Monday, April 19, 2010

Why Be Different?

I have mentioned briefly the idea of the “spectrum” of Jewish practice in America. There aren’t just “religious” and “non-religious” Jews. There are completely secular Jews who do very little or nothing at all to acknowledge their Jewishness. There are very religious Jews who live their lives in a way very similar to the shtetls of Old Europe, immersed in as many laws and traditions as possible. But in between are the rest of us, who acknowledge our Judaism but don’t do everything.

Individuals at both ends of the spectrum – the totally irreligious/non-religious/areligious and the extremely religious – might be inclined to call the rest of us somewhat hypocritical. After all, how can we steadfastly keep some laws while skipping others? If we’re going to be religious, they might say, then we should go ahead and be religious.

I am willing to concede that I sometimes wonder how one can justify going out to breakfast on Saturday morning and then go to services and spend the next several hours trying hard not to break Shabbos. Or how one can be totally insistent on not eating pork or shellfish but then drive to a steakhouse for an early dinner on a Saturday? It does seem somehow contradictory, maybe hypocritical.

For this, I have two explanations.

The first is simple. Every mitzvah a Jew does stands alone. Lighting candles on Friday evening is a mitzvah. Saying kiddush and motzi (over kosher wine and bread, of course) is a mitzvah. Not eating pork is a mitzvah. So every time I do something that is a mitzvah, I am contributing to my own spiritual health. Of course, the more mitzvot I do (and the fewer laws I break), the greater my spiritual health. The goal is to perform as many mitzvot as I can, with the philosophy that the spiritual gain will entice me to perform more and more mitzvot as time goes on. Maybe I will never be Orthodox, but I will certainly be more actively Jewish than I was.

The second explanation is also simple. Anything we as Jews do to set ourselves apart from the non-Jew is good. I don’t mean this in a xenophobic sense. I mean it in a self-preservation sense. As long as we acknowledge that we are different, and as long as we continue to do things that our Gentile neighbors do not, we are contributing to the perpetuation of the Jewish people.

I live in a place with a very small population of Jews and a very large population of devout Christians. When we put up a mezuza, set the Hanukah menorah in the front window, wear a kippah, buy kosher meat, we feel very strongly, very noticeably different from these Gentile neighbors. It is often awkward, often difficult. But this is how we know that each thing we do is so important. Because it makes us different. It reminds us that we are Jews and keeps us connected to those who came before us, who preserved Judaism for us so that we can preserve it for our children.

So, sure, I drive on Shabbat and eat out at restaurants, but I also try very hard not to mix milk and meat, not to eat nonkosher meats, to keep Passover, to light Hanukah candles and count the Omer, when appropriate. And if I do these things with joy and communicate that to my kids, then they’ll also grow up knowing that every mitzvah they do is good, and every law they follow contributes to the overall survival of their people. And who wouldn’t take pride in that?

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