I’ve been thinking lately about why I stay frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) when I struggle a lot with Orthodox Jewish practice because of my depression, social anxiety and autism, as well as feeling uncomfortable with some attitudes in the frum community. At a basic level it’s that I believe in God and Judaism, I just struggle on a practical level with keeping it sometimes. But I think there’s more to it than that. I know lots of Jews believe in God on some level without translating that to religious observance. My fears that God does not love me could have been a push factor away from observance; certainly my religious OCD (which thankfully is largely under control now, although it still takes effort to keep it that way) was a push factor that made it hard to stay frum, although I did manage to stay.
Some kiruv (outreach) organisations talk about proofs of Judaism, generally arguments for the existence of God and the divine origin of the Torah. I’m not going to go into them here. I don’t really find them convincing. I don’t think you can “prove” that God exists in the way that you can prove that 2 + 2 =4 or that the atomic number of hydrogen is 1. I don’t think that standard of proof exists outside of maths and the physical and natural sciences. As someone with a background more in the humanities, it doesn’t bother me so much these days that I don’t have that same degree of certainty in my beliefs, although it did in the past.
I think the survival of the Jewish people through thousands of years of statelessness, exile and persecution is inspiring, and a little eerie, especially our return to our homeland, as predicted by the Torah. That fills me with a kind of awe, although it’s not strictly speaking a “proof” of anything.
I also find it interesting how much Judaism has shaped Western culture, and to a lesser extent global culture. The historian Paul Johnson, who is not Jewish, says the following in his History of the Jews:
“All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”
(If this interests you then The Gifts of the Jews by another non-Jewish historian, Thomas Cahill, explores this theme in greater depth.)
I find this inspiring. I’m not sure it’s really at the core of what motivates me to be Jewish, but it does help.
In terms of other things that motivated me to stay observant, while I don’t want Jewish observance to sound like a quid pro quo, there are a few things that I get from Judaism that I probably wouldn’t get in secular postmodern Western society if I wasn’t religious.
I think Judaism gives me structure. I would probably structure my days even if I wasn’t frum, but I don’t think I would observe Shabbat as a day totally without work, chores, TV, laptop, phone, etc. without being religious. I just know that without it seeming an absolute commandment, the outside world would slowly creep into it and ruin it. Shabbat helps me structure my week in a very clear way, making sure I have time for physical pleasure, rest and spiritual re-connection. And I don’t think I would structure my year the way Judaism makes me do. The festivals are mostly connected with particular seasons and bring with them times for doing particular things, like thinking about freedom and Jewish history at Pesach or repentance and personal growth before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It provides a shape to the whole year that I would not otherwise have.
I enjoy the richness and complexity of the Jewish tradition. The fact that it is so vast, and that there is always so much to learn and that people have spent three thousand years thinking about the big questions of life. There is definitely something enjoyable about discovering a new idea in Judaism, a new perspective on a text or on life, particularly when it involves translating a text in a dead language or finding a sudden insight into an apparently bizarre or meaningless story or saying.
Connected to this, I find it meaningful that there is a bond between me and other Jews in other times and places. I find the Jewish community difficult at times, but there is something to be said for being part of a three thousand year global tradition. While it is easy to complain about the internal divisions in contemporary Jewish life (Orthodox vs. Progressive vs. secular; Israel vs. diaspora; Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi/Mizrachi), I think when the chips are down, so to speak, when Jews are in serious crisis, 90% of the global Jewish community will come together to pray together, send practical help, volunteer, whatever is needed.
I think the Jewish ethic appeals to me too. One can obviously find aspects of Jewish/Biblical ethics that are challenging from a modern day perspective and I’m not going to deny that (religious war, sexuality). But the Jewish ethic as a whole appeals to me. I find it very balanced. It praises learning above everything, but also sees the importance of putting learning into practice. It admits that this world involves suffering, but it wants to make it better, rather than postpone happiness until Heaven, yet it also admits that utopian perfection is for the End of Days; in this world, we do small acts to make things better. It has a strong ethic of not hurting others, not just physically or financially, but also with words; it’s understanding of the power words speaks a lot to me. Also the fact that in Jewish thought all people are equal because created by God, but there are multiple paths to God, both within Judaism and outside Judaism; non-Jews don’t have to convert to be “good.”