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.