Parsha Q&A

For the week ending 1 February 2020 / 6 Shevat 5780

Jewish Life

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Question

Dear Rabbi,

I am Jewish, but not Orthodox. I do not follow all 613 commandments all the time. I do not say all the prayers. I don't keep completely kosher and I occasionally speak improper words and think improper thoughts.

As a first born male I was redeemed from a kohen by my father. I did have a brit milah and pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born), and I was bar-mitzvah at 13. I try to attend synagogue regularly for Shabbat on Friday nights, and all Jewish holidays. I fast for most of Yom Kippur. I do not celebrate non-Jewish holidays with my non-Jewish friends, and would not ever consider changing to a different religion.

At synagogue we do not say all the traditional prayers, and we add a few "new" English prayers. I avoid pork, eating meat with milk, and other such kosher rules, but I don't necessarily eat only kosher food. I rarely say a blessing over the food I eat, mainly because it's rarely kosher, and I don't know all the appropriate blessings.

My question is this: Am I doing any good at all? Do abbreviated prayers, selective mitzvahs, and acknowledged Jewish identity reap any reward at all? Or by being "Jewish Lite" am I no “better” than someone who is completely non-observant?

I just need to feel that somehow I am contributing the greater good of Judaism by being somewhat observant instead of non-observant. Please let me know if I am making any difference by doing the little I do. Thank you.

Answer

You and I have a lot in common. I am also Jewish. I also had a brit, (but not a pidyon haben — redemption of the first-born — my parents only did that for my older brother). I was also bar-mitzvah at age 13.

Like you, I also don't think of myself as "Orthodox" (although most people would call me that). Rather, I think of myself as a Jew who tries to observe the Torah

which G-d gave us. But, like you, I often succumb to the inexorable onslaught of human failings — laziness, desire, convenience, etc.

You wrote that you occasionally speak improper words. Did you know that more than one-third of the Yom Kippur penitential prayers are devoted to asking G-d to forgive us for sins committed through speech? Regarding proper thoughts, King David prayed: "Create within me a pure heart, G-d."

The bottom line: Everyone fails. Nobody is perfect.

So, I think my answer to your question should be evident by now. Any mitzvahs which you perform are certainly praiseworthy and should be encouraged. (Obviously, a mitzvah shouldn't be done at the expense of a transgression. Examples: Friday night after sunset, lighting Shabbat candles is no longer a mitzvah but rather a transgression. The same goes for driving to synagogue. In such a case, the way to express your Jewish identity is to stay home!) Furthermore, your deeds can influence others, without your even knowing it; for example a Jewish friend may stop eating pork because of your example. Or, he may simply tell another person "I have a friend who doesn't eat pork," and that third party, whom you may never even meet, may decide to re-think his own level of observance.

There is a danger of being "Jewish Lite," however. It could furnish you with a feeling of being "comfortable" with your observance level. That should never happen to anyone. We all need to continually strive to grow, study and learn more and more about the Torah. Therefore, you should feel happy about the Jewish things that you do, but you shouldn't think of yourself as being at a fixed level of observance. Realize that you can add, if even just one mitzvah a year. Example: Get a tzedaka (charity) box in your house and put in a coin (even a small one) every day (except Shabbat and Holidays). Perhaps the most important thing for you now is to study Torah on a daily, or at least weekly, basis. If you tell me where you live I can try to suggest some possible study partners for you.

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