Tuesday, July 07, 2009


A guest post by KosherAcademic

I am not one hundred percent happy with Halakhah. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m observant to the best of my ability; I keep strictly kosher, I observe Shabbat and the Chagim, and I keep the mitzvot…again, to the best of my ability. I live in a Modern Orthodox community which I love, and I am surrounded by others who hold the mitzvot in a very similar fashion to the way that I hold them. But I struggle with certain mitzvot. I pretend to the outside world that everything is copasetic, because I am terrified to admit to someone that I have some issues, to see the (imagined) look on their faces when they learn that I have a hard time doing x mitzvah, or that I see y mitzvah as completely backwards and pointless. But I remain silent.

No one is able to do all 613 of the commandments. To be an observant Jew, one’s purpose is to strive to observe all the mitzvot. There is, however, a problem of Orthodox Jews going off the derekh, a problem we seem to hear about more and more these days – and while the discussion of Jews leaving Orthodoxy is not the main focus of this post, it is related, an extension, a possible consequence of the enforced silence that I am addressing here. What I do not see or hear about, but what I imagine must be there, is that others struggle with certain mitzvot, too.

Why the enforced silence? Is it from community pressure to perform—or at least look like one is performing— up to par with what is considered acceptable? It may very well be. When we moved from a fairly black-hat community in Chicago (where we certainly didn’t fit in) to the very liberal, nay, very, very liberal community in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I did my Masters degree, initially the laxity felt like freedom from oppression. Finally, I didn’t have to worry about the weird looks I would get when I went out in a pair of pants (of course, I did get weird looks when I kept my hair covered, but that is another story). But what I realized, after living there for two years, is that the community serves a purpose in this regard. It helps keep one in line. Strangely enough, that worry that someone might see you doing something that may be considered…inappropriate…can keep you from doing it.

But why should that community pressure require silence? One of the reasons I became observant was because of the openness—I thought—with which we could ask questions about anything. And when I was first becoming observant I could ask questions and challenge ideas, and my questions and challenges were tolerated and even encouraged. But once you know enough to “fit in” to a community, you are (silently) required to do just that: fit in. Do not rock the boat.

Let me explain it this way: Imagine one is walking down the derekh to do a mitzvah, and one encounters a roadblock. It doesn’t really make a difference what the roadblock is—it may be only in one’s mind or it may be larger, perhaps a cultural issue. However, if one can’t find the way around the roadblock, then one never reaches the mitzvah. At that point, you are basically stuck at the roadblock for the rest of your life, perhaps striving toward but never actually reaching the mitzvah, or, you end up just going off the road (ie off the derekh). How much easier would it be for one who is encountering a roadblock to be able to have a frank and honest discussion with others who have encountered similar roadblocks? But these discussions are not happening. People are too embarrassed or ashamed to admit they’ve hit a roadblock.

This silence, I think, is unhealthy. I am not suggesting support circles that acknowledge people’s lack of commitment without holding them accountable. We are, after all, responsible for the mitzvot, and as mentioned above, as observant Jews we should be striving to do all we can do. But if there was open dialogue with less judgment, perhaps those of us who do have issues with certain mitzvot would find a better way to overcome our hesitation in working towards observing them.

But if all you’re going to do is tell me to get past the roadblock, to just do the mitzvah, without offering possible solutions to get past it the issues, well, you’re not helping.

  • Please be sure to read DYS's guest post from this morning here
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