We are not supposed to be free agents in how we practice Judaism, at least according to a passage in the Torah. That was news to me, until I read a recent blog post by a Virginia rabbi.
As Jews, do we let our faith down and risk its future if we do not observe Jewish practices? Rabbi Amy R. Perlin raises that question in her interpretation of this week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy, which says, “You are not to do, each man, whatever is right in his (own) eyes.” She makes the case that our modern way – ‘doing whatever we please’ – “could cost us our Jewish future.” But what is the alternative?
If we strictly followed that Biblical passage, would Jewish leaders start preaching that all of us must become strict adherents to Jewish practices? I was nearly 40 years old before I made an attempt to practice any Jewish ritual. I, like Rabbi Perlin, want to see Judaism thrive, but want to retain the freedom we have to decide how we want to be Jews.
As a child, being Jewish meant I was different. My brothers and I were the only Jews in our rural Ohio school system. Being Jewish had little to do with religion, spirituality, marking Shabbat, or adhering to the laws of the Torah. We never attended temple services; the temple was an hour’s drive away. At home, we did not light Shabbat candles. We saw ourselves as no less Jewish than the most observant Jews in the world.
Now, with a family of my own, I make attempts to bring Jewish practices into our home. I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah five years ago yet admittedly still fall into that group that Rabbi Perlin describes, those Jews who do whatever they please when it comes to rituals. Some Fridays, my family of three marks Shabbat by lighting candles, eating challah, saying blessings, and singing songs. Some Fridays, we attend services. We often participate in events at our temple. We do mark Jewish holidays. Some Fridays, we do nothing at all to recognize the start of Shabbat.
Rabbi Perlin writes about how the voices in Deuteronomy “challenge us to establish a balance between our spiritual needs and convenience with our communal needs for a standardized Jewish practice and sense of religious obligation that will ensure our survival.” It is a weighty challenge. Is it convenience that makes my family sporadic observers of Jewish ritual? No, not really. My husband and I are still on a learning curve in Judaism. Yes, it is the religion of our birth, but neither of us grew up in homes where our parents made Jewish ritual a regular part of our lives. We are learning slowly what it is like to try to apply the brakes on Friday nights and experience the beauty of Shabbat. I would like to do more. I do not have a role model encouraging me or teaching me how to become more observant. Maybe that makes it harder to walk down a more observant path. Every step I take, though, I find myself wanting to do a little more.
Would I enjoy this journey closer to my faith as much if someone were telling me what I should do and when? I doubt it. As a Reform Jew, I treasure the freedom given to this branch of Judaism. I treasure the differences among the Jews at my own Reform temple. Some openly do not believe in a God. Some regularly study and discuss the Torah at Saturday services. When the timing is right, I will open more books. For now, I am comfortable with where I am within my faith. I am as Jewish as I want to be.