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Sunday, June 19, 2011

What Laws of Judaism Are Most Important to Keep As a Jew?

On my me-ander blog, I asked jbloggers to tell me what their "red line" is on Jewish observance.  I don't think I explained myself clearly.  I know that there's a very wide variety of "that's enough to be a good Jew" observances, individual "red lines." 

Recently a friend told me about a gifted young (eats kosher only) chef who's studying abroad and how he manages. 

But the real impetus to my question is something that happened decades ago.  I didn't know how to react then and the incident periodically pops into my mind.  I used to mock it, but now I realize that I should have shown more understanding.  The people involved have since passed away, and I'll try to blur the identities, not that I'm in touch with anyone who would know them.

Decades ago during one of my visits to my parents I saw some friends of theirs.  Nowadays many non-Orthodox Jews know of people who have become more religious than they had been raised to be, but in those days, I was an odd novelty. It was very common in my parents' generation to shed most religious observance.  My mother told me that it was expected, as the price of being good/real Americans.  They were horrified and shocked when I turned the tables and took on kashrut, Shabbat and more. 

These friends of my parents must have had been no older and probably younger than I am today, but they looked at me with my hair covered, long skirt and more children than they had, also their children's peer, as some sort of representative of G-d.  It was almost as if they were using the Catholic concept of a "confessional" hoping that I would tell them how righteous they still are.  I just remember myself standing in shocked silence, not knowing what to say.

Here's the story as I remember it:
We're still good Jews.  We try to be.  We fast on Yom Kippur, and believe me, it isn't always easy.  Last year we were visiting one of our children (note that I knew that the spouse wasn't Jewish, something they didn't mention but was ringing in my mind as I heard the story) and knew that Yom Kippur was that night.  We got to the restaurant* early enough so we'd finish eating on time, before the fast.  The service was awful.  Finally, I got up and yelled at them:
"Don't you understand?  Its almost time to start the Yom Kippur fast and we haven't been served our food yet!!!"
I just stood there and wonder to this very day how I should have reacted.  I used to think that religious observance had to be all or nothing, but as I've gotten older and seen more I realize that every mitzvah observed has its value.  By praising even partial, minimal observance there's more of a chance that observance will be continued and even increased.

Shavua Tov u'Mevorach
Have a Good and Blessed Week

*Yes, obviously it couldn't have been kosher.  I don't know if they made any efforts to eat kosher food or what their concept of kosher food was. 


Shy Guy said...

It's simple, really:

"What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn"
- Hillel, Tractate Shabbat 31a

Leah, Maaleh Adumim said...

regarding your main question - as a FFB, I would say "everything". I would not give up observing Shabbat or kashrut, or any of the other mitzvot I observe (including both "bein adam lamakom" and "bein adam lachavero). although, as "datiah" rather than "charedit", I know that charedim would look down on my degree of observance (while non-observant people would consider me to be "overdoing it").

regarding your story - I also realize, as you point out, the importance of looking at observance as "steps on a ladder" i.e. to not criticize a non-observant person for partial observance, realizing that whatever they are doing is better than nothing, even if it's a lot less than what you or I would consider to be a minimum. still, I don't know how I would have reacted in the example you gave. I think I would have reacted with a stunned silence. and I think the reason is that the person in question was so completely unapologetic about eating in a treif restaurant. in retrospect, I guess it is good that at least the person hadn't completely forgotten about Yom Kippur. because some people are so disconnected from Judaism that they don't even do that. but it's difficult for me to relate to his claim of being a "good Jew" when he doesn't seem to be observing anything else.

Hadassa said...

I think it's necessary to know more about the people telling the Yom Kippur story before giving an opinion. It's very difficult to both not to scare people away and not seem to accept partial observance as being acceptable. I've also been tongue tied on several occasions.It's not at all pleasant. Something like, "Keeping the fast on Yom Kippur is a good beginning. I myself am still trying to improve my observance more and more," seems to be a good answer to me.

Anonymous said...

Hello Batya!
You got me stumped for a meoment -
May I humbly suggest the Mitzvah to love a fellow Jew - just the same as you.
aka "Ve'Ahavta l'reacha kamocha", Rabbi Akiva omer ZE KLAL GADOL BATORAH!
loosely translated: Rabbi Akiva says: The basis of the Torah is to love a fellow Jew. UNCONDITIONALLY!

Now wasn't that easy?
Phew.... Yes. With 'hat-tip' to Shy Guy.

Daniel said...

my red line is intermarriage.

Shy Guy said...

Anonymous, no. Rabbi Akiva did NOT say that is the "basis of the Torah". He said that it is "a" - not "the" - major guideline of the Torah, implying there are others.

Hillel goes further, saying that from the negative implication of the verse "Love they neighbor as thyself" you can learn what you are to do positively, both in your relationship to your fellow Jew, but no less in your relationship to G-d. Hence, Hillel is the one that actually encapsulated all of Judaism as an extension from this one commandment.

Batya said...

thanks for all the reactions
I certainly did not criticize them. My stunned silence lasted a couple of decades or more.
It felt so strange that they felt they had to tell me the story.

Anonymous said...

When I was newly religious I visited an intermarried friend. Because of the circumstances, I ended up staying with his family for shabbat. He wanted me to make kiddush for his nonJewish son, which I did. He told me that he was the frummer in his family, as he fasted on Yom Kippur.

I heard a story about a rav who said to a non-frum congregation something along the following lines:
"I stand in awe of you all. Even though you do nothing all year long, you all absolutely had to be here on Yom Kippur".

I think that it is called the pintele yid. If they don't follow halacha, what was their need to prove themselves to you, other than the pintele yid.

My attitude, is "there but for the grace of Gd go I". If I had not made teshuva in very unusual circumstances, I would probably be even less connected than the people in your story.

Batya said...

Thanks for the story.
The older I get the sorrier I feel for those people. I was too young to appreciate their story when they told me. I don't think they managed to communicate their Judaism to the next generation.

Hadassa said...

Anon, once you decide to love every fellow Jew, then what? Most of the time knowing what to say, not how to feel, is the hard part.

Batya said...


Keli Ata said...

What laws of Judaism are most important to keep as a Jew?

I'm not sure. All of them, I imagine. Is it proper to elevate on mitzvah over another?

But if it is, I would say reciting the Shema.

And Shabbat.

Batya said...

Keli, most people pick and choose, even among the most superficially observant. There are many laws that only G-d knows if we keep or don't keep.

Leah, Maaleh Adumim said...

Hadassa, that is an excellent response, and I will "file it away" in my mind for future use.

and anon#2 - those are excellent points, and remind me that I shouldn't feel complacent about my frum upbringing - it's not something I did myself, but was given to me.

Robertcw72 said...

Why does it always go back to the assimilation issue? :)

Batya said...

Robert, most people "compromise" to "fit in."

Robertcw72 said...

True very true. Even when one does not know they are compromising.

Batya said...

We just all must do our best.