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The case against Jewish guilt

Judaism isn't about what you're 'supposed' to do in the eyes of people; go work on your relationship with God instead

“Did you guys see ‘Finding Dory’ yet?” I ask my friends, over a cup of coffee one Sunday morning. The piercing Huntington Beach sun broke through the open window, sending the heat we had been trying so hard to avoid right onto our glistening faces.

“Yeah, we saw it on Saturday — oh. Sorry, Leigh.”


“We’re not as Jewish as you,” they jokingly answered, referring to their Shabbat afternoon viewing. I was caught off-guard, but not surprised by their response. This was not the first time — nor, I assume, will it be the last — that my less practicing friends apologize for not being Jewish enough. They’ll often speak in hushed tones about the delicious meals they relished in at non-kosher restaurants, or avoid eye contact when they share their exciting, yet totally “Not Jewish” vacation escapades.

“We’re Jewish, just not as much as we’re supposed to be.” I smile and laugh it off, and we quickly change the subject. Still, the conversation lingers in my mind, wrapping around my thoughts like a cocoon.

A week later, one of my students, who has recently taken steps to practice more — Kashrut, Tznius, and Shabbat in particular — sent me a text.  “Leigh, what is the hardest part of being an Orthodox Jew?” I teetered back on my heels, as if the question had knocked the wind out of me. Collecting my composure, I asked her why she was asking. Though she is growing, she shared, she has been struggling with keeping the rules. She confided in me that what was holding her back from taking on Shabbat, Kashrut, and Tzniut to the max were the questioning looks and appraisal she’d receive from various people — well-intentioned people — in her life who could not or would not understand her decisions. Worse than that, she shared, she worried about how the community would perceive her if she didn’t keep the things she felt she was supposed to.

Supposed to.

Two days later, I join my sister and her family for Shabbat. It’s Friday night, and, as usual, their home is bustling with guests. Our friends come from various backgrounds, religious affiliations, and lifestyles. When, during the meal, my friend’s shawl slips off, exposing her bare shoulders, she quickly turns a deep shade of red and apologizes for not being modestly dressed the way she is supposed to.

Supposed to. We’re all worried that we’re not living up to expectation, as we’re supposed to.

The hardest part of being an Orthodox Jew is learning to make my relationship about G-d and me. It’s most difficult to make Judaism about my connection to the Divine Source. Hashem first, people second.

This is a concept I have grappled long and hard with, more or less from the moment I decided to practice Orthodox Judaism. I was raised in a traditional Israeli household; I lit Shabbat candles with my mom and sister every week, and I knew every word to Ma Nishtanah. But, I wore pants and attended a public school, and spent most Saturdays until the age of 10 at the movies with my friends. My family practiced what we knew. I never saw myself or the people around me as less than because of this. This was simply my lifestyle and the way that I understood Judaism. It was about a relationship with G-d.

Somewhere along the way, towards the age of 11, as I began to practice more, taking on laws of modesty, observing Shabbat fully, and taking Pizza Hut out of my diet, I began to move away from the relationship I had with Hashem, and looked to the warm, loving, religious community that I was part of to fill the gap between myself and the one above. Let me be clear: I am extremely grateful every single day for the community that I have, and for the worldwide family I have amassed. Still, something changed. I started worrying less about G-d, and more about fitting in. This was a price of entry.

It was then that I began to worry about being enough. Religious enough. Chassidish enough. Learned enough. Marriage material enough. Enough, enough, enough. It didn’t take long for a heavy, overbearing case of Jewish guilt to set in and dictate my every move.

Sometimes our community applies said guilt for the sake of tradition — it’s what we’ve done for thousands of years, and it’s what I am sure we will continue to do for many years to come. Tradition keeps us alive; it keeps the world turning. As Tevye says: “Without tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof!” That’s great, Tevye. But where does the tradition come from, and what is it, really?

Think about it this way: Tevye’s daughters were driven to religion because of Jewish guilt. They didn’t know what they were keeping or why. Guilt was the driving force behind their actions. Therefore, as soon as something spoke to them, really spoke to them — all in the form of sweeping romances with men that were anything but traditional— they left religion hanging off the roof by its pinkies. Perhaps without tradition our lives would be shaky, but I feel the need to take it a step further. Without owning and understanding our traditions isn’t our ground just as faulty? There is something more to this: Tradition warrants a sense of ownership of our Judaism.We feel a sense of love, one of belonging when we think of Jewish traditions and how it has kept us alive for thousands of years. How come then, do traditions also warrant a sense of guilt?

Too often, we view God through the eyes of the community. It’s no longer about the personal connection, but rather an omnipresent, fearful, humiliation based ideology.

The reason people apologize for not being “Jewish” enough, not being “learned” enough, not being “Chassidic” enough is because somewhere, at some point in time, someone gave them the wrong message of what it means to be Jewish. To be Jewish enough, you have to look and act the part. In our desire to foster a sense of closeness within our communities, we’ve managed to push away anyone who does not look or act exactly like us. We wear our labels like badges of honor. Orthodox. Reform. Conservative. Mesoarti. We’ve guilted ourselves into boxes, into wearing masks and disguising who we really are.

Jewish guilt is killing Judaism.

Throughout the years and through my travels, I’ve been introduced and exposed to people from many different backgrounds. I’ve met Orthodox Jews who look the part but don’t play the part, and “secular” Jews who are, quite honestly, more religious than I am. At the end of the day, what each person does is their own business, not ours to judge. But the problem is that we’ve made it our business to judge others, to apply a heavy dose of guilt on their conscious, and to label them the way we see fit.

What if, instead of guilt, we were taught to inherit a sense of ownership for our faith? What if, instead of fear, we instilled love? What if we all had the guts to be ourselves and leave the judgement at the front door?

It took years of fighting with myself, as well as with the judgement I often felt, to come to my conclusions about my relationship with Judaism, and most importantly, my relationship with G-d. I was taught to speak to G-d as if He was always standing next to me. I was taught to embody a life of love, happiness, joy, and inclusivity. However, at the same time, what I saw in the world around me did not always highlight the values I was taught I was meant to have.

So, I decided to start fresh. A clean slate. A break-up, if you will. I needed to understand for myself, once and for all, the role which G-d played in my life. I broke up with the part of me that put people first, G-d second. I dumped out my faith filter and replaced it with a new one.

A relationship with Judaism is between the person and G-d. If that’s the kind of relationship a person is looking for, they’ll actively want to be the best they can be. More than that, we should view every person as doing the best they can. It doesn’t mean that they won’t come to hardship or disappointment or failure or uncomfortable growing pains. Life does not become simpler because of this understanding, but it does become a little less of a burden.

I say it’s time to take guilt out of the equation, and place ownership at the wheel. It’s time we stop making Judaism about levels — this isn’t a round of Pokemon Go. Taking guilt out of the pictures means giving people the ownership; ownership of their personal relationship with G-d, as well as  with the thousands of years of beautiful, meaningful, and sometimes complex traditions.

I wonder what Teyve would have to say to that.

About the Author
Leigh Hershkovich is a writer, nomad, lover of life and all things caffeinated. A published author and aspiring salsa dancer, Leigh makes her home in Los Angeles, New York, and Jerusalem.