September 17, 2007

The Mitzvah Highway

Filed under: Judaism — marcstober @ 11:23 pm

I wrote the following for a project at Temple Emanuel where is was published as one of 70 essays in a booklet titled Blades of Grass and Angels distributed to each family at Rosh HaShanah morning services.

Growing up, we “weren’t” kosher, although we knew other families who were. At some point, being an annoying teenager, I started to correct the other members of my household: food “is kosher,” people “keep kosher.” It’s a fine point, but Jewish learning is about questioning the fine points, and I think there’s a real difference. While knowing who “is religious” makes menu planning easier, observing mitzvot isn’t an ascribed characteristic or something to be treated as a shellfish allergy. Life is a journey, and mitzvot are the way God has given us to get somewhere. “Halakhah,” which means “Jewish law,” literally translates to something more like “The Way.” It’s ironic that we tend to focus on its limitations. I prefer to think of it as a highway: you are constrained to follow the road, but there is no limit to how far you go.

My own religious path has had many stops along the way. My mother’s family attended Reform synagogues in Connecticut since the Victorian era. My father converted to Judaism. I began to explore my own Jewish identity in high school and college. I participated in the March of the Living, traveling with several thousand young Jews to Poland and Israel. This experience opened my eyes in two ways: first, by seeing the range of Jewish practices among my fellow travelers; and second, by learning how traditional Jewish life was present in pre-Holocaust, twentieth-century Europe. Tradition hadn’t been incompatible with modernity; it was simply wiped away with the people who practiced it. In college, I started going to the Conservative minyan at Hillel, and, after a variety of twists and turns, majored in Jewish and Near Eastern Studies. I traveled throughout Israel for a semester, where I absorbed enough Hebrew and culture to feel comfortable anywhere in the Jewish world.

As an adult, my life is a little more stable, but I still find ways to grow. This year, our family is planning to build our own sukkah for the first time. It can feel like the Goldenfelds always build a sukkah (or some other observance) and the Rosensmiths don’t and when we’re in synagogue, we don’t ask about it. Well, I need to ask things. How do I make it so it won’t fall over? What do I use for skakh? Will you come and eat with us, even if our level of kashrut isn’t rabinically correct? What if we invite a family member who doesn’t keep kosher and they bring a dish? We Jews have always had questions, Halakhah is literally a book of questions (the Mishnah), and wrestling with our real questions can only be a good thing.

In fact, I think that’s what this project is all about. We say that the Conservative movement is a “halakhic” movement, but what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that other movements recognize our authority, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we all keep all the mitzvot. There’s a common myth that our grandfathers went to shul every day in Brooklyn, our mothers were scrupulously observant at home, and we all had a second-to-none Jewish education; we just lack willpower. But this underestimates the difficulty of doing mitzvot in the real world. Perhaps there’s a fear that if we talked about Halakhah, people would say it’s not for them. But this is a simple interpretation of mitzvot as something you feel guilty about. What binds us together as Conservative Jews is that we care about Halakhah; it is special and holy. Whether you are observant, want to be observant, or even if you just want to know the Rabbi and Cantor are observant, Halakhah and mitzvot are central. Discussing our relationship to mitzvot—including how we find them challenging—can only strengthen our commitment.

Marc Stober, along with his wife Cheryl, has been a member of Temple Emanuel since 2003 and you will most often find him with his daughter in Tot Shabbat. He lives in Newton Highlands and is employed as a software developer.