Sometimes Less is More: Rabbi Arthur Green on Observance

Hi all,

My plan for today was to post some much-overdue commentary on an audio file Avi sent me like two weeks ago, but, once again, something else came up that I wanted to write about. Look for that audio later this week (!ב”ה).

I spent some time reviewing some material by Rabbi Art Green this morning, mostly his book Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, which is available here from Jewish Lights Publishing. It’s a really good book, with a lot to offer the prospective beginning student of Jewish mysticism.

The teaching that grabbed my attention this morning was about the journey in to ritual observance. His words speak for themselves pretty well, so I will quote the relevant section from page 101, and then comment below:

The important thing is that the forms stimulate us to open ourselves to that deeper place where we come to know, to love, and to service the One within and all around us. Some of us will do so in an abundance of religious practices, unfolded in great detail. Others will be satisfied by more simple forms of religious life. These differences are affected by temperament, by training, and by past associations. They should never become a basis for judging one another, as none of us knows another’s soul and the path it needs to take to come close to G-d. the important thing to remember is that, in acts of faith, quality rather than quantity counts. “One does more, another does less,” teach the ancient sages, “the main thing is to direct your heart to heaven.” It may be that through a single deed you can add more to the treasures of divine light than is offered by endless hours of unfeeling practice by others.

Now, as anyone who reads my posts knows, I am (1) not a fan of labels, and (2) if I have to use a label to describe my Judaism, it’s Conservative/Masorti (in the philosophical and largely clergy-lived sense…) . While I feel labels tend to pigeon hole us, and that they stifle thinking and sharing between respective pigeon holes, I also believe in a halakhic approach to determining standards within the religious Jewish community. I don’t feel that people should be brow-beaten in to practicing a certain way, but I also feel that the very vast majority of non-rabbis (and some rabbis, to be honest) lack the knowledge to speak in an informed way about Jewish law and tradition. I believe that halakha provides a goal toward which Jewish practice can be aimed.

Having said that, I tend to be a bit overbearing about this sometimes. Elsewhere in the book, Rav Green writes about the fact that people with compulsive personalities can tend to focus on taking up traditional practice, well, compulsively, and that this orientation toward the mitzvot makes them compulsions, not actions taken out of a depth of kavanah and understanding. This is certainly how I began my journey in to Jewish observance, and while I feel I’ve made some progress along these lines, it is a constant work in progress.

I like what Rav Green says about quality being more important than quantity in matters of observance. Doing a few mitzvot really well, the ones you know you were created for, must certainly be better than adding more than you can handle more quickly than you realize, and burning out on them. Sometimes I wonder if the issue Shimshonit brought up in her post about conversion requirements and in the comments after plays in to this. As potential converts we are often taught – even in non-Orthodox circles – that our understanding and practice of Judaism will, and probably should, be more rigorous than that of the average born Jew in our communities. Why? Doesn’t this set up a dynamic in which converts are saddled with responsibility than the broader community? Doesn’t this lead to a sort of parroting of the mitzvot? Can’t we determine the sincerity of a potential convert and his or her commitment to the Jewish People in more effective ways than consulting a checklist of “tackled” mitzvot?

I think the same point holds for ba’alei teshuvah, born Jews returning to observance. As an educator in my synagogue I have the opportunity from time to time to help someone raised as a non-religious Jew learn a new practice (laying tefillin is the one I take the most joy in teaching…). In the experiences I have had doing so, it seems to me that going slow and appreciating the depth of a mitzvah or two at a time makes the most sense. Not being a BT, I assume that the burn-out factor is a real possibility for them as well, and when experienced probably turns them off with respect to engaging the tradition.

So, although I believe there is a standard to shoot for, or at least a system for establishing and reinterpreting that standard, perhaps sometimes starting with less is actually starting with more.

kol tuv,



About the Author


Yair is a Jew by Choice who made his conversion in 2003 after a couple of years of study. He came to Judaism from the evangelical Christianity in which he was raised, and he is now a member of Temple Israel in Duluth, Minnesota, a congregation dually-affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. In his community Yair serves as a gabbai, he leyns Torah and Haftarah, teaches Torah and Haftarah cantillation to b’nei mitzvah students, and leads the occasional adult education class. His specific areas of interest and study in Judaism include Jewish mysticism, the history of Jews in Muslim lands, Mizrachi and Sephardi music, and the relatedness of Eretz Yisrael to Jewish rituals, traditions, and collective consciousness. As a convert, issues of Jewish peoplehood are also a special interest, as are Jewish men’s issues. He maintains his own blog called Northwoods Jew.

10 Responses to “ Sometimes Less is More: Rabbi Arthur Green on Observance ”

  1. Yair,
    What an inspiring post.  I haven’t read R. Green, but this makes me want to!  Friends of mine who have studied with him are huge fans, not least because of his ability to transcend labels and concentrate on how to practice Judaism from the heart.  This is encouraging to me, having done many more ritual practices in the past, but over time moving into a different place in life where some of those things mean less, but other things mean more.  And this is not even my end point as far as I’m concerned; things may shift again in the future, and my chosen observances with them.  Thanks for sharing a bit of R. Green with us.

  2. Yair,

    As always, you’ve written a thoughtful, insightful, and thought-provoking post. Your question about using a “checklist of ‘tackled’ mitzvot” as the primary way to determine a potential Jew’s commitment is particularly interesting, I think, in light of the recent discussion on this site (and, it seems, everywhere else: about converting via the different movements and overall questions about who “counts” as a Jew. In a very real way, Jews all over the world (primarily the Israel Chief Rabbinate) are using a checklist of mitzvot and, moreover, labels that seem to be ultimately based on their relationship to that checklist, to define Jewishness. I happen to agree with you that halacha provides a goal that Jewish practice can (should?) shoot for, but I don’t know exactly how to reconcile that value with my belief that Jewishness can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to the mitzvot checklist or a particular movement’s label.

    As a Jew by choice who would define herself as Conservative if she had to choose a label, I’m upset by all the friction around the Who is a Jew question – particularly the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s ever-more-restrictive position – and I’m just trying to figure out how to think about it all. I don’t have any answers or conclusions today, but I wanted to comment, as I’m interested in your and others’ thoughts.


  3. Shimshonit,
    Thanks for your thoughts, and I am glad to see that you’ve been inspired to check out Rabbi Green’s work!  He is a true sage.  My rabbi studied with him both during rabbinical school and in an ongoing cohort study of Jewish spiritual practice.  We have also used his co-authored work on The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet during our weekly Shabbat morning Torah study.  Rav Green has written everything from guides to modern Jewish spirituality to a translation of a work by Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, to a biography of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, to the introductory volume in Daniel Matt’s much anticipated English translation of the Zohar.  Here’s a list.  It’s hard to go wrong with this teacher, and he is now heading up a trans-denominational rabbinical school at Hebrew College. Anyway, I hope you enjoy his Torah if you begin learning from him, and thanks again for the comments!

    Thanks for your comments too.   I share your feelings about the who counts and who doesn’t business.  Some people invest an inordinate amount of time nailing others on it, and thanks to advice I have received from people in my shul and on this blog (you know who you are :)!), I try to just ignore it.  I know who I am, and no Chief Rabbi’s opinion changes that.  Having said that, I think it is important to keep challenging the system on this.  Who knows, one day we may look back on these debates and think, “Wow, why did that take up so much time?!”  But until then, it will be hovering around out there.  But thank you for your comments, and I hope you keep finding my posts interesting!  Oh, I really like your name too… not terribly common is it?

    kol tuv,

  4. Yair:

    Wonderful post. Thanks. I read and enormously enjoyed this book as well. Unfortunately, I seem to have lent it to someone — no idea whom!

    I actually think the Jewish Renewal movement resonates with Green’s philosophy, too; while not for everyone, Renewal aims for a deep experience with a constant awareness of God and a strong social justice emphasis as well.  I’m frequently surprised by the depth and the literacy of the teachings I glean from some of their leading lights.

    Well done.

  5. Hi David,

    I also appreciate aspects of Jewish Renewal, most especially their ability to bring together those otherwise-classified as Orthodox and Reform, and everything in between, to develop new relationships with the Jewish practice and tradition.

    And Rabbi Zalman Schachter is a true sage, and a Torah giant in his generation.  We are all indebted to him for his contributions and his teachings, and his writings will remain in my collection forever.

    He and Rabbi Green are teaching together at an upcoming retreat for rabbis sponsored by R. Green’s rabbinical school at Hebrew College.  Imagine spending time learning at their feet for a couple of days?!

    I hope the borrower of your book remembers it’s yours and returns it!

    Thanks for your comments,

  6. Wow! Great post Yair!

    I have recently been struggling with this sort of issue myself. Both in terms of how I measure myself, regarding my own observance as well as how I see and judge others regarding theirs. By that I mean, actual levels of observance and my/others psycho-spiritual framing of it.

    Oh BTW Rabbi Artson’s latest Q&A audio deals with the very (IMO) relevant topic of “The language of obligation ” which you can listen to here.

  7. Yair,

    I learned yesterday that Elisheva was Aharon’s wife, and mother of the future Kohanim Gedolim.  An illustrious woman, and a fairly common name in Israel, at least.  In fact, the English name Elizabeth comes from Elisheva.  MUCH more common.

    I’ve been thinking about this post some more, and in light of Avi’s comment above, I think one of the great take-away messages of R. Green’s philosophy (based on what you’ve posted) is the futility of outward symbols in trying to evaluate someone else’s Judaism.  Faith, devoutness, and inward spirituality are not always accurately reflected by one’s exterior.  One can see chasidic sects laundering money, religious Zionists stiffing their Arab laborers, and apparently secular Jews having very deep neshamot (souls).  And for each of these, the opposite.  Chasidism attempted to ease the criteria for a “good Jew” by placing greater value on one’s faith and joy in Judaism, and less on how much time one spent in the Beit Midrash.  (Not such a terrible goal, really.)

    Humans love to categorize others; it makes us comfortable to know with whom we’re dealing.  But sometimes we don’t see all the way through to the person’s soul, and this can lead to miscategorization.  R. Green reminds us to reserve judgement and take our time getting someone before deciding what sort of Jew (and, by extension, person) they are.

  8. Hey Shimshonit,

    Sorry I didn’t comment earlier, I spaced it out.  I think that you are right on the money here, and you make some really important points about how we categorize and stigmatize based on outward appearance.

    You wrote:
    Chasidism attempted to ease the criteria for a “good Jew” by placing greater value on one’s faith and joy in Judaism, and less on how much time one spent in the Beit Midrash.  (Not such a terrible goal, really.)

    Too bad it has in large part swung back away from this and toward a Litvach Haredi inspired focus on learning.  Tevye may have learned himself some Torah, but he clearly wasn’t buried in books every day.  I enjoy the practices of early teachers, like the Besht praying in the woods*.  And certainly, faith and joy being nourished at the expense of a few sessions in the Beit Midrash certainly doesn’t sound so terrible!

    Thanks for your insights!
    kol tuv,

  9. Very interesting post.

    I do think that there is a different standard of observance for converts, but that that double standard has to do with the nature of the conversion process itself. Conversion involves both a demonstration of sincerity and a voluntary entrance into the b’rit. Because we take on the mitzvot of our own free will – and because we have to go through quite a bit for the privilege of doing so – we don’t really get the option of being as flexible in our observance as a born Jew. Converts aren’t responding to a heritage and a b’rit given from birth – we’re asking to be allowed into that b’rit.  All Judaism is Judaism by choice, but for proselytes vs. born Jews, the choices are different.

    I do agree that we shouldn’t turn Judaism into a rule book and ignore the spiritual path. Mitzvot should have meaning – they should be spiritually significant. As Jews by choice, we are given the opportunity to “try on” mitzvot – to learn them – to enter into them slowly and to find meaning in them before we’re obligated to them. It’s in the transition from proselyte to Jew that the mitzvot become binding, however, and the adoption of mitzvot during that conversion process is simply preparation for life as a Jew.  When you stand before the Bet Din and say to the rabbis that you want to be part of the b’rit, you’re saying that you want to live with these mitzvot every day. A major task of the conversion process is to prepare you to do so by making the mitzvot meaningful.

  10. Hi Sheri,

    I agree with you mostly, and I agree that converts should have a high standard to meet in terms of knowledge and practice, prior to conversion.   But I do think that often in the conversion process, the mitzvot are taught as a mountain of rote responsibilities that qualify the potential ger for entrance.  I am not sure that it is the potential ger’s responsibility to find meaning in them, because often they lack the resources to do so.  The spiritual appreciation of the mitzvot needs to be taught side by side with their practical aspects, so the newly-minted Jew has access to the deeper meanings too.
    But I still wonder if looking at the mitzvot as a checklist – instead of as , say, component colors and textures in a work of art – really suits anyone, convert or otherwise, and if the higher bar for converts encourages the former view at the expense of the latter?
    kol tuv,

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