Relating to Judaism

“David” is a graduate of Carmel School, from a decade or so ago.  He never really enjoyed his Jewish education, and outside of school, with the exception of attending Seder, Kol Nidre, and the occasional Bar Mitzvah, by his own admission he doesn’t care too much for Jewish ritual.  He doesn’t feel comfortable in a Synagogue, and cannot relate to Jewish ideas.

We talked about this, in a very genuine way, and when it came down to the crunch, David saw Judaism as a set of instructions.  Fair enough, that is an accurate description of Jewish dictum, and nobody imposes those instructions onto a free thinking adult.  I suggested that Judaism is more than instructions, it is an ideology, culture and historical experience all rolled into one.  However, David was again correct, even so, it still entails instructions.

Our discussion continued into the nature of the instructions.  David contended that they are all negatively motivated – a big list of “Thou shalt nots” which took all the fun out of life.  It is here that our understanding and perspective begin to differ.

Our Rabbis teach there are 365 negative Mitzvot, corresponding to the number of limbs in the body.  There are also 248 positive Mitzvot. 

Some people may look at a Mitzvah in the wrong context.  For example, David may see Shabbat as a time in which he can’t drive a car, watch TV, or go shopping.  I may see the same Shabbat as a time when I can spend time with my family, can create an environment that is different in nature to other days, and can be intellectually challenged by the particulars of Jewish tradition that segregate Shabbat with a remarkable volume of Rabbinic commentary.

There are many examples relating to food consumption, sexual relations, business ethics, dress, and all manner of conduct that could be seen to be regulated and controlled by an excessive set of standards by those who choose to relate to Judaism in a critical and negative sense.  However, from the perspective of an observant Jew, I find all Jewish law relating to daily conduct remarkably liberating.  First, it develops a discipline that raises a consciousness on what we would otherwise mechanically do, and why.  It puts care and thought into the mundane.  It directs a sense of morality into a seemingly arbitrary action.

Rather than restrict a freedom, a negative command (not to do something) paradoxically actually enhances my individual freedom to choose, as it makes me more intellectually honest.  It delivers great control over the inclination, and choice over a weak instinct that otherwise directs me towards selfishness, ease of outcome, and abrogation of responsibility. 

But beyond this, Judaism is a most positive experience, not because of the restrictions, but because of the things that we are instructed to do and way we are guided to be.  Our festivals, traditions, and intellectual pursuits all deliver us with a unique and timeless spirituality that are greater than an ideological state of mind, in part because they are also manifested by hard earned physical accomplishments. 

Ideas and actions work together to make Judaism what it is.  Sadly, David has only ever known the ideas side of Judaism, and even then, it has been communicated to him in a way that is hardly likely to inspire.  I don’t expect David will decide to move outside of his comfort zone, but I also contend that his perception of Judaism as a large set of restrictive ordinances is very far removed from the reality of day to day Jewish living.        

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