A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 3.12.21

I am a religious Jew.

So are you, by the way. You are part of a religious community. You have a religious sensibility which brings you to EMJC and/or other synagogues. A soul that is informed by the religious dimension of our peoplehood resides in you. You are religious. 

You may or may not be observant. That is a word that implies adherence to the very extensive, and often stringent legal obligations that are outlined in Halacha – Jewish law. Most religious Jews are somewhere on the spectrum of observance – perhaps we keep kosher in some fashion; perhaps we attend services (regularly or occasionally); perhaps we light a yizkor candle on the anniversary of a death; perhaps we give tzedakah with the intention of giving tzedakah in mind, as distinct from simply giving charity to a worthy cause. All of these things, and so many more, are aspects of observance.

I have long struggled with defining myself and my religious practice. What do you call yourself if you are, as I suggest, religious but do not live a strictly halachic lifestyle, with all that implies? A few years ago, I came up with a term that satisfactorily bridges the divide (at least for me); I call myself an observing Jew. I observe Shabbat. I observe the holy days. I observe kashrut. But I may not observe them according to strict halachic standards, and I would be misrepresenting myself if I were to describe myself as “observant.”

I bring all of this up for two reasons. First, that our weekly Torah portion, the doubled parasha of Vayakhel/Pekudei starts off with a passage that is troubling to the sensibilities of a pluralistic, “observing” Jew: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death 

 (35:2). While the death penalty is, on a practical level, a legal fiction in our tradition, our verse nevertheless spells out, in no uncertain terms, at least how the Torah felt about the desecration of Shabbat (there is also a passage in the book of Numbers about a man who gathers wood on Shabbat and is stoned to death for the desecration). It’s an awfully harsh pronouncement, but it’s one that has informed the way that observant Jews have observed Shabbat for two thousand years (that is not to say that observant Jews observe Shabbat out of fear – God forbid! – but only that they take Shabbat observance very seriously). The halachic literature treats the mekhalel Shabbat b’farhesia – one who intentionally and publicly desecrates Shabbat – with the utmost condemnation. Maimonides states that “one who desecrates Shabbat in public is surely like an idolater” (MT Shabbat 30:15). Many sources concur with him, rendering the violator a non-Jew for all intents and purposes, a cast-away from her people.

The second reason that I raise this is that I have been reading about and reflecting on how Israelis “practice” their Judaism. In an important book that came out in 2019, called Israeli Judaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, the authors analyze the current state of “Jewishness” in Israel, and they come to some remarkable conclusions. Even with the great diversity of voices, groupings, factions, in Israel; even with the bitter arguments and often un-civil debate about how the Jewish State should conduct its business; even in a country where only 30% of Jewish citizens identify as belonging to an Orthodox denomination that observes a halachic-oriented life-style; even with all this, 57% light candles on Friday night and 64% keep a kosher home. These numbers are remarkable (compare 22% and 23% respectively for American Jews). Even among Jewish Israelis who identify as totally secular, 56% have family meals on Friday night.  These are just a few examples among many (a whole book’s worth) of how Israelis, in general, express their Judaism

The point is, Israelis seem to have successfully re-invented what it means to be Jewish. Israelis are, for the most part, comfortable with their Jewish practice, whatever it may be. They feel Jewish with whatever they have carved out as their own personal expression of that Jewishness. Needless to say, we cannot compare Israel to the United States (we are a minority in a predominantly Christian culture; Jewish Israelis are a majority), but we can draw lessons about how we should feel about our own Judaism. If we look to Israeli Jews as a model, we can perhaps find room for our own comfort with the Judaism that we do practice. I can understand the Bible feels that Shabbat is so important that one who desecrates it should be capitally liable; that is historically, culturally, and textually interesting to me. But I don’t have to feel guilty if I am not observing Shabbat according to strictly halachic guidelines.

For many of us, our religious path is a winding one. Some of us come from more observant backgrounds and have shed many of the practices we grew up with. Others have taken on many observances over the years, increasing in our commitment to more traditional values. But wherever you come from, when you read the opening verses of this week’s parasha, make sure you feel ok about where you’re at with your practice. Israeli Judaism is thriving, but it looks a lot different than you might think. We can forge our own Jewish identities too. After all, no matter what, we’re all religious.

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine