“Do you know what that means?” I asked.
They both shook their heads no.
I tried to explain by giving an example. “You know Moreh Aharon, at your school? He has a beard and tzitzit hanging down from his shirt? Well, he’s Orthodox.”
“So, Moreh Aharon is going to be at the beach?” asked Ella brightly. She loves Moreh Aharon.
Clearly, I needed a better way to explain Orthodox Judaism. Which turned out to be quite a bit more challenging than I thought it would be. It’s not that it’s hard to explain what Orthodox Jews practice or believe. The unexpectedly tricky part was explaining it in a way that didn’t make it sound as if they are, well, an improved version of ourselves. “You see, girls, they keep all the rules of Shabbat, not just some of them. They keep strictly kosher. They say brachot every time they eat, not just on special occasions.” Do you see my dilemma?
Before any commenters rush to point this out – yes, I’m aware that the problem is a reflection of my own insecurity about the choices I’ve made for our family. Indeed, visiting Rachel (aka ima2seven) and her husband, along with six of their seven children, reminded me why there was a period of my life when I seemed to be headed towards Orthodoxy. There’s so much about this lifestyle that I admire and cherish. I loved keeping shabbat, I valued making prayer and blessings a part of my daily life, and I was proud that almost any Jew I knew would eat in my strictly kosher kitchen.
Visiting Rachel also reminded me of why I left that path. Not because of anything we saw on our visit, which had quite the opposite effect, but because she asked me. “How could you leave all this?” she wondered.
The answer was actually quite easy. “Faith,” I explained. “I never, ever came to believe in Torah M’Sinai.” Without a belief that the laws of the Torah were given by God, it became increasingly challenging for me to practice the laws that I didn’t cherish. When there were things I wanted to do that conflicted with Orthodoxy, whether very significant (play an equal role in the synagogue, marry my non-Jewish husband) or moderately significant (eat at my relatives’ houses, go backpacking over shabbat) or completely insignificant (eat at great restaurants, wear bathing suits at the beach) I simply lacked the discipline, or incentive, to choose halachah over personal choice.
Which leaves me at a terrifically challenging place as a Jew and a parent. I really do see Judaism as a package deal. There needs to be some theology, or at least philosophy, behind our doing what we do. We shouldn’t just pick and choose based on personal preference. And yet, if I’ve recognized I can’t do it all, do I do nothing? How do I explain to my children why we do the things we do, and not the things we don’t do?
I am so aware that choices I make now will impact their lives as Jews. I didn’t grow up reciting brachot, observing shabbat or keeping strictly kosher. This has made adopting these practices really, really challenging as an adult. Instead, I end up doing a little more than my parents did, just as they did a little more than their parents did. On some level, I would love for observance of halachah to feel completely natural for my kids. But I’m no more disciplined, and no more a woman of faith, than I was ten years ago, before having children. And consequently, I feel just the tiniest bit like a complete and utter hypocrite. Sigh.
How do you make sense of the choices you make, as a Jew or within another faith? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
ps, the picture isn’t of Rachel, but it is her bathing suit.