I Can’t Be An Observant Jew Because….What Would You Respond?

Say somebody you know tells you they can’t be observant because they can’t see ever giving up a specific activity which is forbidden by the Torah. Let’s assume that the prohibition is Rabbinic in nature. What would you say to the person?:

a) I’m sure you could give it up if it was important enough to you.
b) Take it one step at a time, do what you can do now.
c) You don’t have to give it up to be observant.
d) Focus on the big four, Shabbos (and Yom Tov), Kashrus, Taharas Mishpacha and Davening

Let’s say four years later the person is keeping the big four and they ask your advice about the prohibited activity again. What would you say then?

Do you see the primary thrust of Torah Observance as:

1) Continually striving to increase your general and specific observance levels in all areas.
2) Do as many mitzvos as you can and avoid as many aveiros as you can.
3) Focus on keeping the big four, the rest is extra credit.

31 comments on “I Can’t Be An Observant Jew Because….What Would You Respond?

  1. Definitely ask a shailah. I’m pretty sure my charedi cousins wear pants on hikes, with skirts over them; some people hold in general that loose women’s pants would be okay. In a case of sakanah, it may be permissible anyway: I recall hearing a story about a lion trainer who became religious asking about wearing pants (dangerous not to) in the cages, and was told that she not only can but must.

  2. anonagirl,

    I am very impressed with your sensitivity and humility.

    For someone who is a ‘not observant…informed skeptic, raised secular but now much invested in Judaism’, to be willing to entertain a discussion of giving up an activity that you so enjoy, is inspiring.

    As others have said, I wonder whether there are workarounds that make it possible to ‘have it all’.

    If wearing a skirt is dangerous, then it might be worse to wear one than not! (If/when you’re ready, this is something to ask a rabbi.)

    For all we know, there may be a huge un-tapped market of frum girls who want private horse-riding lessons. You may have stumbled upon a new business model! Maybe there’s a private, out of the way, horse ranch that can accommodate girls-only tzanua riding lessons. You could offer kosher snacks, maybe some learning (focus on halachot about animals maybe?) a week of riding and training, and voila: a frum horse camp for girls!

    You said, “I know that at some point, I would need to drop it entirely to be considered a “good Jew.”” The fact that you’re struggling with this, rather than balking at the idea, shows you have achieved a pure, open-minded approach to your observance. I posit that that makes you a “good Jew” all by itself.

    I hope nobody has ever said “Give it up; you’ll find more joy in Torah” to you. If so, I’m sorry you had to hear that. If, at some point, you say that to yourself, then kol hakavod to you. Saying it to someone else, in my opinion, is at best, insensitive.

    All the best,

  3. But Ron, that goes back to the original question….If someone is not going to give up whatever activity is not “compatible with being frum”, but otherwise is willing to keep mitzvahs, should we tell them not to bother keeping any mitzvahs at all, or should we encourage them in other areas?

    I would definitely suggest to the person that they speak to a rabbi instead of me for the halachic aspect. (And, as a step before that, encouraging them to find a rav that they are comfortable with, especially one who is known for being approachable to people who are not frum.) We all have to remember that unless you are actually the person’s rabbi, you’re not their rabbi! =-) And we don’t know all the halachic angles that might turn out that the issue in question is not a problem, or could be solved in a simple way that was agreeable tot he person.

    On the other hand, as discussed above, I also agree that the person can often find solutions to take what they enjoy and put it in a halachic context. Just a few examples I can think of offhand — my community has a frum weight loss support group, women’s swimming and exercise facility, women’s only talent show….And that’s just within the frum community. There’s also a growing number of “regular” women who are interested in women’s only activities, like Curves women’s gym. Or the variety of fake meat products and growing number of products in your regular grocery store that are kosher. Or getting a group together to have an activity on Sunday instead of Shabbos. I honestly can’t think of any examples of something that would have no possible alternatives for the person to look into. (And, again, that’s assuming THEIR RAV says there is a problem in the first place.)

    BTW – This is the first time I’ve been on this site in quite a while and I’m glad to see such a great discussion.

  4. I don’t know if the established camps offer riding, but before it went out of business a kosher ranch in the catskills called Golden Acres offered riding, and I and my daughter participated (we wore skirts over pants), but like Ruth, we were just slow amateurs. I agree with Ruth that pants in this situation may be allowed anyway.

    I definitely think you shouldn’t dwell on this now, bec. as per your self description you’re not even close to the point where the proscription would even apply to your life. Learn about all else first, establish a close relationship with a rabbi/rebbitzen/mentor, and that person can then advise about the riding.

  5. The Torah was meant for horse lovers, too!

    I guess. The fact is, though, not everything we might want to do — even things we love — is compatible with being frum.

  6. I definitely think you should ask a Rav about this issue. Frum women do go horseback riding. Sometimes they wear a skirt over their pants. I did that once. Maybe for the amount of riding I did, and the fairly slow pace, it wasn’t that much of a problem. It may also depend on the design of the skirt. A very short skirt may be acceptable halachically if it is over pants and may not be unsafe. Again, the halachic part is something that needs a Rav to decide. I think some frum women may have gotten a hetter to ride with pants, as long as they are not too form-fitting. I think the same is true of skiing.

  7. I think “slow & steady wins the race” would be my answer. Work on a mitzvah at a time, but if you can do more than one at a time (like mult-tasking!) so much the better…The main thing is, do it at your own pace…do what feels comfortable to you, then do more. As you are making the effort, that is what counts. One more thing: don’t EVER give up, no matter how deficient you may be. Just keep at it!


  8. Ah, Belle, you’ve revealed me!

    Actually, no, wearing a skirt over pants wouldn’t be OK from a safety perspective. Sidesaddle riding costumes are traditionally skirted, but these days often modified for safety in such a way that they still count as pants, and anyone who is sensible would still be wearing riding pants underneath it all. Plus it is nearly impossible to find sidesaddle instruction or sidesaddle-trained horses because it’s viewed as old-fashioned and is a huge liability/injury risk.

    I did come across one sort-of solution, which is to not ride, but drive one’s horse. One could wear a skirted costume when out in public. I will say though that I would still be worried about safety if wearing a skirt while taking care of one’s horse. Driving instruction and horses trained to drive aren’t *quite* as difficult to find as sidesaddle instruction, and there are competitive driving events for those who really get into it (and have lots and lots of money, as with any competitive horse activity!)

    Now of course I don’t even own a horse, but…

    Does anyone know if any of the frum single-sex Jewish summer camps include horseback riding as an activity? Or would sitting astride a horse be considered not OK regardless of whether one is in a single-sex setting? I don’t have children, and cannot, but I am just curious.

  9. B & C.

    I think anonagirl’s challenge is serious, and is comparable to other major challenges – such as my (female) friend who was an opera singer, my other friend who performed on stage all her life, etc. So I understand where anonagirl is coming from.

    But, I think the correct approach is to encourage development jewishly in all other areas, not to let that one activity hold her back. And, I might add, the inner satisfaction one gets from all the other learning and mitzva activity is so significant, why should she deny herself that just bec. she also loves riding?

    Anonagirl, go for it! The Torah was meant for horse lovers, too! Maybe there will be some way in the future for you to resolve the conflict (if there is one – don’t understimate what a Rav will allow in some circumstances) — maybe you’ll open a series of female-only stables and teach our daughters the pleasure of riding! If you can wear a bathing suit in a pool during women’s only hours, I don’t see why you can’t wear pants if the staff is all female! (Assuming you’re not riding around Boro Park).

    In my experience it has been BTs who have been innovators bringing fresh artistic (and athletic) expression to the younger generation, to the great approval of the existing community.

  10. I didn’t see anonagirl’s post when I initially responded. Would it be possible for her to wear a skirt over pants or would that still be a safety concern? I don’t know if that is an acceptable compromise from a Jewish law perspective though.

  11. Well, it would depend on what the activity was…but I think I would suggest a combination of doing what you can and concentrating on the “big four.” After many years if they were still struggling with that same prohibited activity I would either encourage them to continually strive to enhance their mitzvah observance or suggest that they discuss the activity with their Rabbi. Perhaps there is a way that they can get the enjoyment that they get from the activity without violating halacha.

    This is sort of a relatively simple anecdote, but someone once told me that their favorite meal was chili (with meat) and tons of sour cream and shredded cheese on top. They lamented that if they were to keep kosher they would never be able to eat their favorite meal again. I introduced the person to my favorite brand of parve fake ground beef and the person is now working on keeping kosher at home. As a lot of people have pointed out, there is often a satisfactory compromise that doesn’t violate Jewish law. I think a lot of people who are not observant worry that an observant life is too rigid to incorporate a lot of the things they love.

  12. “Where I have a difficult time is that even if it is OK *now* to continue with the activity, I know that at some point, I would need to drop it entirely to be considered a “good Jew.” It is something that I love and that provides me a good deal of happiness. “Give it up; you’ll find more joy in Torah” is not an acceptable answer.

    anonagirl, *my* response would be more like, so continue with it, but explore other fun Torah-sanctioned activities as well. You may find something you like more, or the appeal of that specific activity may pale with time, or you may just stick with it… but certainly avoiding other aspects of observance over a sticking point like that is silly.

    If you’re open to keeping the Torah for its own sake, and not what others think makes you a “good Jew” or a “bad Jew” then you’ll come to a level of observance that works for you.

    Yes we’re technically obligated in all mitzvos, and yes, there’s no “extra credit” for doing a mitzvah you are technically obligated in, but due to the circumstances many of us grew up with, which did not include full mitzvah observance, if at all, I feel there are allowances made for us. The whole concept of the “Kidnapped child” applies to our whole generation, even some of those “raised frum” who were nonetheless subjected to the influence of society and the media.

    From that perspective, everything we add is a “bonus” because becoming observant in that sort of environment is often illogical, but by doing it anyway, we earn the right to label ourselves BT.

    So take on whatever feels comfortable to you, and keep pushing your comfort level, and pushing it and pushing it… but certainly don’t start by giving up an activity that is part of your self image that way. You may finish that way, but it is by no means a given.

  13. Well I qualified my relating of the S’fas Emes with IIRC. Perhaps I don’t recall correctly. It’s been a few years. Your objection seems reasonable.

  14. I would guess that a true Tzaddik Gamur would also be able to see deficiencies others need to correct. On his own high level, even this Tzaddik could have trace imperfections (he is human). But even if Gamur was taken literally, we would expect him to be able to empathize with others.

  15. IIRC I believe that there is a S’fas Emes somewhere that teaches that since we all have defense mechanisms that blind us to our own shortcomings observing sins/shortcomings in others is a Providential way that HaShem “text messages” us to improve ourselves.

    Something to the effect that “If you were capable of seeing this in others it’s only because you yourself need work in this area. I ‘let you’ observe it because otherwise you might be unconsiouc of it. If you were doing 100% yourself in this department you’d be incapable of seeing the this particular deficiency in others.”

  16. As I mentioned earlier learning Torah is a given in all situations. For somebody who is not observant, I think almost everybody will agree that this is the primary initial focus.

    The Big Four come in once a person decides to take on observance beyond learning Torah. These four mitzvos are usually the initial focus for people going beyond learning.

    Shabbos, Kashrus and Taharas HaMishpacha are included because of the Torah’s stringent penalities for violating them and the frequency which they occur in our lives.

    Davening is included because in our times this is probably the primary daily positive mitzvah of a Jew relating to G-d. We’ll leave the history of prayer and its halachic classifications aside for now.

  17. Chaim G,

    I agree with you regarding the big 4/extra credit concept.

    Your suggestion of “we ought to also use such encounters for introspection” is essential as well.

    Rather than lecturing and presenting myself as a PhD in Judaism, I prefer to say, “I was thinking about improving one area in my Shabbat observance- do you have any suggestions for me? Perhaps we could do something together.”

    This way, we feel we are growing and striving together, facing forward toward a goal in which the support is reciprocal. A friend and I decided to work on Shabbat candles. My effort was geared toward lighting 10 minutes early (adding on to Shabbat) and hers was lighting on time (she had been lighting candles after Shabbat had begun). We spoke about this often, and encouraged each other.

    I appreciate when introspection goes both ways.

  18. Mark, pardon my ignorance but from where does the concept of the “Big Four” stem? I actually was once asked a similar question ;that is, someone asked if they were to take on only one mitzva, which would I recommend? I responded “learn Torah”. Simply because I felt that anyone moved by the emes of Torah will probably eventually take on the other “Big” mitzvos.

  19. Chaim G noted,
    “Which parts of our past need to be jettisoned, modified, sublimated or celebrated is a recurrent theme on this blogsite.”

    Maybe there’s been some lack of clarity here about what a BT is.

    A perfect Jew? Generally no.

    Someone committed to HaShem’s Torah and no longer willing to accept substitutes? Yes.

    Someone who is Beyond BT should at least be a BT!

  20. “Give it up; you’ll find more joy in Torah” is not an acceptable answer.

    Hey… don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

    Which parts of our past need to be jettisoned, modified, sublimated or celebrated is a recurrent theme on this blogsite.

  21. Just speaking up because I was the person who inspired this post. The activity in question requires a tznius violation (wearing fitted pants instead of a skirt) for safety reasons. Most but not all of the people involved in the activity are women and girls.

    Where I have a difficult time is that even if it is OK *now* to continue with the activity, I know that at some point, I would need to drop it entirely to be considered a “good Jew.” It is something that I love and that provides me a good deal of happiness. “Give it up; you’ll find more joy in Torah” is not an acceptable answer.

    — BTW I am not observant but might be described as an informed skeptic, raised secular but now much invested in Judaism.

  22. And, yes, I realize that some details were given out to Klal Yisrael in the Midbar at various stages. Note, though, that, in principle, we could have entered the Land in a very short time.

  23. We’ve all heard of the Torah being offered to the other nations of the world prior to Matan Torah. They each had some characteristic sin that would now be prohibited and carry stiff penalties, so they passed on this world-historic, one-time opportunity.

    However, the Jewish people, essentially BT’s all, accepted the complete package, not just some “big four”. Of course, a period of education and training had to ensue before all 613 commandments could be properly observed. The main thing was that we accepted the entire Torah up front.

    According to some plausible human reasoning, the Torah itself could have been released to us over time in smaller, bite-size stages, so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed/resistant/etc. We ought to reflect on why HaShem did not do it this way.

  24. 3) Focus on keeping the big four, the rest is extra credit.

    This choice/attitude is kefirah. Don’t say it and don’t think it. There is nothing NOTHING we can do in our service of HaShem that can be in any way shape or form giving Him more than what we owe Him.

    People should be encouraged, reinforced and complimented for the strides they’ve made. “The Perfect is the enemy of the Good” is a beautiful aphorism and sage advice. One must be understanding of human frailties and limitations and have the humility to understand that observance is relative. We all need to continually “take on” more things and more importantly, reinvigorate deepen the quality of that which we are already observing.

    Having said this we still have no heter=lisence to promulgate a lie in pursuit of kiruv, anymore than a frum mathemitician with serious misgivings about “Torah Codes “should use it (and his superior math expertise) as a “tool” for kiruv.

    Rather than just ponder the best advice we can offer this hypothetical person we ought to also use such encounters for introspection e.g. “Which of my 3-5 year old resolutions have I not kept?” “In which ways do I seem to be stuck/plateued?” “What elements of Yiddishkeit do I feel would ‘kill me’ if I were to practice them,and, is this real or self-delusional?”

  25. b would be the general approach, but-

    1.C is often true! I wouldn’t say, “Well, actually, X is not forbidden, so you can become observant after all!”

    Rather, “Oh, you like to do X? That’s an interesting/fun ___! Yes, as long as we’re careful about Y, it’s fine!”

    2.D has its place depending on the situation and person’s current level of observance. I wouldn’t choose d for someone who has just discovered the existence of some of ‘the big 4’. When d is appropriate, it can be approached with more tact than as stated above.

  26. Gershon, I agree that learning Torah should be stressed. I wonder why it’s not specifically included in the big four.

    Have any other people had the experience of being told about the big four? Were they the same mitzvos as mentioned above?

  27. e) Look for “outside the box” approaches. I thought I couldn’t become “fully” observant because I love teaching motorcycle classes and didn’t want to stop. The classes are held over the full weekend. Obvious conflict with Shabbos. Solution, helping to start a new series of classes that will be held on weeknights instead of over the weekend.

  28. The response has to suit the specific person and situation. One size does not fit all.

  29. I agree with Gershon: B. I would also mention that each step closer to Torah observance counts, even though there are more steps to take. Sometimes people are hesitant to do anything because they can’t do everything. My father-in-law says: “Don’t let an imperfect situation be an excuse to do nothing.” (I wouldn’t quote this to the person directly, as the word ‘excuse’ sounds patronizing. I’d just keep it in mind.) He also says: “The Perfect is the enemy of the Good.” That one I’d share.

    I would not engage in a discussion of the pros and cons of giving up that particular activity, and would take (or at least strive to appear to take) the person’s words about the importance of the activity (to him) at face value.

    If appropriate and true, I might carefully mention my own experience, or someone else’s experience, in that area, mindful not to present anything that could be construed as persuasion or an argument.

    If I did say anything about the struggle, it would be to acknowledge and confirm the difficulty, not to dismiss it.

    If true, I might say, “I remember feeling the same way…” or “That *was* really hard for me to give up, too..” or “That one wasn’t so hard for me because of [some specific reason about my own life], but I know it was a real struggle for [some other mutually identifiable person].'”

    Accepting the difficulty reported by the individual shows respect for him/her. It establishes that I’m can be trusted to listen without ‘prescribing’ anything.

    The individual, in turn, doesn’t need to defend his reasons for not taking on a particular observance. By agreeing with him (that giving up the activity can be difficult, is a struggle) no defenses need be set up. This allows him to get ‘full credit’ for doing something difficult if/when he does decide to incorporate that level of observance later.

    And it’s the truth. Even though something may not seem difficult to ME, that’s ME. HE said it would be too difficult. HE’s the world’s expert on himself, and how HE feels. Not acknowledging his difficulty is insulting and disrespectful.

    This will show him that I’m not going to judge him negatively for his choice. Of course, if his choice means that I can’t eat at his house, or if it would present similar problems – treifing pots, violating Shabbat m’doriata, etc., I’d mention this, certainly. But I’d strive for a quiet and informative tone, absent any strident urging. (“It is a Torah law, you know, right?” or “You might want to be careful with that, because it could treif your pots.” or “Are you okay with XXX not being able to eat at that event?”)

    I try to have and show respect for him, his struggles and challenges, while remaining a safe place to discuss and consider the next step. If/when he does take on the observance, there will be no residue of a debate, thus no feeling from him that I might be thinking “I told you so”.

    When he arrives, he gets a “Wow! You’re HERE. You made such an effort to be HERE. Welcome!” rather than “Finally you got here. It’s about time. What took you so long?”

    All the best,

  30. b) Take it one step at a time, do what you can do now.

    4 years later I would still answer the same thing! Nothing like slow and steady growth. I would try to find some area of mitzvos that fits the person’s nature and set up some sort of step by step program for growth in that area.

    Of course in addition, another important thing to encourage is learning Torah!

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