A’La Carte Observance

There are many kinds of Jews with many different levels of observance. We all express our Jewishness in different ways. I grew up going to an Orthodox shul in suburban Long Island. It meant the shul followed an Ashkenazi Nusach (style of service), men and women sat on opposite sides of the Shul, and most everyone walked to shul from their car which was parked with everyone else’s car, a block away on neighboring streets. Part of the reason was because the synagogue parking lot was chained off so it could not be used on Shabbat because the official position was we weren’t supposed to drive on Shabbat, even though most of the people lived too far away to walk. This practice could be interpreted as hypocrisy because people gave an appearance of orthodoxy that they did not live up to. On the other hand, it could also be said that even though the people did what they shouldn’t on Shabbat, it enabled them to at least be in shul and worship on Shabbat, and they didn’t want to be so brazen as to drive right up to the shul on Shabbat, so they parked a block a way out of respect for the tradition even if they didn’t uphold it personally.

People are not consistent. They believe certain things are right, but they may not practice them themselves. Years later, I recall driving people home after a Friday night service; being stopped at a traffic light in an orthodox neighborhood, watching well dressed families walking home from shul. Inwardly, I felt embarrassed that I was driving, and I yearned to be one of them. Two years later, I spent Shabbat with my teacher on the Lower East Side. We had to walk to the old historic shul where he taught, which was over a mile a way. After walking there and back, I longed to be one of the people who passed us as they drove by. Would I call myself observant? I’d say, “not yet.” Being a more observant Jew is a goal of mine; not because it brings me merit of any kind, but because I want to be a better Jew than I am now. For people not born into a life of total observance, becoming more observant is a process. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that if you can’t perform a whole mitzvah, do part of it. When you have mastered it, perform the whole mitzvah. When you master it, perform a second and later a third, and so on, until your observances have become part of your lifestyle. He goes into detail on this in his story, The Turkey Prince.

I have had people ask me why I perform one mitzvah and not another. I tell them I’m concentrating on the one now, and eventually will get to the other. To some people, it’s all or nothing. They miss the point. For me, it’s trying on a mitzvah for size, and then growing into it, until it is mine. That’s not hypocrisy, its process and growth. The funny thing to me, is that the people who are keeping score of my imperfect lifestyle are not themselves observant. Observant people understand that I am going through a process and are encouraging. The ones who criticize are the ones who aren’t observant at all.

Keeping kosher is also a process. At one point, when I lived in New York, I kept a very strict kosher, and only ate meat from a kosher butcher. I faced a dilemma when I was doing humanitarian work in Eastern Europe. We would be invited to the home of an elderly lady, and my co-workers informed her that I only eat kosher.. no pork. We would go to her home and she would serve us chicken. A poor woman living on $35.00 a month, had to beg, borrow and steal to get a chicken to serve us. I knew for sure the meat was not kosher, but the chicken represented more. For her, it was sacrifice. It cost her a great deal to show us this kindness. To not eat it would be a slap in her face. Calling her meal treif would be like calling her treif. Thinking about it, I felt it would be a bigger sin to not eat what she served at great personal sacrifice, than to maintain the New York standard I was used to and reject her offering. I ate the chicken, and we left her a generous gift, a thank you for her generosity. From that time, I developed a two tier standard: 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. I’m doing what I’m comfortable with, and what works for me at this time, and still honors a biblical tradition if not perfectly, at least sincerely.

Perhaps more people would be on the road to observance if they were encouraged rather than criticized.


8 thoughts on “A’La Carte Observance

  1. 🙂
    Those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter.

    The God I pray to doesn’t care what I eat, whom I eat with, and when I drive and to where. He does in fact pay attention to how I treat people. Both those who matter and those who don’t.

    If your life has more mitzvahs (mitzvot?) in them, even if you pick and choose the things you are capable of adhering to doesn’t the sum of your life really equate all the goodness you filled it with regardless of dogmatic concepts and sanctions?

    • Sara.. ultimately, Mitzvot bring me closer to God. That blesses me, and I believe makes God happy as well. I also have to realize that the things I do and the way I live effects others around me. Some people are positively effected. Others just want to criticize. I pretty much ignore the critics and focus on God, myself, and the people who would be positively affected.

  2. Looking at observance as a process is helpful to me because, like you, I have felt hypocritical that I do X but don’t do Y.

    Thanks for this post. Have a good shabbat.

  3. Michael,

    I wish more people would make that same decision. I was shocked and saddened to learn that at the last conference, there was a separate gathering for folks who insisted on having strictly kosher for for Shabbat dinner. Not even the vegetarian selection offered by the hotel was “safe” enough for them. It is my personal opinion (worth what you are paying for it) that this is too much observance and not enough grace & unity among believers.


    • Sue,

      you missed the point. I am not criticizing people who have a higher level of observance. I was saying don’t criticize.. period. If people want to meet separately to have a more kosher dinner thats fine. I did not attend the gathering because they ONLY had vegetarian or fish. I eat neither, and no one made a meat meal possible for me. I thought it was rather uncaring not at all open enough to make arrangements for me. I wound up going elsewhere. There is no such thing as too much observance. An observant person should never have to choose between observance and unity. Thats the same argument church people made when they wanted me to eat pork. grace goes both ways.

    • Sue… I was one of those folks. I would have loved to be part of the main dinner (and actually I did come, for kiddush and a few speeches, and left right after when the main course meal started), but why should I as a Jew who strives to live observantly be asked to drop my observance AT the JEWISH Messianic conference (of all places)??? I and my family keep what some folks may refer to as “rabbinic kosher” (but there’s really not other “kosher”, IMHO). Why did the UMJC organizers assume that there’s no one coming to the conference who keeps kosher – why not offer it at least as an option? I wouldn’t have minded to pay extra to have it catered (which is what I had to do anyway). In fact, I paid for my “non-kosher” dinner anyway even though I didn’t get to eat it, just so that I could be there in the beginning to make kiddush with everyone.

      As Dr. Schiffman already alluded to, why would someone, even though they know that I am an observant Jew, insist that I partake in the proverbial “ham sandwich” (i.e. unkosher food) just to be in a fellowship with those who do not? It is exactly what Jews were asked to do throughout the centuries. Wouldn’t this be just as wrong as for a Jew to insist that Gentiles first become observant before they can have a fellowship with Jews? Why not accommodate each other in love, instead of forcing everyone to adjust to the lowest common denominator?

  4. Sara, maybe those who REALLY matter do mind, and I can asssure you that those who mind are those you really need to let matter.

    Maybe you are not praying to the real God!!!!!? Where are you getting your information as to what your god wants from you?

    The real God is the one who gave Moshe the Torah, and who most certainly DOES care what we eat. You are Jewish, right? Well, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who created and set apart the Jewish people, you included, gave specific instructions about what you are to eat and not eat, as well as all sorts of other instructions as to how you, his chosen and separate woman are to live.

    You need to realign your priorities. Your father does care, so does he therefore bot matter? I think he does matter to you, even when you are being feisty and “independent.” Well, if he does matter, then you are stuck with the fact that he does care, and cares very much.


    David ben Avraham

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