Recently I noticed something I do. In some ways this is a sequel to last week’s commentary, and thinking about that one was what got me to notice this one.
The incident itself was simple. Someone asked me to buy something on Shabbat. Instead of mentioning I don’t buy anything but food on Shabbat, I gave excuses. I complained that the store would be too busy. I didn’t even notice I did it, till afterwards and felt something odd. Then I realized what I was feeling: embarrassment. I was embarrassed that I was trying to be observant.
I wonder about this embarrassment. It’s not one the extremes have to think about. Both Orthodoxy and secularism is all or nothing. There is a consistency in each system of thought: You either do or you don’t.
Both take a argument of consistency, one this weeks portion suggests with the operation of the altar
5. And the fire upon the altar shall be burning in it; it shall not be put out; and the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order upon it; and he shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings.6. The fire shall be burning always upon the altar; it shall never go out.[Leviticus 6 ]
While the light of the menorah is the one we usually associate with the Ner Tamid or Eternal light, it is also suggested by the altar as well. These all suggest a burning consistent observance of the mitzvot, as the Orthodox do. There is a burning consistent effort to not follow the mitzvot by secular people. I do not mean they are evil, but anything that does not have an ethical basis to it, a basis of practice without ethical reason, they do not follow. For example there is a part of the kosher code in this weeks portion:
26. Moreover you shall eat no kind of blood, whether it is of bird or of beast, in any of your dwellings. 27. What ever soul it is who eats any kind of blood, that soul shall be cut off from his people.[Leviticus 7]
The prohibition of blood and many of the rules around change the way people will approach a steak. For the observant, a steak thoroughly salted and drained of blood, then heated to well done will be the only way to eat a steak. There is the least possible amount of blood in such meat. Non observant people will eat it any way they want believing such rules silly. I for one don’t eat blood, and since I don’t like overly well done meat, I don’t eat red meat at all– kosher or otherwise.
But then I’ll do something that the Orthodox will not do: put cheese on a chicken breast sandwich, which in their view is mixing milk with meat. I do follow an actual opinion here of Yosi of the Galilee, a Talmudic sage who made the simple argument that chickens don’t have milk so the prohibition of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk is silly when applied to poultry. The majority disagreed, stating that any sacrificial animal subject to slaughter and sacrifice using the methods described in Vayikra and Tzav was considered kosher meat, and so most Jews take chicken as a meat, though I still don’t.
Interestingly, I don’t have problems often with Orthodox practices: they often see my attempts as at least I’m trying. When eating with Orthodox, I’m probably eating in a kosher restaurant or home so there is no cheese for my grilled chicken sandwich anyway. The problem is in secular settings where I am the only one restricting myself for religious reasons.
To be observant in any way seems to often gain derision. In a conversation I had recently with a friend she observed something that unfortunately tends to be true. Observant is the same thing as radical to many today. She does have her own observances where she notices this. I’m no radical or fundamentalist to say the least. To many people I’m so inconsistent, I’m hypocritical. The problem of course is all or nothing thinking. If you don’t eat pork or shrimp, then your’e assumed to be Shomer Shabbos, and thus get derided for driving to services.
The writing of Abraham Joshua Heschel addresses this problem. To him it is the difference between western, or what he calls Greek, and Jewish thinking. Greek thinking is categorical, placing things in well described categorical boxes. One such categorization is Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. Another such categorization is whether one is completely observant or not. Thing smust fall in the box, they cannot be in two boxes at once, or between boxes. Heschel believes that we each are unique and can only be described by our own story. Applying Greek thinking to Jewish concepts only creates a mess which isn’t very Jewish in his view.
Applying this concept to observance, each Jew has a way to observe the 613 mitzvot and the countless halakah. We observe some but not all of them — it is truly impossible, since some are biologically gender related and some, like those in this week’s portion, requires the Temple. We cannot categorize even among the Orthodox. All we can do is a lot like Passover, tell a story. Yet that is inconvenient to Western sound-bite, categorical thinking. And that really is the tension that causes my embarrassment. For many I am categorized, while I know better. I make a categorical false assumption that those who do not observe or observe differently will disapprove of my limited observance, and thus disapprove of me. I am embarrassed to show my observance in such circumstances. The answer here again is the statement of Hillel.
IF I AM NOT FOR MYSELF, WHO IS FOR ME, BUT IF I AM FOR MY OWN SELF [ONLY],51 WHAT AM I, AND IF NOT NOW, WHEN?[M. Avot 1:14]
I must be true to my own observance first. This is not easy of course. Some of my fear is learned and historical. Observance means that the majority religion might attack me for doing a minority practice. But maybe it is in spite of this, one must act according to one’s observance. By observing the way I find meaningful, I separate myself from everyone else, and set my own identity. My actions say that I am strong enough to set such an identity.
As I get ready to follow one of those very visible practices, there is some words from Exodus that puts this all into perspective.
7. Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with you, neither shall there be leaven seen with you in all your quarters. 8. And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did to me when I came forth out of Egypt. 9. And it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the Lord’s Torah may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand has the Lord brought you out of Egypt. 10. You shall therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year.[Exodus 13]
Passover will mean a lot of Dietary Changes next week. While Verse 9 is commonly interperted to mean one should wear Tefillin, it may also mean to think, act, talk and eat according to belief. To do so says I do this because it is spiritually meaningful to me. Maybe embarrassment is unnecessary. To be myself is just who I am and is meaningful to me, Anyone else’s categorization of me is meaningless.
Next time I begin to feel embarrassed about observance, I think I’ll say Hillel’s quote above: Im ayn ani li mi li?