Defining Ourselves as Observant Jews Even When We Sin

Last week, Rabbi Ezra Schwartz wrote an important article on the modern orthodox singles community.  It’s an important read for those of us who want to better understand this important and often neglected segment of our community.  One passage in the article specifically caught my eye:

“Extreme guilt often comes together with their non-shomer [negiah] activities. This guilt causes them to identify not just as non-shomer but as nonobservant. Hence there is a precipitous decline in their shmirat hamitzvot—observance of Halacha, including basic laws such as Shabbat and kashrut—once they engage in sexual activity. Rather than defining themselves as observant Jews who erred, or as otherwise observant Jews who are unable to maintain one defined area of Halacha, they re-identify as no longer observant.”

This point is one of the great challenges in mitzvah observance for our community today.  We are all human and we make mistakes and we sin and we try to do better next time.  How do we protect ourselves from sliding into non-observance once we sin or once we commit specific sins?  To be fair, Rabbi Schwartz is discussing the sin of physical intimacy between men and women who are not married to each other.  I don’t believe that, for example, if someone starts gossiping then he will consider himself to be non-observant.  However, there are certain sins which are viewed sociologically as more definitional to what it means to be an observant Jew – certainly Shabbat and Kashrut – and perhaps also being no physical intimacy between men and women who are not married to each other.

How do we help someone define himself as observant and motivate him to continue to grow spiritually after he commits sins which are viewed as central to Jewish observant life? One answer could be to de-emphasize the magnitude of the failure to observe these halachot.  We want our children and students to be happy, proud Jews, and we want to teach them the beauty of Jewish life.  Our emphasis should be on ahavat Hashem, love of God. Our emphasis should not be on reward and punishment, on feelings of guilt if we stray.  If we choose this path, then individuals who fail to live up to the high standards of halacha will not feel as if they are non-observant. They will feel as if they are observant Jews who simply made a mistake.

My concern with this approach is that I don’t want to end up with a watered-down Judaism, a Judaism only based on love and not fear when there is no feeling of consequence if we fail. If core values that are definitional to Judaism are perceived as nice ideals but not absolutely critical to life as an observant Jew, I fear that so many observant Jews may often opt to not observe these values when it is difficult to do so.  I think most of us would agree that if, throughout the ages, we just viewed mitzvah observance as a nice ideal but not absolutely critical to life as an observant Jew, there would be no observant Judaism today.  Who would have followed halacha throughout the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Pogroms?  Today there may not be physical pressure to not observe halacha, but there certainly is societal and cultural pressure with respect to many halachot. To me, then, the question remains. How do we impart that halacha observance is not just a nice ideal but critical to life as an observant Jew without causing those who fail to now re-identify as no longer observant?

I believe that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, addressed this challenge in an essay entitled, “Mediocre Teshuva and the Teshuva of the Mediocre.”  In this essay, he writes:

“In contrast to certain foreign religious orientations, the world of Halakha is a system in which objective elements count for a great deal.  But by encouraging us to try our hardest to reach the highest level of teshuva, the Torah here seems to promote an ethos of effort that, even within this highly objective system, has great subjective significance.  Suppose one tries and cannot reach the heavens or beyond the sea.  The Torah insists that one’s effort was not for naught; on the contrary, it had a great deal of meaning.  This ethos is central to our perception of the spiritual world….

In this respect, the stress upon effort is reassuring and rewarding for us, the beinonim, in our mediocrity.  But the flip side of this is that while the results become less critical, the exertion and the degree of exertion become much more critical. …

If, however, we try our best with our own talents and our own intellectual and moral powers, but we nevertheless fall short because of our confined ability, our constricted horizons or inimical circumstances, our teshuva is wholly acceptable.  “It is the same whether one offers much or little”; there is a regard for effort as opposed to results, not only in the realm of Torah study or sacrificial offerings, but in the realm of teshuva as well.”

For Rav Lichtenstein, the efforts to follow halacha must always be extraordinary even if the results are not.  This is a powerful message that we can share with our children, our students, and ultimately ourselves.  Even if we fail, and even if that failure involves one of those key mitzvot that are definitional to Jewish observance, that failure does not define us.  Our efforts define us.

Each evening before he went to sleep it was the custom of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev to take a heshbon hanefesh, that is, to examine his thoughts and deeds for that day.  If he found a blemish in them, he would say to himself, “Levi Yitzchak will not do that again.”  Then he would chide himself, “Levi Yitzchak, you said the same thing yesterday.”  Then he would reply, “Yesterday, Levi Yitzchak did not speak the truth.  Today he speaks the truth.”

If we commit ourselves to live a life of halachic observance and we commit to ourselves that even if the results are mediocre and even if we do fail, our efforts to bounce back will be superhuman, then maybe we have a better chance of achieving that fine balance of viewing halachic observance as absolutely critical to life as an observant Jew while not defining ourselves as non-observant when we, in fact, do fail.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.