My sophomore year in high school, one man unintentionally altered my perception of life. While I attended school in casual secular clothing, this student teacher chose to wear the same black suede kippah everyday. Although we managed to familiarize ourselves, he never genuinely knew how I longed to discuss the identity crisis tearing through my skin. How could he possibly feel such security within himself and his beliefs, to publicly identify himself to his religion so freely? Instead of discussing this, though, I decided to discover the answer myself.
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“And you shall observe my commandments and follow them; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 22:31). Contrary to popular belief, this quote does not command any interpretation of the commandments or ignoring of them entirely; however, in practice, the latter interpretation is fairly common. A.J. Jacobs, Editor at Large for Esquire, denotes this idea as “Cafeteria Religion,” in which people pick and choose what they’d like to follow. With this, two overarching questions emerge: how do we know when it’s acceptable to interpret the torah? And how much leeway do we have in our interpretations of such strict texts? Well aware that, through my experience, I would never discover a “perfect interpretation” — nor would anyone discover a faultless interpretation of any text! — I decided to, at least, gain a new perspective: the extreme.
Follow Jacobs’ method of adding in a few commandments at a time to my daily routine, I’d better focus on how my regard of each law affected my outlook on life, rather than solely on the adversity of altering my life so drastically in such a small time period.
To start, I began by consistently wearing a kippah, a tallit katan, and by not shaving, because they would alter how people viewed me as a person. In training myself to adapt to, first, superficial changes, I began to wade through the flood of Torah I would surely experience.
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The effect was drastic. Suddenly, due to my slightly altered fashion, I lost my title of “Kevin” and gained it as “Jew.” Two days after beginning my quest, I spent a night on the town, and although no one looked at me with any note of anti-Semitism, I gradually began to feel as if the waves of Torah had slyly and subtly forced me onto an island of isolation, far from any contact.
Throughout the next three weeks, I added more and more commandments into my lifestyle, from binding my money against my hand, to carrying small rocks to stone any adulterating passerby, to avoiding the touch of impure women, and many more, all in attempt to obtain a greater conclusion about why any deity would place these strange laws upon such a large people, as they just seemed so ridiculous!
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Just over three weeks after starting this project, I spent a few hours decorating a sukkah at a local synagogue. While the entire night was a pleasant and memorable experience, it was only during the span of a minute when I experienced the epiphany for which I had waited so patiently. A close friend of mine with whom I’d previously lost touch, upon my arrival, ran up to hug me. It was such a friendly and genuinely caring action, but all I could do was panic; a second before the potential embrace, I muttered, “I… I’m sick! You shouldn’t touch me.” At that point in time, I simply couldn’t have followed the bible to its exact measure: I could have loved my neighbor like I loved myself and given her a hug, or I could have ruled her out as impure and avoided any touch. Either way, I didn’t need to lie about being sick, which I did anyway, out of panic.
No matter what, there is no feasible way to follow every biblical commandment. There are times of overlap that don’t always require an old face emerging in contemporary life; they happen all the time. Because of this, we are pigeonholed into only one outcome: Cafeteria Religion. (Even the “most religious,” the Haredi Jews, have been known to verbally, physically, and sexually abuse women; given the choice between respect towards strangers and honoring personal modesty, they decide upon violence. Picking and choosing is inevitable.) However, what few people seem to point out is that Cafeteria Religion really isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be. Devoting oneself to laws is, as Jacobs states,
… all about picking the right parts. You want to take a heaping serving of… compassion, mercy and gratefulness — instead of… hatred and intolerance. Inspiring leaders may not know everything about food, but maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh.
I should have hugged the girl. I should have told her that I didn’t care about her level of purity, and that I much more preferred fostering a meaningful friendship than isolating myself in an ocean of ancient texts, an ocean whose tsunami-sized waves have destroyed families, relationships, cultures, and the lives of individuals. I should have accepted the torah‘s blatant imperfections and that anything written thousands of years ago most likely holds a different meaning contemporarily. I should have come to realize that wearing a kippah to school with my tzitzit hanging out isn’t necessarily me, nor should it be. We are all individuals, composed of unique beliefs, experiences, ideals, role models, and identity crises, and we do not fit into a one-size-fits-all lambskin scroll. Maybe, instead of getting lost in a wave pool of ancient texts, it’d be nice just to go for a swim.