What Happened When I Stopped Being Religious


Everybody laughs about the Ten Commandments becoming the Ten Suggestions, but nobody even suggests remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy anymore. I know why. Shabbos observance smacks of everything that’s wrong with religion.

As someone who started keeping Shabbos so my new Torah-observant friends would eat in my “I-promise-it’s-scrupulously-kosher” house, I was dragged into Shabbos observance kicking and screaming.  It’s not easy to amuse yourself on Shabbos, especially if you have kids around. For starters, you can’t cook, you can’t drive, and you can’t use electricity. These are just a few of the forbidden acts, but they all originate with the 39 Melachos, the “creative work” the Jews did in building a portable sanctuary (“The Mishkan”) so they could worship G-d in the desert.  I barely know what “winnowing” or “threshing” are. I can’t imagine being the slightest bit tempted to do these activities on Shabbos, but you’d be surprised what daily tasks derive from them.  I just know that, many years ago, when I was locked out of my house one Shabbos day with all my young kids and I had to wait in the freezing cold until an hour after sundown to open my electric garage door, I understood with new clarity why so many Jews gave up on Shabbos. Because keeping Shabbos was hard.

The lights started to go out on Shabbos observance in America when our impoverished ancestors arrived here. They needed to put food on their tables, literally, and most jobs demanded working on Saturdays. Not to mention, their whole reason for coming to America was to escape persecution for being Jewish.

I have no idea why any of this happened in the world at large. I can only tell you that, for me, trying to keep Shabbos when you have to do it all at once is one of those things that actually IS as hard as it looks. That is, until you really care about every tiny detail in your relationship with G-d.

Until you care about every tiny detail in your relationship with G-d, Shabbos is just a bunch of annoying restrictions. It’s religion. And in those early years, the only thing harder than Shabbos was that Fridays had to be spent in the kitchen the entire day–winter, spring, summer, fall.

I thought it would stay difficult like that forever. Twenty-five hours where the main focus was to avoid doing things like accidentally leaning up against a light switch. (I remember how troubled I was when I learned that we were accountable for the sins we commit inadvertently, albeit less so. I wondered: is there limited space in heaven?)

It took years for me to learn not to think like that. Don’t forget, I had lived into adulthood being sure of my existence and questioning G-d’s. My idea of religious Jews was that they were obsessed with these commandments in their excruciating detail in order to propitiate a G-d who is as scary as He is unseen.They exchanged miserable lives in this world for, they hope, a big payoff in the next one.

My new friends weren’t like that though. They loved being observant Jews. But I didn’t, especially not on Shabbos. Shabbos, when I had to get all those kids ready exactly by the appointed hour; I felt about Shabbos like Cinderella felt about midnight. Shabbos, when bowls pile in the kitchen sink, overflowing with multi-colored muck (also known as Shabbos cereal) gurgling up in a drain I’m forbidden to clear.

But I hung in there, all the while learning Chasidus, trying to wrap my head around ideas, like, “G-d is the Knower, the Knowledge, the Known.” Everything. Always. And that little, tiny me can please Him endlessly just by not turning on the light on Shabbos. And by doing all those other mitzvos, too.

I just had to stop being religious in order to try to bridge the gap.

I can tell you unequivocally that now, so many years later, Shabbos actually feels different. Maybe it’s that I don’t have to entertain all those kids anymore. Maybe it’s the pleasure I have in knowing that I hung in there for Him, even though it was so hard for me.

Or maybe it’s that I appreciate that Shabbos is G-d’s favorite day of the week. It’s the day that’s closest to the way life will be for us in the era of Moshiach, when we will perceive G-dliness effortlessly.

That’s why I’m trying lately to light my candles early, even before sundown. Some people say it’s a mitzva to do this. It’s also my way of showing G-d that, finally, I want more Shabbos in my life, not less.


About the Author
Lieba Rudolph, her husband, Zev, and their young family returned to observant Jewish life when they were both over thirty. Now, after spending equal time in both worlds, she shares the joys and challenges of her journey, answering everyone's unasked question: why would anyone normal want to become religious?