Thinking about Orthodox Judaism during Lent

So Western Christians are well into Lent at this point: if you compare it to a half-marathon [which probably isn’t the best comparison, but I’m a runner, what can I say?] soon the pace will pick up, and the finish line of Easter will come into view. Once we cross the line, most of us will drop the spiritual practices that we carried through the season and return to our normal way of life–in which prayer, fasting and works of mercy may or may not have much of a place.

I was thinking about all this as I read this article about Orthodox Judaism in the NY Times:

As most people know, the lives of Orthodox Jews are strictly regulated by the laws of the Torah, and these laws are the framework that shapes every aspect of their lives. [As an aside, every time I read about Orthodox Judaism, I am amazed to learn yet another specific example of “work” that is prohibited on the Sabbath. This article notes that Pomegranate–a luxury kosher grocery store–sells “precut disposable tablecloths” to help people avoid using scissors on the Sabbath, as well as “specially designed sponges, which don’t retain water, so you don’t have to do the work of squeezing out water on Shabbat.” Squeezing out water? Who knew?!]

More importantly, however, is the significance of those laws for Orthodox Jews, and the way in which they are viewed by the community. Here’s the author again:

Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker.

For the people who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with God is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation. They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order.

The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.

The laws are gradually internalized through a system of lifelong study, argument and practice. The external laws may seem, at first, like an imposition, but then they become welcome and finally seem like a person’s natural way of being.

Meir Soloveichik, my tour guide during this trip through Brooklyn, borrows a musical metaphor from the Catholic theologian George Weigel. At first piano practice seems like drudgery, like self-limitation, but mastering the technique gives you the freedom to play well and create new songs. Life is less a journey than it is mastering a discipline or craft.

What religious person can read that and not feel a little envious? Living in such a way that God’s love and God’s will so shapes one’s life that one ceases to even think about external “rules” and only experiences the freedom life with God affords in the world? I keep thinking about what I can take from that as a Christian. Unfortunately, given the strong doctrine of sin I have as a Lutheran, I am not so optimistic that, in this case, “practice makes perfect.” Sin continually rears its ugly head, making it impossible for me to “internalize” God’s will for my life–instead, the old Adam keeps fighting it, and insisting on her own way. Does one ever “master the craft” of being Christian? I don’t think so.

Yet, at the same time, I guess I think even if I’m sure the “perfect” part will never come, a life of “practice” is still a good idea [this is the idea behind spiritual disciplines, of course]; and continually seeking–and failing, sure–to shape my life around an awareness of God, and a love of God and neighbor surely is a worthwhile pursuit. Not only during Lent but throughout the year.


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