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

Can you be Religious Without Keeping the Torah?


Does Hashem love me? Can I be a good person if I don’t keep the Torah? Do Observant Jews have all the answers? 

An analysis of the two main characters in the book “Letters to Talia”, and a broader look at what it means to be a Jew. 

Part 2: The Values

In part one of this piece, I made the distinction between being observant and being religious. Being observant means to fulfill our commandments according to the law. But to be religious, I argued, you have to be in touch with the feeling of Judaism, an active participant and not a bystander.

Being religious means holding true to Jewish Values.

What are Jewish Values? We know some of them off-hand: Be a good host, visit the sick, be monotheistic, spread joy…

We see “Derech Eretz kadma laTorah” which means, “Manners come before Torah”. In my opinion, Judaism starts with our values, and not with how many halachot we keep. Which is why when I was reading Letters to Talia, a book of real letters between a yeshiva student and a kibbutz girl, I found that in some ways the kibbutz girl, Talia, was more religious than Dov, even though she was much less observant.

In the book, Talia reaches out to Dov out of her own initiative and seeks to understand his way of life. It is clear throughout her letters that she is searching for the truth. Talia’s love for her fellow Jew is an exemplary lesson in and of itself on what a Jew should be like. When Dov belittles the kibbutz lifestyle and mocks it, she responds with composure, seeking to understand him.

That’s religious.

In Natan Sharansky’s new memoir, Never Alone, Natan Sharasky recalls how when he was released from prison in Soviet Russia and brought to Israel, he stayed home for Shabbat when invited out on a special tour. Why? Because he knew it would make his wife unhappy if he left on Shabbat, and for him, Shalom Beit was most important. So he stayed.

That’s religious.

I think now of the yeshiva students that were tankers during the Yom Kippur War, saving soda and candy all week so they could have it Shabbat. Nowhere in the Shulchan Aruch does it say to that. But they nevertheless wanted to honor the Shabbat (Adjusting Sights, Haim Sabato).

That’s religious.

My father isn’t 100% Observant. But every Jewish tradition he does, he does with love. When he sees the Torah in Synagogue, his eyes light up with excitement. His excitement spilled into my soul and I decided it was worth being Observant. All because of him

Loving your fellow, loving your spouse, loving your Creator. Love. Love is part and parcel of the Jewish experience. Pirkei Avot asks what is an enduring love, and immediately answers: A love that is not dependent on anything. Indeed, in Letters to Talia, Talia showed Dov nothing but love, though there was every reason on her part to dislike him.

We know, from a myriad of sources, that if we loved each other, it wouldn’t even matter how much of the Torah we kept. Hashem would send the redeemer to us immediately.

In any event, Hillel, the famed Sage, considered ‘Loving your fellow Jew’ to be the basis for the entire Torah. One is left to wonder how Torah-observant we are without that.

No matter what your level, never forget Hashem loves you unconditionally. For an infinite being, there is infinite understanding. He understands our limitations. And he desires the same thing as a spouse…. authenticity. Be there with him. Have your mind on him. Listen to him. Many times, we do things for our spouses that we think they want, but really, those things aren’t even important to them. Let’s keep an open ear to the things that are truly critical to our Creator.

I respect a lot of Jews who people wouldn’t call religious. Jews who don’t wear kippas, but give tzedakah. Jews who don’t keep Shabbat, but host guests in need. Jews who love Judaism unconditionally, with simplicity and innocence. These are holy souls.

Who is religious? Those who are true to Jewish values, to those things that identify us as unique amongst the nations. And we should all try not to be just Observant, but also Religious.

Thank you for Reading.

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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