La La How The Life Goes On

Newish Jewish

Posted on: April 8, 2012

Passover is and always has been my favorite Jewish holiday, even with its lack of bread and Atkins Diet-level constipation. Its message of social justice resonates with me year in and year out. But this year has been more of a challenge due to changes made at Baby Sister’s preschool. She attends a JCC-type preschool where many kids are Jewish and many are not. The school has always had a wonderful community feel to it, rich with Jewish education but leaving room for each family’s personal beliefs. It has always felt welcoming and warm.

Until this Passover. The Director decided that the school needed to become “more Jewish.” fair enough. But she, in my opinion, took the most reductive definition of “more Jewish” and set policies designed to increase observance. Observance refers to how closely one follows Jewish law and tradition, such as keeping kosher, keeping the Sabbath, eschewing pork, etc. In Christianity it would involve things like not eating meat on Fridays, giving up something for Lent, refusing to work on a Sunday or wearing a crucifix.

Now, this has been an age-old debate in all religions, Judaism no exception. Can one be religious if one is not observant? Can one be fully Jewish and less-fully observant? My opinion is ABSOLUTELY. I affirm that people of good faith can differ on this point, but I am offering my thoughts as a person of good faith. I genuinely do not believe that God cares whether I have a BLT. He does not care if a morsel of leaven passes my preschooler’s lips on Passover. He does not spend a nanosecond judging me for flipping my light switch on a Friday night. I believe with all my heart that God, instead, cares about whether I’m an embarrassment to the Jewish religion and the human race. That said, I completely support others who believe in their hearts that the bacon, the leaven and the light switch DO matter to God. Everyone should have the right and the ability to worship and live according to their own religious beliefs, insofar as they do not harm others.

The issue with the school is that it is NOT a religious school; it is a community center with a mission of bringing Jews (and others too) together in a supportive environment. So when dictates about how the ever-increasing standards of observance were being handed down, it rankled me. If another family’s level of observance does not allow for MY family’s level of observance, then that becomes a problem in our community, does it not? Why must I purchase a new lunchbox for my child during Passover when at home I simply wash it out and don’t put bread in it? How does my child’s lunchbox–on any rational level–impact another child? It’s foolery, straight up. And it indicates that perhaps families requiring the highest level of observance might benefit from attending a religious school in line with their beliefs, rather than a community center that caters to ALL Jewish people–and many non-Jews as well.

More specifically my concerns go beyond lunchbox inspections and nonsense food edicts to the real heart of the matter: what does it mean to be More Jewish? And how desperately sad is it that Orthodox-level observance would be the first, out of the gate, go-to method for becoming so? I argue that making the school More Jewish would be better served by refocusing on the multitude of values that are uniquely definitive of Judaism across the board, rather than on the elements of practice that matter only to some.

Tikkun Olam. Repairing/Healing The World
Tzedakah. Justice and Charity
Teshuvah. Repentance
Caring for the Widow and Orphan
Welcoming the Stranger

You get my point. There are so many ways to lead an organization, a school and individuals toward a deeper understanding of and commitment to Judaism or even just Jewishness. That the first idea for doing so was More Rules simply reveals the poverty of imagination and inspiration at the top. I understand that the practice of observance has the purpose of putting God first in our lives, of making the mundane sacred. And if that’s the result that works for you, please continue with my blessing and support. But for me, furiously cleaning my home of all chametz (leaven) before Passover doesn’t serve God, or anyone. But teaching my girls the meaning of Passover does. I don’t want them to miss the point of the holiday because I am caught up in my observant commandment checklist. Passover is all about gratitude and seeing “the other” as oneself, for we “were once slaves in the land of Egypt.” It is all about “all who are hungry, come and eat.” It is all about understanding our obligation to oppose slavery anywhere and in all its forms. It is a message of gratitude and hope and freedom; and if my girls take that from the Seder and nothing else, that is Jewish enough for me.

ADDENDUM: To be clear, our family keeps kosher for Passover. We light candles for Shabbat. We go to temple. There are traditions in Judaism, such as keeping kosher for Passover, that are intended to create mindfulness, and we practice those because they are universal to Judaism. My concern focuses on the divisions created when the micro details of HOW to practice these traditions are imposed in a community setting. Especially, as is the case, when they are imposed with no warning, no explanation, and no input from the community affected.


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