Ethan Yakhin
Co-Host of Open Book with Eitan and Itai

Can I keep the Torah and not be religious?


Am I tapping into my divine potential? 

Eitan (איתן) Yakhin

Part 1: The Feeling

Hello Friends.

What does it mean to be “religious” today? Why are the divides between different Jewish groups widening? How do morality and G-d fit together?

A quick search gives me this definition of religious:

“forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being”

Going forward, I want to make a distinction between the terms “Observant” and “Religious”. In Hebrew, we could refer to these as “Shomer Mitzvot” and “Daati”.

The word ‘religious’, in my mind at least, connotates a certain fervor, a specific conscious decision to do or feel different things. In contrast, the word ‘observant’ brings to mind exactly what the word says: Being observant means that you are observe-ing. In the action of observation, there is often, but not always, an element of passivity.

If we look at the Hebrew form of ‘observant’, Shomer Mitzvot, literally “keeping commandments”, we find more evidence of this passivity. Although to keep the Torah’s laws certainly requires a degree of active participation, the word ‘keep’ in itself does not betray this fact. And indeed, one can passively say blessings over food, one can passively pray, and one can passively give charity, not putting any active energy into the actions they are doing. In a way, we can end up in the passenger seat of our own body.

The repetitiveness of following the same tasks day in and day out result in them, unfortunately, becoming more and more mundane with the passage of time. For the Observant Jew, the only way to combat this is to never stop fighting. One who isn’t increasing is decreasing (Pirkei Avot 1:13).

The psychology world is abuzz today with the word “mindfulness” and the phrase “being present”. Indeed, the Tzaddik of Yavniel and countless others have already stated how important it is to focus on the present and not worry about the future, or even worse, the past.

In Berachos 13a, we find the famous saying Mitzvot Tzrichot Kavana, “Commandments require intention”. We find today that there may be an Observant Jew descended from a long line of Observant Jews and yet he prays without feeling, he shakes lulav without feeling, and he sees the Torah without feeling. For some Jews, unfortunately, fulfilling G-d’s will has become a matter of routine.

We’ll leave it to our Sages to debate what the legal implications are of commandments requiring intention. Let’s turn to a practical reason. Perhaps without constant presence, or mindfulness, or an attempt at either, we become like husks, automatons doing a programmed function. My wife’s Siddur says something great right before the Shmonah Esreh: A prayer without concentration is like a body without a soul.

What a profound thing.

I’m not rebuking anyone for lack of focus. My suggestion here is that we all, I included, learn from the passionate and never stop striving, never stop attempting to reach new heights and grow. If you fall, great. But keep climbing.

I was struck by something Elie Wiesel’s son wrote. Elisha Wiesel said no one sang or danced more fervently than his father did on Simchat Torah.

Let’s stop for a moment.

Elie Wiesel, the concentration camp survivor!? Where could he have possibly found such joy? I’ll tell you.

It came from within. And THAT is what it means to be religious. Here we have clear as day the difference between ‘religious’ and ‘observant’. A Jew can fulfill every Divine and Rabbinic commandment regarding Simchat Torah and still not even be present at all.

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My father is not 100% observant, but despite that I became Orthodox. I keep Shabbat now; I pray 3 times a day. How did this happen? 

If you don’t put any feeling into it, it’s not going to work

My father was (and is) always passionate about Judaism. When he sees the Torah in a synagogue, his eyes light up. He keeps Jewish Customs with joy. His passion had a tremendous influence on me. For some of us, it comes naturally. The ones who are totally immersed in observant Judaism every day may have to work harder to tap into that passion.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, whom many refer to as the “Happiness Expert“, shared with me something very telling over a phone call. He has a mantra he shouts: Joyful Thoughts! Joyful Feelings! Joyful Words! Joyful Actions!! But he says, it’s not magic. If you don’t put any feeling into the mantra, it’s not going to work.

From Rabbi Pliskin, we see the unbridled power of pure consciousness.

Before we have a look at Part 2, it is important to reinforce the fact that whatever level we are at, G-d loves us. He looks out for us no matter what level we’re on, and whether we know it or not.

G-d willing, we will all reach new heights in both our observance as well as in our religiosity.


Episodes of Open Book with Eitan and Itai air weekly on Saturday Nights, Jerusalem time. Our fourth episode, on Letters to Talia, aired on January 23.

Ethan Yakhin is the co-host of Open Book with Eitan and Itai, a Podcast both with and about Jewish Authors. To stay updated on upcoming episodes, you can follow Open Book on Instagram. The show is available wherever you listen to podcasts. You can have a look here at their podcast page. 

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About the Author
Ethan works at a local bookstore in the heart of Jerusalem. When he's outside the store, he's probably researching for his podcast or doing other creative work.
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