I recently read an article where the IDF was criticized for forcing religious soldiers to shave their beards. Generally, all soldiers must keep their faces clean-shaven, but exemptions are given for medical or religious reasons. However, it was reported that a soldier from a traditional family was recently disciplined for failing to shave, citing religious reasons. However, the army did not consider him “religious enough” because he didn’t know what section of the Torah was being read the following Shabbat at synagogues. The army asserted that soldiers who were disciplined had met several times with Rabbis from their units and, based on the Rabbis’ impressions, were deemed not to be religious.
It is irresponsible for me to comment on who is correct in this instance, because I just don’t know the facts. Were the soldiers simply playing a game and claiming they were religious just to avoid the obligation of shaving, or were they truly religious even though they didn’t know even basic information that any religious Jew should know. This story, on one level, reminds me of what goes on in some Yeshiva high schools during the sefira period. According to many halachic authorities, one should not shave during the sefira period, but some halachic authorities are lenient, even for someone who doesn’t need to do so for work. For obvious reasons, Yeshiva high schools want their students to look presentable and many do not allow their students to grow facial hair, especially in a disheveled fashion. During the sefira period, some Yeshiva high schools make an exception and some students who are lax in the other sefira rules take on the “stringency” of not shaving during the sefira period.
On a different level, this story raises the question, who determines if you are “religious enough,” and it reminds me of another story. In a small town in Poland, an orphan shepherd boy grew up knowing very little about being Jewish. One day, shortly before Yom Kippur, he met a group of people that were traveling to Medzibozh to spend the holiday with the Baal Shem Tov. The boy joined the group and soon he found himself standing with many people in the Baal Shem Tov’s shul in the middle of davening on Yom Kippur.
The boy did not know how to daven or even how to read the aleph-bet. He saw all the people davening from the depths of their hearts and he also wanted to say something to God from the depths of his heart. So he drew a deep breath and let out the shrill whistle that he would sound every evening when he gathered the sheep from the fields. The people in the shul were obviously shocked, but the Baal Shem Tov calmed them and said, “A terrible decree was hanging over us. The shepherd boy’s whistle pierced the heavens and erased the decree. His whistle saved us, because it was sincere and came from the very bottom of his heart, where he feels love for HaShem even though he doesn’t know or understand why.”
It’s not our place to judge perhaps inconsistencies in someone’s religious behavior. Just because the young boy doesn’t know the aleph-bet, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to deeply connect to God. Even if a soldier doesn’t know basic information that any religious Jew should know, if he doesn’t shave for religious reasons, we shouldn’t question his motivation. I have heard people criticize other people’s religious practices both on the religious left and on the religious right because of a concern of insincere motivation. This young woman wants to study Gemara? Maybe she should dress more modestly before taking on something that women haven’t studied for ages. This young man wants to wear a hat and jacket for davening now? Maybe he should work on his midot before taking on this additional stringency which many Poskim say is not halachically mandated nowadays. When evaluating ourselves, let’s try to be consistent. Let’s try to follow the dictate of ba’al hanefesh yachmir, that we should only be stringent if we are an especially “soulful person,” when we are on a certain religious level, so that our stringencies fit our entire religious personality. But who are we to judge others? When evaluating other people, let’s not ask if they are religious enough. Let’s appreciate every mitzvah they want to perform, every portal to religious entry that they wish to open.