Thursday, February 11, 2010

Judging Judaism from the Outside

Although the main chunk of my volunteering in Israel revolves around tutoring English in Israeli schools, another opportunity is to work at the local soup kitchen in Nes Ziona. Many people really enjoy it because it is different from the schedule of the schools. The lady who runs the kitchen is full of spirit and kindness, and it’s also nice to chat and get to know the locals that filter in for lunch. Additionally, the soup kitchen in Nes Ziona is run by Chabad. While we don’t work closely with the Chabad, and the kitchen is only funded by them, they often filter in, chatting with the locals or grabbing lunch at the kitchen. Yesterday, one of my close friends confided in me about something that she had been holding in for awhile, something that had happened in the soup kitchen that had aggravated her. My friend regularly volunteers there every single Sunday with another friend of ours, who happens to be male. She confided in me that she becomes incredibly frustrated when the Rabbis or the Chabad men walk in and go straight up to our male friend, introduce themselves, shake his hand, and then proceed to walk away. My friend is constantly in shock. She tells me, “I don’t want to hate religious people, but where are their morals? How can they make me feel like nothing, like I’m invisible, only because I’m a woman.” She then told me another story she’s been holding in. She was biking away from the soup kitchen when she fell off her bike. She hit the ground hard, screaming. She turned around to see if anyone was there, and as she looked around she saw a few Chabad men, praying. They saw her fall, yet they ignored her. There she was, on the ground, almost in tears and not one single person asked if she was okay. Can they not take a quick break to ask a fellow human being how they are after they tumble right on the ground? Not even a simple, “b’seder?”

I know she was partly expressing herself because she had pent up her anger, and partly because she felt that because I was religious I could either defend Judaism, or go down burning with them. Yet, there is no possible way I can defend the actions of these people. I may be religious, but I am not religion itself. I choose to follow the laws of Judaism because I find them beautiful, and because welcoming religion into my life has enhanced it, infusing it with more meaning and understanding of my world. While I can attempt to defend the religious, telling her that while she may have fallen, this fall wasn’t life threatening, and there is a law that when praying the Amida, we can not be distracted by anything. I can tell her that many religious males feel uncomfortable in front of women, because they are choosing to guard their touch, for that special moment with their wives. But I cannot tell my friend it’s okay that she feels invisible and unimportant. These are her feelings, and I cannot deny them. Yet, it pains me to hear her judge Judaism in and of itself based on the actions of others.

It’s easy to judge Judaism from the outside, and even I fall victim to this judgment. I can’t say I support the many religious children who throw stones at people wearing shorts or pants walking through Mea Shearim, I can’t ignore the comments that some religious men choose to yell at “immodestly” dressed women. I cannot and I will not defend these actions. I too get angry at these people and I don’t see these particular actions as representative of the Judaism I practice. In Israel especially, it’s easy to see judgments flying around because of the large numbers of both Haredi and secular Jews. However, I refuse to judge Judaism by the ways in which others practice it. I would like to think that our religion is something more than seeing how others do it, it is a feeling and a spirituality that can only be felt through both knowledge and practice. As a result of Judaism’s many Halakic laws, it is inevitable that much of Judaism becomes mechanical and seemingly meaningless. It’s easy to get lost in the rules of Judaism: dressing a certain way, not turning a light on on Shabbat, or only eating Kosher. These are the easy parts of Judaism, the no brainers. The difficult parts are believing- the faith- and the commitment and the responsibility to better ourselves. Everyday is another day that we get the opportunity to make ourselves a better person. To right the wrongs we’ve made, to find inner peace, and to make others in and around our lives feel better. A truly holy person finds peace within themselves but also passes this on to other people. To me, this means rising above judgment of the other- both those that are secular and religious, and focus on our own happiness and our own deeds. We should therefore judge Judaism not on how others are doing it, but how it makes us feel, what it teaches us, and what it has the potential to do. Therefore, while I can’t defend the actions of another that makes my friend feel invisible and unimportant, I can encourage her to not see religious people as religion, and to explore Judaism in order to inspire her own life- not the lives of others.


  1. Great post :)

    I would like to ask you one thing, though:
    you wrote -
    "The difficult parts are believing- the faith- and the commitment and the responsibility to better ourselves."
    Have you ever considered that the EASY part of being religious is believing? Fasting in Yom Kippur is hard, not driving to the sea on shabbat is a bummer, especially when it's a beautiful day, and eating Matzot in Pesach can be.. well... uncomfortable.

    However, finding patterns (even when they don't exist) is a part of being human. Human beings will always strive to find rules and meaning to this world even though they don't exist (consider astrology). Therefore, it is easy for people to believe in an all-powerful deity which controls every aspect of this universe. Actually, studies have shown that belief (in something) is an integral part of human evolution (can't find the link now, i can show it to you later).

    Also, the idea of god has, in my opinion, helped mankind to feel less alone in this world. Life is SO MUCH easier when you have this big father looking over you and making sure you're okay and well, all the time.
    Moreover, the idea of the afterlife - is just a very comfortable idea to believe in. Knowing that your soul (whatever that means) never dies, and you will live on forever (in heaven, hell, or a flying saucer, whatever) has always helped humans cope with death.

    Just a thought.


  2. I think I disagree with you on the consequence of human nature finding patterns. I agree with you up to the point of saying that looking for patterns and striving to find rules makes it easy for people to believe in an all powerful deity. I think that this makes following the rules easy. When you say "do this and this, and this is good for you" is easier than the believing of it part. This is because Judaism is something that can't be followed alone, it's all about community and groups. So while you say that maybe going to the beach on Yom Kippur is "easier"- than fasting and going to beit kenneset, I disagree. I think that following the patterns and the rules of the community you live within is easy because they give you all these easy answers for life. HOWEVER- it's the posing of new and innovative questions that is difficult and challenging, it's the challenging of all our beliefs and the search for answers that is difficult. Therefore the philosophy of religion is the difficult part, not the living. (however, in order for a meaningful happy life both must be explored)

    Furthermore, I think you underestimate the power of the human ego and this natural tendency to want to control. It's with this in mind that I argue against your idea that it's easy for people to believe in something else that is controlling you.