What does it really mean to be Jewish?
When I first met my husband, he wasn’t an observant Jew. He was raised ‘traditional’, and the synagogue his family didn’t go to was always orthodox. He came back home for Rosh Hashana, and ate matzah on Pesach, and fasted for Yom Kippur – but he didn’t really know why he was doing any of that Jewish stuff.
My husband had been sent to Jewish day schools all his life, before he got to university. All his friends were Jewish throughout high school, and that predominantly continued into university, too.
But my husband, and his Jewish friends, really had no idea why living as a Jew, or marrying a Jew, or having Jewish kids was important. All the parents definitely wanted their children to marry a Jew – but really, that was as far as it went. And that desire was based on something deeply felt, rather than deeply thought or understood, so it was impossible for them to really explain to their children why be a Jew.
And in the meantime, being a Jew just seemed to consist of a long list of mitzvoth and commandments that were designed to make life inconvenient and uncomfortable.
Being a Jew meant you couldn’t just eat what you wanted, and where you wanted to. It meant you had all the hassle of not working past sundown on a Friday.
It meant a whole day where you couldn’t just watch TV, turn lights on and off and go shopping. It meant an obligation to go to shul three times a day, where you’d have to mumble words you didn’t really understand or relate to.
It meant you couldn’t date who you wanted, or marry who you wanted.
In short, one big list of burdensome requirements that didn’t seem to be doing anything useful or concrete in the world.
I happened to meet my future husband in a pub in London, three days before I was due to fly back out to Canada to finish my last year of university.
In contrast to him, I’d never been to a Jewish school, and I’d spent most of my life being bullied and ostracized for being different.
My parents sent me to the local Church of England primary school, in part because the education was meant to be better there. That place seemed stuffed full of bosom-y matrons who seemed to be obsessed with witches’ covens and forcing Yoshki down your throat.
I was bullied from day one, as was the Indian girl in my class who also didn’t fit in with the working class white goyim who made up the rest of the class. But it’s only when I was around 9 years old that people started telling me that I’d “killed their Khrist”.
The bullying continued, one way and another, throughout high school – all three of them, because we moved to Canada when I was 14, and I kept moving around. It was only when my parents returned to observant Judaism, when I was 16, that I actually started to meet any Jews at shul.
And a lot of them were pretty nice, and pretty friendly.
My own experiences had taught me some very valuable lessons about the real differences between Jews and non-Jews.
And so even though initially I chafed at not being able to eat in McDonalds anymore, and not being able to do things on Friday nights, I still bought into kosher and Shabbat, because I could see it was part of the package. That’s not to say I had a clear answer as to why be a Jew at that stage, other than to say if God made you a Jew, then that is what you were meant to be.
So, I went through university as a ‘modern orthodox’ Jew who really believed in God but still wore jeans and watched movies and ate a lot of vegetarian out, and then one fateful day, I met my husband-to-be in that pub.
We hit it off immediately, and by the second date I knew we were going to end up getting married (which clearly made him think I was a grade ‘A’ psycho, but that’s a tale for another time.)
After a year of me being in Canada and him being in London, I moved back to the UK with an eye to getting engaged and married.
And that’s when me and my husband-to-be started to have some massive arguments about what it meant to live life as a Jew.
He’d gone through a nominally orthodox Jewish schooling system, and had come out of that thinking that Judaism was just a set of archaic laws that bore no relation to modern life. The only reason Jews didn’t eat pork is because of trichinosis! The Torah had all been made up by a bunch of controlling rabbis, and God had nothing to do with it! The temples had never existed, it was all a bunch of fairy stories! (God forbid).
All of his friends and relatives also held the same views, so I found myself fighting a battle on so many fronts. And to be honest, I didn’t really have the right ammunition at that stage, or enough knowledge, or any real emuna, so the argument basically came down to the importance of having Jewish children, and raising them in a healthier atmosphere where they would feel as though they belonged, instead of being bullied all the time.
One time during an argument, I asked him: “Do you really want our kids to be doing drugs in some club on a Friday night, instead of eating a meal with us?!” After we got married, my husband told me that had been the clincher, at that stage, for why we should keep kosher, and why we should keep Shabbat, and why we should try to be consistent in our observance.
But I can see now that really, it’s not such a strong argument.
Especially not today, when there are so many kids raised in observant homes who are also going off the path.
All of us know of kids raised in apparently very frum homes who have left the path completely, including the recent, extreme, example of the four girls from Chassidic homes in the US who very publically converted to xtianity.
So the question of why be a Jew is even more pertinent today, and part of the reason why providing a truly satisfying answer is often so difficult is because so many of us are still trying to argue from a place of being a body, instead of being a soul.
WHAT DOES A BODY LIKE?
What does a body like? A body likes comfort. It likes to eat good food, it likes to have its desires met, its lusts gratified. It likes to feel like it’s a ‘somebody’, like it’s a success, and to display its external achievements and superiority over other people via all sorts of status symbols like clothing, a big house, a nice car, and fancy holidays.
If we’re arguing about why be a Jew from the place of just being a body, we are going to lose the debate every single time.
And from what I can see, this is most of the reason why so many people are leaving their yiddishkeit behind, and why even people who are raised in orthodox environments just view the Torah’s commandments as something burdensome that’s causing them to miss out on all the ‘fun’ and ‘good stuff’ the world has to offer.
Recently, someone told me about one of his good friends, who’d been sent to an orthodox Jewish school until he was 18, married a Jewish girl after university, and who considered himself to be ‘orthodox’. Three years ago, this guy decided that he was missing out on all the delicious-looking traif meat being served in all the fancy restaurants he was going to as part of his highly-paid profession.
He was sick of ordering the fish option, and started to eat expensive traif. The body won the argument hands-down.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SOUL-DIMENSION
But of course, there’s a whole other dimension to why be a Jew, and that is the spiritual, or soul dimension. And here is where the debate really needs to be taking place. After three years of eating fancy traif, the man in the previous story became severely depressed – despite his externally ‘perfect’ lifestyle – and he’s now on anti-depressants.
If you’d ask him, he’d say there is absolutely no connection between his current emotional difficulties and his decision to stop keeping kosher. Even though he went through an orthodox Jewish school for 12 years, and comes from an orthodox Jewish family, he was never taught the bigger picture of why be a Jew.
Apparently, no-one ever explained to him that if he wanted to really feel good about himself, if he wanted to feel as though his life was truly meaningful, if he wanted to feel happy, and satisfied, and filled-up – that he’d have to do the job God gave him to do in this world.
And what is that job?
In a nutshell, to fix the wider world by rectifying our own bad middot, our own negative character traits.
How does this work, in practice?
Rav Ofer Erez has done a fantastic job of explaining this very deep idea in THIS PIECE, but the basic idea is that there are 288 holy sparks that got lost in our lowly world when it was first created.
The whole point of life is to ‘find’ these sparks of holiness, that have been hidden in our reality, and to re-attach them back to God. When all these sparks have been returned to their rightful place, the world will be totally rectified, and we’ll have the complete geula, or redemption.
How do we do this?
We do it by living a Jewish life, and following the Torah’s commandments, and believing in God, and connecting every single thing we experience back to Him.
Why do we say brachot? Because we are connecting our food, our ability to use the bathroom, even the fact we wake up in the morning, etc, straight back to the Creator of the world. At that deeper soul level, every action we take is either fixing the world, spiritually, or pushing the holy sparks further down into the muck and obscurity.
And finding and rectifying these sparks of holiness is what gives us our true feelings of satisfaction and joy in life. That’s what makes us feel truly happy and alive.
And who doesn’t want to feel happy and alive, in 2018?
This is the real argument for why be a Jew.
But there’s another thing we should discuss too, and that’s how all this self-sacrifice to keep God’s commandments actually helps us to develop the tools we need to refine our characters – which is where the deeper work of being a Jew is really at.
Let’s go back to how people really work, physiologically and spiritually.
Physiologically, our brain is split into three main sections, as described in this infographic:
- The primitive, or ‘snake’ brain
- The emotional and experiential, or ‘animal’ brain
- The higher, spiritual, or ‘human’ brain
The snake brain develops first, and it’s almost exclusively devoted to self-preservation, or ‘me first’.
The snake brain also regulates the body’s stress response, which manifests as our tendency to fight-flight-freeze-fawn our way through life (which is the main root of most of our bad middot).
And it’s also the seat of the body’s desire for comfort, food, and other physical lusts and pleasures (the other main root of our bad middot).
Spiritually speaking, the snake brain equates to the nefesh part of the soul, the spiritual force that’s animating the body and keeping it alive – but that’s about it.
Physiologically, when the stress response has kicked in, or the urge to eat, or to sleep, or to procreate has taken over, a person’s mind is being totally controlled by this primitive, selfish ‘snake brain’. The blood literally rushes away from the frontal lobes, the place where the functions of the ‘human’ brain reside, to feed the snake brain’s stress response. And when that desire, that fear, that anger, that lust kicks in, it’s almost impossible to stop it.
The whole process of becoming a refined human being, and a rectified Jew, depends upon breaking the snake brain’s hold over our body and mind.
So, how do we do that?
We do it by practicing mesirut nefesh, which is usually translated as ‘self-sacrifice’. More accurately, it’s talking about sacrificing the nefesh – that part of our body, that part of our brain that is so caught up in ‘me first’, lusts and bad middot.
Each time that a person exercises their free choice to:
- NOT give into a desire to eat something, because it’s not kosher; and to
- NOT gratify their wish to turn on a light, or check their phone, or drive out to the beach just because it’s Shabbat; and to
- NOT procreate outside the sanctify of marriage;
- They are breaking the hold of the snake brain, and training themselves to overcome the snake brain’s primitive, knee-jerk reactions.
At the same time, every time a person makes the effort to:
- Talk to God
- Pay some charity
- Learn some Torah
- Practice having empathy, which means seeing things from another person’s point of view, even if you happen to disagree 100%
- They are strengthening the altruistic, empathetic, spiritual ‘human’ part of the brain.
Just like the muscles in the body, the more these spiritual muscles are flexed, the stronger they will become, and the more ability a person will have to practice true SELF-CONTROL.
HOW IS ALL THIS CONNECTED TO FIXING THE WORLD AND LIVING A HAPPY LIFE?
So now, let’s try to tie all this together, so we can see just how awesome God actually is, and how we actually get so many concrete benefits from following the Torah’s commandment in this world, on top of whatever spiritual rewards we’ll actually get in the world to come.
When people are constantly in the grip of their snake brain, this is what can happen:
- The snake brain wants instant gratification, and that leads to addictive behavior. On the milder end of the scale, it’ll translate into a craving for coffee, or cake, but addiction to cigarettes, alcoholism, intimacy and drug use (including prescription drugs) are also rooted in the snake brain.
- The snake brain is devoted to the idea of ‘me first’, or self-preservation. This is the root of all the anti-social behavior, the selfish tendencies, and the phenomenon of justifying violent, hurtful and unethical actions.
- The snake brain cuts a person off from their ‘higher self’, so they literally start acting and reacting like an cunning animal, instead of a caring human being. That means that life is approached 100% from the superficial, external ‘body’ aspect, which tends to be extremely abrasive, angry, grasping, fearful, fake, selfish and generally ‘ucky’.
Again, there’s a very wide spectrum of behavior going on here, and most people will never be able to totally overcome the snake brain 24/7. But the more the snake brain is being brought under control, the less mental and emotional illness a person will experience, the less they’ll be in the grip of their ‘knee jerk’ reactions, and the nicer and more refined they’ll be.
To put this in Torah parlance, getting control of the snake brain is the ‘flee from evil’ part of the equation, while strengthening the human brain is the ‘do good’ is the second part of the process.
When we avoid transgressing the Torah’s negative commandments, we are effectively breaking the snake brain’s grip on us.
When we actively do the Torah’s positive commandments, we are strengthening the human brain’s ability to govern our thought processes, and to act and think more altruistically and spiritually.
And the place where this process of clarification takes place is the emotional brain, or what Rav Ofer Erez calls the world of feelings. (Take a look at his article, for more background on this idea.)
HOW KEEPING THE TORAH HELPS US OVERCOME ‘SNAKE BRAIN’
Many Jews are ‘cherry picking’ which bits of the Torah’s more ‘external’ commandments they like and want to do, and which bits they don’t. A person who only eats kosher meat but who still eats non-kosher vegetarian is still practicing some degree of self-control, and mesirut nefesh, but it’s at a much lower level than a person who is strict about their kashrut.
A person who stays home Friday night but who still turns the lights on and off, or watches TV, is still practicing some degree of mesirut nefesh, but again, it’s at a much lower level than someone who is keeping the finer points of Shabbat. Ditto, when a couple strictly keep the laws of family purity, which means intimacy is off-limits for specific times of the month.
When we only do what’s comfortable for us, we simply don’t make the same progress in breaking the snake brain’s control over us, and limiting its influence.
This means we will lack the self-control required to not eat the cheeseburger, or to not date the nice, attractive non-Jew, or to turn down a lucrative job that will have us working on Shabbat.
At the same time, there is usually almost no emphasis on things like actually believing in God, talking to Him, learning a lot of Torah, giving 10% of our income to charity, and other basic ideas that you can sum up in the phrase ‘having emuna’.
Essentially, ‘having emuna’ means that you connect every single little thing in your life back to God, and you see the world in more abstract, altruistic and spiritual terms, which again strengthens the ‘human’ brain and weakens the control of the snake brain.
In the past, Jews with this sort of belief system still stayed Jewish, they still married Jewish, either because they really had no choice; OR because they were scared of losing their families and friends by marrying out.
FEAR is one of the primary things that motivates the snake brain, so the doctrine of ‘self-preservation’ was actually served by marrying Jewish. Today, this fear no longer applies to the more traditional, but less-observant, Jewish communities, which is a big part of the reason so many people are now marrying out.
So, what’s happening in the Torah observant communities?
If a person is used to keeping Shabbat, and used to keeping kosher, and used to putting on their tzitzit every day, their physiological comfort zone is actually built on continuing to do those things. Strange as it may sound, it’s easier for the person to keep strictly kosher, because the thought of eating traif is actually nauseating and profoundly disturbing.
But that doesn’t mean that the snake brain has disappeared. It just means that its area of operations has shifted. The lust won’t be for cheeseburgers, but it will be for more socially ‘acceptable’ things like alcohol and cigarettes.
And where the battle will really take place will be in the area of a person’s bad middot and negative character traits. Anger comes from the snake brain. Fear and anxiety comes from the snake brain. Despair and despondency and laziness all come from the snake brain.
‘Me first’ is still operating in the frum community, just it manifests in a different way.
A person can keep Shabbat and kosher, and think they’ve 100% fixed their ‘snake brain’ tendencies. But if they still have times when they are angry, controlling, arrogant, selfish, cruel, alcoholic, overeating – etc etc etc – that means there is still some work to do, and still a lot of mesirut nefesh required.
So, how do we fix the problem, tachlis?
First and foremost, it comes back to having emuna, and connecting every single thing back to God. But this is also where Rebbe Nachman’s advice of doing an hour a day of hitbodedut, or talking to God in our own words really comes into its own.
When you spend 60 minutes a day talking to God, and really trying to work out what the message is God is sending you in all the things you’re experiencing, and where you need to improve, you are effectively letting your ‘human brain’ run the show for that time. And when you do this, that enables the ‘human brain’ to start over-riding all the excuses, justifications, self-righteousness, hypocrisy and arrogance that the snake brain manufactures to try to cover its tracks.
In real time, the snake brain will tell you that you are yelling at your kid because it’s good chinuch to do that, and they need to be dealt with strictly. Meanwhile, in hitbodedut, your human brain will start whispering at you that you probably over-reacted, and that you need to make some effort to fix the relationship with your kid and to figure out where your anger is actually coming from.
Throughout that 60 minutes, you will sift through the two sides – the ‘human brain’ opinion, and the ‘snake brain’ opinion – to get more clarity about what really happened, and what you really should be doing about it now.
This ‘sifting’ process will occur in the realm of our emotions and feelings, the place where the ‘outside’ interfaces with our internal dimension.
(I’m stuck oversimplifying to make the point. Hitbodedut doesn’t always work in such an obvious or linear way, especially not at the beginning. But if you stick at it and continue to talk to God regularly, you’ll get more and more clarity about what’s really going on, and why you really feel the way you do and react the way you do. Again, this is a long process! It takes 120 years for a reason.)
The crucial element of all this is having a real relationship with God, and a real connection with God.
If a person is just praying three times like a robot, just because it’s expected, then it’s not really strengthening their ‘human brain’ very much at all. (Although no word of prayer is ever said in vain, the Chassidic masters taught that our prayers can get ‘stuck’ down in this world, unable to rise up to the higher worlds where they can really start to work and to act, to change our reality. What enables the words of our prayers to rise up is developing a real connection to God.)
If a person is learning a lot of Torah, but still failing to see how their issues making a living (to quote one common example) are directly connected to how they are (mis)treating their wife, or their children, then they are still not living life with true emuna, where every tiny thing is connected back to God, and viewed through the prism of ongoing self-development, teshuva and avodat hamiddot.
Avodat hamiddot means working to lessen our negative character traits like anger, fear, despondency, jealousy, arrogance, selfishness and flattery (i.e. snake brain tendencies), while strengthening positive character traits like altruism, empathy, kindness, generosity and forgiveness (i.e. human brain tendencies.)
If a real connection to God is absent, then the snake brain will still mostly be in control, regardless of which community a person belongs to, and regardless of how externally ‘observant’ their environment actually is.
When emuna is absent, and bad middot and rote, robotic learning and praying is the norm, then many people will still be groping for a satisfactory answer to why be a Jew? But, in contrast to the less frum communities, the cost of marrying out, or dropping out of the frum world is often still high enough to keep them in and to keep them quiet about their religious doubts.
But the fundamental problem remains.
TO SUM UP:
This is a super-long post, I know, but I felt the urge to get all this down in writing today, as hopefully it can be useful to others. The ‘problem’ of people not knowing why be a Jew is not confined to non-religious communities, or communities outside of Israel.
It’s more obvious in those places, because the obvious price to be paid for marrying out and assimilating in less observant communities is much less scary. No-one sits shiva for their children these days, and the non-Jewish spouse will still be accepted by most if not all of their friends and families.
Meanwhile in Israel, the opportunity to marry out is much less, as the whole country is full of Jews.
But as we move towards Moshiach and the world of truth, God seems to be removing more and more of the superficial props and barriers that have traditionally stopped Jews from assimilating even though they often lacked a real answer to why be a Jew?
There are girls from even orthodox homes in Israel who are marrying Arab men. My daughter was working with one of these ladies a few months’ ago, and found out that she came from an emotionally-dysfunctional frum home where she was extremely unhappy.
So, we need to have a clear answer to the question of why be a Jew that goes beyond ‘because I said so’, or ‘because it will make me happy’, or ‘because the children will be Jewish.’
And here’s my best attempt at setting it down:
My child, be a Jew because God created you to fix the world in partnership with Him, and to do something that no other person can do. Each of a Jew’s 613 commandments enables them to fix their own negative character traits, and to strengthen the hand of altruism, generosity, spirituality and emuna in the world.
Be a Jew because you’ll live a far happier life, and you’ll feel much more satisfied and filled-up. You’ll have more inner peace, your personal relationships will work much better, and your life will be full of love, true meaning and vitality.
Be a Jew, because otherwise you’ll get stuck living a superficial life running after more and more of the things that can never really satisfy you, and that will only end up poisoning your soul and leaving you ultimately bitter and depressed.
Be a Jew so that God’s light can shine out of you, and light up all those dark corners of the world where so much misery, despair and evil are lurking.
Be a Jew because it’s impossible for a Jew and a non-Jew to really relate to each other as anything other than ‘bodies’ – and your soul will wither away when it gets stuck in that plastic, materialistic, superficial world.
Be a Jew so you can engage in real discussions about real things with real people – including your spouse and children. Be a Jew so that you can have the courage you need to leave the comfort zone and to discover who God really created you to be, and what your mission in life really is.
Be a Jew because I guarantee you, you will never feel truly happy being anything else, however hard you try. Bring God into every area of your life, and connect everything that happens to you back to Hashem, so that you understand that absolutely everything you do in the world is deeply meaningful.
That’s what I tell my kids.
That’s what I try to live myself.
But this whole long piece notwithstanding, I now realize that it boils down to something very simple:
I need to ask God to help my kids be Jews, and to help me and my husband to be Jews.
And if I do that on a regular basis, hopefully it’ll all turn out OK.
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