There can be freedom in following “the law”

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My first book, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter, describes much of my frustration with feeling like a “bad” Jew because I didn’t keep kosher, or the Sabbath, or fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. It wasn’t just that I tried to do those things, and failed — I didn’t really want to. I thought they were dumb and pointless.

What’s worse than thinking the ancient traditions of your people are tedious and boring? Doing them strictly out of obligation. Or so I thought.

Today, there’s a lot that I do for God when I don’t feel like it: “going through the motions,” if you will. I don’t always feel like praying. I don’t always want to read my Bible (especially the duller parts, like Leviticus and Numbers). I never want to get up early for church. But I do it anyway because I believe these actions serve a greater good. That by going through these motions, the emotional fervor might eventually return.

Christians are quick to tell you that actions like regular prayer and Bible reading won’t “save” you. They are things you do out of love, to maintain that close relationship with God — the same way you carve out time to call a long-distance friend, or schedule a date night with your spouse, without the kids. Just because something requires “work” doesn’t mean it’s tedious or draining.

The same is true, I finally realized, of my friends who choose to be observant in their Judaism. The ones who enjoy keeping a kosher kitchen, completely unplugging during the Sabbath (not a bad idea for anyone, religious or otherwise), and dressing in a certain way that sets them apart from others — wearing kippot, tzit tzit, long skirts, etc.

I have one Jewish friend with whom I regularly discuss both Jewish and Christian theology, and one of the things that offends her most about Christianity is that Jews are said to be “under the law” like it’s a bad thing; like it’s some kind of curse or punishment. That Jesus came to “free” the Jews from it doesn’t make much sense to her, since this is a choice she made for herself in her adult spiritual life. To imply she is “performing” for God in a works-based attempt to earn his favor feels almost anti-semitic.

Today, I have a greater appreciation and understanding for “the law” than I did growing up, even though it’s my choice not to incorporate those practices into my life. For me, they serve no purpose in bringing me closer to God — not in the same way that keeping a prayer journal does. Reform Judaism today is quite accommodating in the way it encourages Jews to create their own spiritual practices. It’s not cherry-picking so much as recognizing that every journey is different. No two people relate to God in exactly the same way.

My choosing to follow Jesus became less about wanting to be absolved from the guilt of not being an observant Jew, and more about seeking a God whose humanness satisfied a deep spiritual need that couldn’t be satiated any other way. That’s an important distinction, because it comes from a place of understanding Judaism on its own terms, rather than just as a prequel to Christianity.

Related: Is Judaism inherently legalistic?

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8 thoughts on “There can be freedom in following “the law”

  1. Allison de Laveaga says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m trying to read the Bible all the way through. The first time I only got to Isaiah, but probably I’ve read most of the New Testaments in different bits over the years. I’m now only at Leviticus and it is tedious be also so strange. God had so many requirements about sacrifice! As a Christian today I’m glad I don’t live under that burden but, on the other hand, I realize that Jesus’ call (and perhaps the heart of Judiasm) is actually much more difficult…loving God and neighbor. It’s an interesting topic.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Allison de Laveaga says:

        No. Before and this time I’m plowing straight through. If I use a plan I’ll feel like I’m blowing it. This way if I miss a day it’s not a big deal.

        Like

        • Sarahbeth Caplin says:

          That is one of the biggest reasons I have yet to start one – I can’t guarantee I’ll read each portion every day in order to finish within the one-year parameter. So ignore any advice I have about this 🙂 I tend to read what I feel is relevant in whatever season of life I’m in.

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          • Allison de Laveaga says:

            Hi again…I have a question for you on a different topic…I also have a blog and I’ve noticed that when readers leave a reply for me they don’t get notified when I comment on their reply. They have to log back into my site to see my comment. I’m pretty sure I checked your notify me button when I made my reply earlier but I didn’t get notified. Have you noticed this issue?

            Like

  2. hannah out loud says:

    Hi beth,

    My orthodox (not Haredi) understanding is that every Jew has the right to be as religious as they choose – and adopt any stringency they choose-and this isn’t cherry picking in the Christian sense. Also because we have an oral tradition we don’t just follow the letter of the” old testament”. The real divide in Judaism is between lenient and strict interpretation of Jewish law.

    Sometimes Sephardi and Ashkenazi are either or.
    But on balance Sephardi are more lenient under the interpretation : ‘ koha dehetera ‘adif, “the power of being lenient is preferable”.

    Ashkenazim tend toward the quality of “gevurah” or strength. They viewed halakhic stringencies as a positive expression of love of God. The stricter the demands of Jewish law i.e. halakha, the more self-sacrifice and heroism were entailed in fulfilling the commandments. In contrast, the Sephardim tend toward the quality of “hessed,” i.e. compassion. We view halakha as a loving means of serving God. Whereas Ashkenazim veered toward halakhic stringency, Sephardim tilt toward halakhic leniency. As Rabbi Yosef said: “The Sephardic rabbis are of the school of Hillel, tending toward hessed, and they do not have stringencies; they walk on the ‘king’s highway.’ However, Ashkenazic rabbis tend toward gevurah, and are from the school of Shammai who were strict.”

    When Torah is divorced from life, it becomes an artificial construct relevant only to self-selected scholars who function within a narrow, self-contained society of their own and it was never given to us by God to be like that. It’s for all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark says:

    Thanks. Originally the issue in Galatians was those who tried to impose all the regulations of the Torah on Gentiles, to whom the observances were foreign and difficult. In Romans Paul speaks more positively about the role of the Torah for observant Jews. Christians can be legalistically anti-
    legalistic.

    Like

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