Following the Letter of the Law

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29 Mar 2007

At some point in our learning of the various halachot (Jewish laws) my brother and I, both newly observant, realized that the upcoming holiday of Pesach (Passover) might be problematic. The laws of kashrut (what foods are permissible to eat) are very strict when it comes to Pesach, and we both knew that what we thought was acceptable to eat in past years in my parent’s house was not going to be acceptable for us anymore. We also knew that refusing to go home for the Pesach seder was not an option – it would hurt my parents too much.

The issue of honoring your father and mother is very complex, and is an extremely sensitive issue among Baalei Teshuva (those who aren’t born in religious homes but become observant later on). My brother and I became observant through NCSY (an Orthodox youth group involved in outreach), and we had some excellent Rabbis and counselors give us advice. They told us that except in cases where your parents ask you to do something which explicitly demands you break Jewish law, then you should listen to them. (Like most issues of this sort, it is important to ask a Rabbi if you have a specific case in mind and need an answer. I am just giving the outline here).

This complex situation touches on an issue that unfortunately is misconstrued by many who are not intimately familiar with observant Judaism. Most people know that there are myriad laws governing the “ritual” aspects (laws between man and G-d) of Orthodox Judaism – what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath, how you dress, how you pray, etc. At the same time there are just as many laws concerning the “ethical” aspects – how one treats other people (laws between man and man). The second type of laws is just as binding on Orthodox Jews as the first. There is no concept of the “letter” of the law referring to the first type, and the “spirit” of the law referring to the second.

In most cases there isn’t a problem following both the first and second types of laws. In the case of Baalei Teshuva, though, there are many instances where there seems to be a conflict between the two when it comes to how to deal with their families. There is a huge responsibility carried by those of us who are new to observant Judaism to constantly balance following the laws as we learn them, with being sensitive to the feelings of others – especially parents. In some ways it is like walking a tightrope – always trying to make sure that we walk that fine line.

My brother and I were relatively lucky – our parents had their “sore spots” as is natural with parents whose children choose a very different path in life, but they weren’t anti-religious. We knew that with some tact on both sides we could work things out.

Which is what we did. I can honestly say that in this situation we did sweat the small stuff. My brother and I brought the meat and the handmade Shmura matza from New York City. We had the local Lubavitch shaliach come in to kosherize what was possible to make kosher, we bought new dishes (my mother actually enjoyed feeling like a young bride who picks out new things!) and we used paper and plastic where we could. We thought long and hard about how to organize the seder. At that point my family was using English Haggadot (remember the Maxwell House Coffee edition?) and we decided that we would all take turns reading aloud, and here and there my brother and I would “casually” jump in with “Oh, I heard something interesting about this”, or “I learned about this just the other week….”. In order to not make too much of a “production” out of the amounts of matza and maror (bitter herbs) we had to eat, my brother measured them out ahead of time, and I knew that I needed to eat the amount on the plate he would put right next to me. He decided that he would be official wine pourer, and while he was taking care of everyone else I would pour for him. (These things relate to some of the finer details about the Pesach seder).

Soon enough all of the preparations were done – the food cooked, the table set, and all of us dressed in our finest clothes. A Pesach seder wouldn’t be a Pesach seder without invited guests, and this was taken care of by inviting my aunt and uncle, who would not have a seder to go to if it were not for ours. At the appropriate time we heard the knock at the door, and I went to answer it. My aunt and uncle came in, and my aunt gave me a big smile and, handing me a foil-wrapped package, said “This is for you”.

A number of things happened in the next few seconds – although thinking back it seemed to take much longer. My brain processed the information coming to me both from my nose and my hands, and I gradually realized to my horror that the hostess gift warming the palm of my hand was a freshly baked loaf of bread.

Those of you who are observant Jews will not need an explanation as to the drama of this moment. For those of you who aren’t – a short summary. Most of the laws of Passover relate to the injunction that we remove all chametz – leavened substances (bread, cookies, pretzels, etc. and anything containing even a minute amount of leavening) from our homes. We spend weeks before the holiday cleaning out every corner, and we use a completely different set of dishes and cooking utensils for the entire week. We only buy food that is certified not to contain chametz, and many people follow very strict traditions during this time. So bringing a loaf of bread to the Passover seder is probably the equivalent of bringing an expensive bottle of whisky to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – saying that this was a faux pas would be a gross underestimation.

My first thought was “oh, no, I really hope biur covers this” (“biur” is the spoken declaration said the morning before the Passover seder which states that all chametz found accidentally is like the dust of the earth – without value).

My next reaction was 100% due to my parents’ good upbringing. There is a saying that “Derech Eretz kadma l’Torah” – which loosely translated means that treating other people well is a pre-requisite to Torah learning. In my specific case this was literally true. Long before I became an observant Jew, my parents taught me Jewish values – one of them being that you treat other people, especially older people, with respect NO MATTER WHAT. So although part of me wanted to shriek and throw the bread out of the window, my “good breeding” kicked in and I smiled at my aunt and said thank you. I “casually” put the bread down on a coffee table explaining that “there just isn’t an inch of room left on the dining table” and we proceeded to sit down and start the seder. The rest of the evening went smoothly, although I couldn’t help being tense. I don’t know what I thought – that the bread would suddenly sprout legs and jump onto my newly kosher dishes? – but this gift seemed like the elephant in the room, to me at least.

It seems that my brother felt the same way. As soon as my aunt and uncle were out of sight (we checked by peeking through the curtains) my brother grabbed the foil package and slam-dunked that baby into my neighbor’s garbage can with a satisfying clang.

That night I had a little chat with G-d. Well, a more accurate description would be to say that my younger self had a tantrum – along the lines of “Ok, G-d, what exactly was THAT about?!? Here we were, walking that tightrope and doing just fine, and you send a gale force wind to knock us off!”. Needless to say, G-d was silent.

After my initial anger wore off, then the really dangerous emotions took over. I started to sing what I call the “Ba’al Teshuva Blues”. Every one of us who has decided to become an observant Jew has probably felt this way once or twice – and some experience this every day! It usually comes after an embarrassment, or when all of the details of a new law seem overwhelming, or after you are disillusioned by the behavior of another Orthodox Jew (but, but, they aren’t supposed to do that…) It goes something like this: “This is never going to work. I will never fit in. Who was I kidding anyway? Is it really worth all of this effort? G-d will love me if I am a good person, do I really have to go the whole nine yards…”

A lot of these feelings come from feeling isolated. Similar to a 16 year old girl who has had her heart broken for the first time, you think that there is no one else in the universe who knows exactly how you feel.

Until you meet others who do know. The first time happens when you meet someone who is dressed in full Ultra-Orthodox regalia, and looks like he can trace his religious ancestors all the way back to Moses. Then you get to know him and he tells you his story – and it turns out that in the sixties he was a hippy who partook of every illegal substance known to man. That really blows your mind – until you meet someone else just like him. Then you start meeting others who may look like they have been religious for a long time, but they have also shared a similar journey to yours. Then, when you mature some more, you do meet people who have been Orthodox from birth, and can trace their religious ancestors a long way back. But you realize that they too have challenges to face, and that Hashem puts obstacles in their way – just different ones than the ones you have experienced. G-d is always forcing us to grow in one way or another – and that our own personal problems are as individually designed as our fingerprints.

So you keep going, and you put these feelings into perspective. Because all in all, the journey is worth it.

Rachel Ben David is a freelance writer and translator. She lives in Peduel, a yishuv in the Shomron, with her husband and three children. She writes about life in Israel at her blog

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.