To be a Jew is simple. To practice Judaism is complex.
To be a Jew, one simply needs to be born a Jew. Nothing else is required. Just the fact of having been born to a Jewish mother is enough to bestow upon a person membership into the tribe of Jews. One does not need to practice Judaism; one doesn’t need to celebrate its holidays, keep its strictures or follow its traditions; one doesn’t even need to be aware of their Jewish ancestry, to be Jewish.
To practice Judaism is another matter entirely. There are a lot of laws. There are thousands of years worth of tradition. There are strictures and customs and liturgy and sacred books enough to keep a person occupied for the rest of their lives. Judaism is the faith, the way of life, the legal framework, the fount of wisdom, the moral compass, the educational womb, the warm home that has nurtured and guided the Jewish people for millennia. It is something that most of its adherents believe is the best, sanest, healthiest, most meaningful way to live ones life.
For historical reasons, the chain of transmission was disrupted. War, genocide, persecution, dislocation, emancipation, poverty, assimilation and more all contributed to Judaism struggling to survive the last few generations. But survive it has, and in many places it is flourishing, while in others the light of both Judaism and Jewish communities is being extinguished.
For someone who did not grow up in a home that practices the full extent of the laws of Judaism, the long list of requirements can seem alien, bizarre, archaic, illogical and totally out of sync with modern life and sensibilities. For generations of Jews who grew up disconnected from their ancient roots, full Judaism is foreign and makes little sense.
Many Jewish families have crumbs of Judaism. Pieces, shadows and diluted forms of the most popular traditions. Some people believe or are comfortable believing that participating in these superficial and tangential aspects of Judaism is the “full” Jewish experience, or at the very least “sufficient”. Other people believe that Judaism is a “feeling” and that merely to “feel” Jewish is sufficient to stake a claim to the extent of Judaism, with no further action or effort required.
To “feel” Jewish is certainly a value. To participate in any aspect of Judaism is valuable, no matter how minor or diluted. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this is the full experience of Judaism.
The full experience of Judaism includes a heightened sensitivity to interpersonal relationships, guarding what we say and how we speak, how we act, being honest in our dealings, caring for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the needy, the disenfranchised.
The full experience of Judaism includes a sense of modesty in our speech, in our actions and in our appearance.
The full experience of Judaism includes faith in an active, benevolent God, who accompanies us, who has an interest in our lives and whom we can connect to.
The full experience of Judaism includes faith in God, the God of our forefathers, who liberated our ancestors from the bondage of Egypt and revealed himself to all of our people at Mount Sinai, where he gave us the Torah, our guide to life in this world.
The full experience of Judaism includes respecting the Sabbath in all its stringencies.
The full experience of Judaism includes a strictly Kosher diet.
The full experience of Judaism includes daily prayer in community.
The full experience of Judaism includes celebration of all the Holidays, not just Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the Seder of Pesach, but also Sukkot, Simchat Torah, the full week of Pesach, Shavuot, Purim, Hanukah and more, with all of their accompanying laws.
Let us not confuse being Jewish with practicing Judaism. Let us be honest with ourselves. I do not question the biological reality of anyone who is Jewish. But membership in the club of Jews does not automatically make someone a practitioner of Judaism.
Judaism takes work.
Judaism takes study.
Judaism takes commitment.
Judaism takes sacrifice.
On Yom Kippur, the Jewish people reaches out to God in part to reconnect, to rediscover, to reinforce, to reenergize, to renew their Judaism.
Make your Judaism more than superficial. Make your Judaism more than tangential. Don’t believe that merely “feeling” Jewish is in any way sufficient. In our days of internet, Wikipedia, and smartphones there is no longer any excuse for ignorance. Any ignorance we currently have of our traditions is self-inflicted. If you don’t know about the extent of full Judaism it is because you choose not to know.
On Yom Kippur, it is said that the soul reaches its highest consciousness of the year. The soul pines to express itself, to escape the boundaries of the physicality of our bodies, our urges, our habits.
Yom Kippur is the day to peel away the layers of dross that have covered our soul.
Yom Kippur is the day to listen to our souls, to our innermost hopes and dreams, beyond anything material.
Yom Kippur is the day to reconnect with our life mission and purpose.
Yom Kippur is the day that our soul, that divine spark, seeks to reconnect with its source, its origin, God Himself.
Yom Kippur is the day to break free from the materiality, the superficiality that rules our lives.
Yom Kippur is the day to find meaning and direction once again.
Yom Kippur is the day when a Jew can return to Judaism.