and therefore although I can also claim that “ I’m just as Jewish to an Orthodox view as I am to a Reform Jew” ages doesn’t carry the same kind of weight in the broader Jewish community. On some level this might be why I play such emphasis on using observance as a means of defining (maybe even a legitimizing) myself as a Jew. Not that that’s necessarily a healthy thing to be doing but I pointed out as a possibility.

    Lastly I suspect you and I are on the same page, in terms of not really fitting into orthodoxy in terms of theology /ideology. Yet somehow, sitting in rather well (at least in my case) with orthodoxy, when it comes to modes of ritual observance.


    I’m glad that you liked this post.

    You wrote: I think the reason that “fudging” on things — whether Orthodox or Black Hat or whatever — is valid, and completely acceptable in some sense is because Judaism is so much an evolutionary process for the individual. There is room to consider halakah, to explore the how’s and why’s and what’s.

    Does that make sense? I hope it does
    Yes absolutely 100%! I guess my only concern is in finding a way to balance that individuals/personal autonomy, which seems to come with the evolutionary process you mention, and one’s duty/responsibility to both G-D and community, in terms of commitment to observance.

    To all who have commented:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my post. I’ll be honest there’s a couple other things at present which are, unfolding Jewishly in my life. I’m not ready to get into them just yet, but suffice it to say, I’m fairly sure that they are at least in part responsible for of why I’m examining/re-examining the whole of assumptions thing.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.