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?