Something more, or just different? Explaining Orthodox Judaism to my children.

hydrochic.jpgLast week, just before we left for Cape Cod, I explained to my daughters that the family we were about to visit were Orthodox Jews.

“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.
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posted July 11, 2010 at 10:30 am

An excellent, even charming description of the dilemma. I have not yet made sense of my choices, which may be similar to yours, but I wonder if the key lies in one’s definition of Torah M’Sinai.

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Rabbi Riqi

posted July 11, 2010 at 12:26 pm

that suit is amazing.

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Steven Klein

posted July 11, 2010 at 12:28 pm

You write that you “never, ever came to believe in Torah M’Sinai.”
And your use of the word faith suggests that there’s no rational way to come to such a belief.
But I came to such a belief without faith; indeed, without a strong, rational argument for the proof of the revelation at Sinai, I would never have become frum 19 years ago.
The logical proof I found was based on the writings of 12th-century Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, also known as the Kuzari. You can find his logical (not faith-based) argument that the revelation at Sinai was real by reading the short essay at this link:

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Rabbi Riqi

posted July 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm

also, I don’t think it matters whether you believe it is Torah m’Sinai – it could just move you on the deepest level which you can’t rationalize into belief or theology or philosophy etc. you could also choose to believe in an evolving halachah which allows for transformation and expanding theology, so that the wrestling with issues of feminism (amongst other things) becomes part of the experience and your contribution to the river of dialogue and experience. and as for camping on shabbat, that can be done in a shabbos-dich way with some preparation. and Moses married Tzipporah, so I think you have some pretty darn good precedence there too!

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Rabbi Riqi

posted July 11, 2010 at 12:50 pm

also, you are missing the point that Judaism and/or Orthodox or any kind of Judaism is not just about adherence to rules or consistency of saying brachas “not just on special occasions.” it is also about behavior and mitzvot bein adam l’chavero and bein adam l’olam (between a person and others, between a person and the world). couldn’t ethical living be a kind of orthodoxy, things I know you are deeply committed to based on moral, spiritual and ethical mandates?

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posted July 11, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Why is picking and choosing a problem? Picking,choosing and interpreting is how rabbi’s over eons have figured out Judisim in the Mishna. You are the Rabbi of your own life so review, analyze, debate and choose how to celebrate Judisim your own way.
The “orthodox” that are commonly known the past few decades are mostly following german/eastern european 1800’s style of dress and observance. How they dress and behave is not how the Torah describes. It certainly doesn’t describe wearing wigs or black fedoras.

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Jennifer in MamaLand

posted July 11, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Love the bathing suit! I have one already, but this looks WAY cooler.
My experience as a baalas teshuvah is that you NEVER get to the point where you are doing everything. It’s an illusion: even if you’re “completely” frum, there are always people with more chumras (stringencies) and minhagim (customes) and before you know it, you’re picking and choosing all over again, because you CAN’T do it all.
We keep Shabbos, but use part of that time read novels and play cards. My son spent Shabbos last week in the home of a friend who doesn’t do those things – they spent a lot of time eating, learning Talmud, singing.
We keep kosher, but when he goes to school, he has to bring cholov Yisrael dairy products with him because ours aren’t kosher “enough.” (it was when he tried to call them “trayfe” that I got mad… not mad enough to slap him, but almost)
So how do I explain to my kids that we don’t do as much as some people within this community? That they’re not holier than us, and that, in turn, we’re no holier than the people who go to the three or four Reform and Conservative shuls near our home.
It’s tough, that balance: teaching respect for other Jews who even in my opinion don’t always deserve it for their actions.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when they drive up and park in front of our house and open the door and you can hear the stereo, and see them on their cellphones, and watch them wibbling their Blackberries as they teeter off to shul on their high heels in miniskirts… well, it’s hard to tell the kids not to make fun of them. Not to use quote-fingers when talking about their “shul.” Because they’re kind of a parody of themselves.
Ditto when my son’s Rosh Yeshiva suggests that he should minimize the time he spends with non-Jews – knowing that 95% of his family, including on the “Jewish” side (my side), including six out of eight of his grandparents, are not Jewish. These people love him, they are his identity… that, too, in my opinion, is a parody of Orthodox Judaism and it’s hard to respect someone who would tell a kid, in essence, to hate himself or distance himself from his own identity.
This rant probably belongs on my own blog, and I may crosspost it there. Just so you know – this is a tightrope I suspect most of us spend a LOT of time on, not just while raising our kids. Thanks for sharing part of the wisdom you use with your kids in this situation.

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posted July 12, 2010 at 8:22 am

I am not jewish and so I will respond under your call for people of other faiths to answer. First, I do belive in the God of Abraham but I am unsure about the chatholic lord Jesus (though as set forth in the scrolls he is obviously not the saviour) I guess you would call me catholic in observations. I rationalize choices through trust in God and my shameful lack of faith in other people. The idea that the lord who created me and gave me a soul would rely on others to deliver the absolute truth of his word seems outlandish to me. I belive that he speaks to all of us, which is why I pray (why pray if no one responds?). Once you accept this you must realise that he speaks to others. We have three faiths that preach the word of the same God and each of those have split and fractioned into sects. If God exists and talks to us. (as I belive he does) the only reason for such disagreement is how each person interprets his word. People are flawed and we are given free will to do good or evil. Listen to your Rabbi and read the texts and try to understand the word as understood by Abraham who was no doubt touched by God as few have been, how would his previous culture have shifted his actions away from the pure word of god. Then look to the lord our God for the answers.
To sum up. You will never know what God says to others just what they insist he says. Listen to God for your actions. Above all give him your love as your children love you, for you are a child of God.

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posted July 12, 2010 at 10:49 am

Amy, I have such a deep appreciation for your honesty and thoughtfulness in this brave post. All this stuff is so personal to me I have a lot of difficulty writing or talking about it, but that means I get to be conflicted all by my lonesome. I grew up in a world where you’re either chiloni or dati and you can’t switch sides without losing your family in the process. (I come from a chiloni/secular background, if you hadn’t guessed.) I don’t actually think that has to be true, but it took a long time to draw that conclusion.
My son is young enough that I am able to tell him, “Some people do X and some people do Y.” Even so, at almost 3, I suspect he knows already that there’s more to it than that. My bigger problem is that I need to feel myself that there’s integrity to what I’m doing and I don’t know how to get from here to there.
By the way, have you read Haym Soloveitchik’s article on scripturalism? Mind-blowing. To oversimplify a great deal, he points out that there is a profound difference between halakhic practices learned from your mother verses those learned from a book.

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Bernard Roth

posted July 12, 2010 at 11:46 am

I am Conservative, on the Liberal Side, leaning towards Universalist Unitarian. I grew up Orthodox, but disliked auctioning off honors for the High Holidays, the awful smell of a kosher butcher, and the split between being pious and reversing ethics in business. As an adult my studies at Elder Hostels taught me that while some of the thoughts in the Torah may be GOD given,the Torah was put together by an ignorant and selfish Temple Priesthood, who wrote themselves a fine Uion Contract, overloaded with minutae that my GOD would not have patience with, and a constipated personality that makes it almost impossible to change, even when proven faulty. Fundamentalism is a disease that hampers Jewish life and cohesion. I will not lament on TishAVov, because I beleive that the destruction of the last Temple and a decay of a hereditary priesthood, which lead to the Rabbi and the Synagogue, which are much more democratis and reasonable. I would throw the Natura Karta out of Israel, and let them rot, and Israel would be saner for it.

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Ben Plonie

posted July 12, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I sympathize with your dilemma. I don’t know how old your children are, but you obviously have to keep it simple and basic. Kids ultimately resent anything less than honesty. Your response to Rachel provides the opening.
Without injecting judgments into the issue (and in your own words obviously), you can simply say “Orthodox Jews have a certain understanding about God, the Torah and Israel, and live their lives according to that understanding. Other Jews think differently about one or more of those things.”
I am Orthodox so I will just mention that we don’t think of what we do as acts of faith or conscience or guilt but of integrity with regard to the truth. If faith is involved it is faith in our ancestral and national experience. (And if it’s personal experience, well hey! Why, just the other day …)
Ultimately the kids will look into those issues I mentioned and make informed decisions of their own. I know you are not asking, but many people have found the Discovery Seminar from Aish a source of information they did not know and had never considered.

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posted July 12, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Thanks for writing about this. I struggle with this issue on a weekly if not daily basis. I converted to Judaism because I love Torah and do believe it comes from God at Sinai, and if it were just me I would be totally frum. Instead, we live as affiliated but very secular Jews, because I don’t feel comfortable asking my husband to be as observant as I would like our home/family to be.
Tough, tough subject. I’m going to keep checking back to read comments. Now I’m off to read the article that Stephen Klein posted above.

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posted July 12, 2010 at 7:11 pm

The answer that came to me when you asked how to explain why you choose to do some things and not others was this:
If there’s a part of you that feels connected to Torah Judaism then isn’t that at the core of why you have chosen to do some things?
Even when we can’t wrap our minds around the theology, the actions and rituals keep us connected.
It doesn’t make it much easier, especially when talking to children who have little use for abstract ideas. But it seems clear from your writing that you do what to keep Judaism alive in your life, and every ritual, every mitzvah that you choose to keep is an action that keeps you and your family connected to that Source.
Keep on keepin’ on, Amy!

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posted July 13, 2010 at 10:19 am

It is the reason why we do the practices, or strive to do the practices, which make us Orthodox or Conservative or Reform or Secular or … I can keep kosher and be Orthodox or be Reform but my reason for doing so will be different. If I am Orthodox I believe God literally commanded me to do so at Sinai. If I am Reform I believe God inspired me to do so but that it is my choice. All streams of Judaism strive to be consistent in their practice and fall short. Not being Orthodox because you do not or cannot do all the practices is a bad reason. Not doing everything that an Orthodox Jew would do because you do not believe you are suppposed to do them and/or do not believe God commanded you to do them ia a good reason. You left for the right reason–belief.

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Dan O.

posted July 14, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I don’t know if this helps, but I believe that feelings towards hypocrisy get overblown. We’re all hypocrites.
First, it’s really hard to decompartmentalize our beliefs and actions into a single compartment. Doing that runs against the limits of our psychological and energetic capabilities. I’m not sure that the self-reflection that would require is healthy. Second, we change, and different parts of us don’t change at the same rate. Third, belief isn’t a matter of choice. Feeling conflict because one does not believe what one believes one ought to believe, doesn’t effect what one believes. Conflict certainly doesn’t make a person disingenuous.
So, hypocrisy is inevitable. My trouble is that hypocrisy seems to be the main avenue for social critique: show that a person is a hypocrite, and you delegitimize their contributions and needs.
I’m going to try going to a Reform shul on the Progressive side of Reform this weekend. That’s a huge step for me, as someone who is, essentially, a Pantheist (not a panentheist). I’ll have to ask all sorts of questions of myself, and I’m sure I’ll have to answer to others if it is to work out for me an my family. I’ll have to answer to a daughter who might end up with a considerably more or less conventionally Jewish view as compared to mind.
Here’s a lesson I’ll remember. An organic farmer I knew showed me an apple-peeler he was using to process apples for sauce to can. This person was an activist, lived close to the land, and tried to live as he believed. He told me he bought the peeler, which was really cool, at Walmart. I asked how he could’ve bought anything at Walmart. I got a look, a STFU, and that was that. I deserved it.

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posted July 15, 2010 at 10:40 am

I think we would do better to explain Judaism to the “Orthodox” Unfortunately, over the past 50 years the “Orthodox” have been on a slow but steady stream away from Judaism as it is practiced by the majority of Jews today and as it has been practiced by the majority of Jews for centuries.

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Zvi I Weiss

posted July 15, 2010 at 10:44 am

A more useful exercise might be for the author to go back and really understand why the disbelief in Torah M’Sinai… After all, iwthout that belief, she — in a sense — converts her observance of Judaism into what ever feels “good” for her (or corresponds to her current social norms)… One thng that can be said about the different “groups” among the Orthodox is that when push comes to shove, it is the Halcha [however the particular Rabbi has taught) and NOT the social norms or “what feels good today”…
I think that is why she has the problem of explaining the Orthodox (who, she says, end up sounding “better”)… Whatever else, the ORthodox are CONSISTENT. As an example, I strongly disagree with the Satmr view of Zionism (and, I am not talking here about the Chsssidic Crazies who buddy up to Iran and co.)… These same Satmar offer some of the most wodnerful services to Jews stuck in hospitals and the like. There is no contreadiction because they do not act out of hatred but purely as they see the Halacha. The same is true of other Orthodox groups. It is this consistency and intenal honesty that — I think — non-Orthodox have to face.

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Zvi I Weiss

posted July 15, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Apparently, for RJS, “religion” is nothing more than a popularity contest. I can only assume that as Social Mores change, then RJS will assert that Judaism will change accordingly. Of course, RJS has no answer as to why so many Jews assimilate out of ANY identification with Judaism nor does RJS have a response as to why it is JEWS who often end up following the various Buddhist Hindu, or Evangelical faiths. [THAT answer is simple — these unfortunates whose only exposure to Judaism is the sort espoused by RJS are repelled by such a “religion” and turn to (what they think) is a “real religion” — how terribly sad…] RJS claims that the Orthodox do not practice Judaism as it has been practiced by “the majority of Jews for centuries”.. I can only assume that he is showing his breathtaking ignorance of the vast body of Jewish literature through the centuries that would contradict him. I refer not only to the “codes” of Law (such as those of the R”IF and Maimonides) but also to the responsa through the centuries that hsow the steady application of this Law and these practices as applied to th changing situaiton fo Jews everywhere. It was only when the “Reformers” in the 18th Century began to preach their [false] claim that if only the Jews would be “normal” that many were tempted away form the Traditional practices of hteir fathers and forebears.

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posted July 15, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Thanks to everyone for all the comments. I love hearing your ideas and getting so much food for thought. And I appreciate that everyone is generally quite respectful of others’ points of view-

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posted July 15, 2010 at 10:51 pm

I have faced a similar dilemma with my kids – the more they learn about Judaism, the more they ask “Why don’t we do that?” My response owns up to the fact that being Jewish and welcoming Shabbat on Fridays is one the many ways our family is special and strong, but there are other factors that contribute to keeping our family close – like being able to meet our friends and families out at restaurants, or participating in sports that play on Saturdays. I explain that we have decided to balance the importance of being Jewish with the other important things we like to do as a family. And the orthodox families have decided that being Jewish is the very most important thing, and plan their lives around that. With my 6 year old, this started a good discussion about how she might like to make those kinds of choices when she is a mommy.
I know we aren’t supposed to “pick and choose” which laws are convenient, however framing observance up to my kids as a collection of small choices on a spectrum rather than “orthodox / observant” vs. “not” makes all of us more open minded and one side is not “better.”

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posted July 15, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Having grown up completely secular and lefty-liberal, I can empathize with the inner conflicts and pain of changing one’s life and of leaving behind excellent (and convenient) restaurant ambiance, rock concerts on Friday nights, and hair-blown convertible rides. I’ve been “Orthodox” for about 15 years now, after struggling with these “who am I really” questions for a good 10 years prior. I am struck by a few things in your blog (which I’m reading for the first time, under recommendation)…
As Jennifer pointed out, there really is no comfort level attained in following halachos of Torah Judaism. It’s an extremely ambitious approach to life, and if we’re not learning or striving to learn and achieve more, then we are in essence going backwards. We’re never “there” and “finally frum”. This is a challenging way to live, but what ultimately brings meaning to it all, is that when we do a proscribed action, such as saying a blessing before eating, that act in itself has sanctity, and by acknowledging that Gd created the food and that we have the merit to eat it, brings us closer to Gd. As we get closer to Gd, we realize more and more that Gd is a part of our lives at all times, and that being closer to Gd is a connecting life force that is very pleasurable, comforting, fulfilling and defining.
In short, the more mitzvot we do, the more we want to do. The actions we take are always choices we make. I understand your struggles with not wanting to miss out on many things that are important to you that conflict with Shabbos, etc. Once you decide to, let’s say, make a blessing EVERY time you want to eat, with goal of appreciating Gd’s world, then that will open your heart a little more to the choices we have to let Gd into our lives. Those decisions will come much easier and that pain of conflict will be overrided by the enjoyment of connection to our Creator. The seemingly insignificant choices often count the most, and choosing halacha over personal choice will ultimately become your choice.

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posted July 16, 2010 at 9:55 am

I understand your dilemma, I live it daily. I was raised Conservative and did not have a bat mitvah, as it was not in style at the time. Now it seems that most Jewish girls have bat mitzvahs, no matter how observant they are. My children are both in Hebrew school at our Reformed temple. There are many times that I question my commitment to Judaism. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it is next to impossible to live by the Torah’s rules. My temple is 10 miles away, how can I walk that distance? Can you imagine listening to the kids kvetch for the whole 10 miles, through rain and snow or scortching heat? I am a nurse so I am required to work weekends (that includes Saturdays) and holidays. My employers could care less about Yom Kippor or Shabbat. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. I either take the shifts they give me, or my bills don’t get paid. I have to believe (as well as instill the belief in my kids) that you can have faith and love G-d without having to be in a building devoted to him. You should be a good person and do mitvots on a daily basis, not just because we are Jews, but because we want to be good people. I think if you live your life with love in your heart for G-d and for people, it should be sufficient. It should be your personal choice on how observant your are. Thankfully, our religion allows us that latitude, hence the different levels of observance. I choose to be reformed at this time, as that is the level of observence my life currently allows. Many years ago, while still in nursing school, I worked at a nursing home run by Orthodox Jews and while at work, I observed as they did out of respect. I did consider becoming orthodox, especially when I dated a man that was ( I really like him). My coworkers even offered to come to my house and “clean” my kitchen and convert my home. In the end, I politely declined, especially after starting work as a nurse and seeing the lack of flexiblity many facilities that would hire a new nurse had. My children are no less Jewish just because we don’t light the Shabbat candles every Friday night. They will both be bar/bat mitvahed and will grow up with an appreciation for this beautiful religion and the traditions we all grew up with. Only you know what is best for you and your family. Guilt about how observent you are or are not is not productive. I too married a non-Jew. My first marraige was to a nice Jewish boy, but he was also a momma’s boy and we divorced after 7 years. I am with my goy of a husband for 13 years and he is more of a “Jew” than I am. He takes the kids to sunday school/hebrew school when I have to work. He participates in all temple events, volunteers whenever possible. He is a mensch in every way. Our temple has other couples that are mixed and is very open to all who wish to worship, Jewish or not. Have faith that your level of faith is enough. Your children can make the decision to observe more or less when they become adults. Having a choice is a good thing, stop questioning yourself and enjoy what you can of Judaism, sans the guilt.

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Your Name

posted July 16, 2010 at 12:43 pm

When Hashem spoke to the Jewish people at Sinai, what did it sound like? All the Jewish people were there, for then and for all time. And what each heard then, and hear today, is G-d’s voice not in some singular, monolithic way, but rather, in their own thoughts, and in their own voice.
We hear what Hashem asks of us when we tune into our own connection, our own truth. The more we study G-d’s words, the better we can know them, and the better we can work out how best to apply them to our own unique circumstances, understanding, limitations, committment, truth, needs, passion, etc.
Every tradition has its fundamentalists, who create discomfort for the liberal side by claiming that they own the truth. G-d bless them, if this is meaningful for them. What they don’t want to admit, even to themselves, is that each one of them follows the teachings according to their own teacher, and as best they can. They do what we do.
There is no “black” and “white”. Life is shades of gray. That’s what’s beautiful about it.
Shabbat Shalom!

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William Yacob

posted July 18, 2010 at 7:28 am

Rachael, your approach to this whole issue is so refreshing that it left me feeling encouraged and a bit uncomfortable (convicted); encouraged that our relationship W/ Torah, & thus W/ Gd has to be W/ a growing faith, discomfort (positive emotion) in dealing W/ passing on our heritage. Our 5 (adult) children were raised orthodox, & have all chosen a different path, mainly by indifference.
This leaves my wife and I wondering what we really taught, by our example. Was there some form of hyprocity involved in our approach?
Thank you so much

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posted April 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Good evening to all. I am a Christian with no particular knowledge of Judaism, only looking for info about Orthodox Jews following a visit to the Science Museum today when we observed a lot of Orthodox families. I seem to understand there are lots of different currents in Judaism and it is hard to find one’s place! I loved the honesty of everybody’s comments and it encourages me to try to love God better…

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