Religious coercion keeps rearing its intolerant head in Israel. Whether it’s about who can marry or who can divorce, what we can or can’t do on Shabbat or whether a group of disabled children are permitted to celebrate their Bar and Bat Mitzva in a Masorti synagogue. The bottom line is that we can’t fight religious coercion and expect to win. The question is, why would we want to?
Why do we care if the Orthodox establishment approves of the way regular non-orthodox Jews of all persuasions practice our Judaism?
I’ve said before that we need to stop looking to the Orthodox to verify and validate our Jewish rites of passage. However, we also need to reclaim our Judaism. This is not a new concept. I didn’t make it up. But I have thought long and hard about the ways we are selling ourselves short in the Jewish arena.
Many years ago I heard a talk by Deborah Lipstadt about the essence of Judaism and Jewish identity in the modern era. She said the two questions we ask when we want to discover what sort of Jew we have just met are: Do you keep Shabbat? And do you keep kashrut? If the answer is yes to both these questions we’re pretty sure we’re talking to an Orthodox Jew.
But why do we let Orthodoxy monopolize these two practices which seem to represent the essence of Jewish practice? You might celebrate Shabbat in the summer with a family day at the beach. Or you may celebrate by hosting friends to a Shabbat BBQ. Either way, if you’re not going to work, an appointment, the makolet (corner shop) then you are celebrating your day of rest. So why not say so?
When people ask me if I keep Shabbat I say yes. It’s hard not to keep Shabbat living in Israel. I know that what I do is not what they mean. But what I mean is also valid. I also say, when asked, that I am religious. Because I am. Judaism is very important part of my life and we religiously keep a whole list of traditional customs.
If more people did this, the questions would have to be modified. How do you keep Shabbat? Do you keep Shabbat like the Orthodox, the Reform, the Masorti, or do you do your own thing? Do you keep kosher? Yes – to what extent? You’re religious – do you affiliate with any of the main Jewish streams or do you do your own thing? Seems a bit intrusive but at least it acknowledges the fact that the Orthodox don’t own Judaism.
You may be a die-hard secularist and that’s your choice. However, if you are proud to be Jewish but feel you don’t really do it properly. Think again about what it means to do it properly. In a world where we don’t accept people telling us how to bring up our children properly, or eat properly, or do anything else properly… because ‘properly’ has been a subjective adverb since Victorian times, why do we accept the Orthodox version of Judaism as doing it properly?
You do it properly. Whatever you do, you do it properly and you need to own it. If you sit down as a family for dinner on Friday night, if someone lights candles, if you drink some wine and break some bread, or if you do something different, be proud to do it your way whatever that entails. And when anyone asks say, “Yes I am religious and I keep Shabbat.” Then let them work out what that means.
We can’t change other people, but we can change the present reality by changing our own attitudes.