What, Judaism Can Actually be Fun?

Written by: Gemma

I got speaking to a mother who had reluctantly just sent her daughter to seminary. She wasn’t religious herself but was angry that her daughter had become religious and couldn’t understand what she saw in Judaism.

I got to the root of the problem – she then told me that Judaism was forced down her throat, “Do this! Why? Because that’s how it must be done!” She said she rebelled the opposite way, she wasn’t going to listen to that. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be religious, “it’s like being in prison, you can’t do anything you want, your whole life is controlled – “you can’t do this, this and this!”

Judaism was very prescriptive in her generation, she was turned off. She rebelled. Now her daughter is doing the opposite, thereby creating guilt on the mother’s behalf. Had the daughter come up with any other dietary requirement I’m sure she’d only be too pleased. The reason why there exist so many unobservant Jewish families is because the only way the older generations were taught was through force, prescriptive and seemingly meaningless laws. There was no Jewish thought, philosophy, mussar (ethics) and other works which we are fascinated by today, no nice “vorts.” And because of this, their kids have the same perception of Judaism, i.e. a burden.

I think, therefore, that perhaps the challenge of our generation is to remodel Judaism into its true essence. Judaism isn’t a load of laws and don’t-do’s; that’s missing the whole point. You can’t keep Shabbat simply by not driving, not turning on lights, not cooking, etc without doing the positive mitzvot on the day like making Kiddush, special davening, family time, self-reflection, special food and delicacies, learning with our children and wearing our best clothes. Judaism and happiness go together; if you don’t have the latter you’re not doing the former properly. “Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha” – serve Hashem with joy, King David tells us.

One of the best ways to experience true Judaism is by seeing it in action. Most unobservant Jews will regard Shabbat as restricting and boring, yet how many of them have actually seen a religious family on Shabbat? They’ve not seen the atmosphere around a real Shabbos table, they’ve not watched the wife being praised, the children being blessed, the beautiful songs, fine food and spirituality. And maybe that’s where we as observant Jews have to take responsibility. We have to not only retain our tremendous hospitability but we have to perform our mitzvot with joy and enthusiasm. If we look like we’re watching paint dry in shul on Shabbos morning or if we talk to Hashem the way we talk to the tax man then that’s exactly how mitzvot will be perceived; not only by other Jews but by our children. It’s all very well to say that Judaism is great, but we have to show it’s great. Not through being fake and acting like it is, but by truly believing it is.

Originally posted here.

29 comments on “What, Judaism Can Actually be Fun?

  1. Miriam, I agree that raising children is absolutely not a waste of a life. I have found it to be very meaningful and fulfilling, and it certainly forces us to work on our Middot!

    That said, not every intellectually gifted girl or woman will feel as you do. Some will feel a greater need for frequent and intense intellectual stimulation. I don’t find that most of what I spend my time on in my job as mother is intellectually stimulating. Yes, it takes thought. No doubt. But intellectually stimulating? Not really. Now that my kids are a little older it’s easier to find that stimulation, but when my kids were little, it just wasn’t there. And there is a feeling that, if Hashem blesses a girl with intellectual gifts, it must be for a reason. She should use it. And if she’s steered only toward motherhood, she may not — and that would be a shame.

  2. I don’t think, Steg, that the broad spectrum of what passes for “modern orthodox” today is comparable to what you are describing in the Old Country. But that does not mean your point does not have validity. Indeed in Germany the patterns of assimilation were very much like the ones seen in America about a century later, wouldn’t you say?

  3. “Perhaps there are orthodox jewish girls who are intellectually gifted, more so than their brothers… No, they will be prepared to have as many children as possible…”

    As an “intellectually gifted” mother of 8, I don’t like that statement at all.


    Sorry to yell, but raising children can be just as fulfilling as building rockets or discovering new vaccines. I was NOT raised Orthodox. I went to public school. I was a total math nerd — I participated in state-wide and regional math competitions as part of the County Math Team while still in High School (on Shabbos, no less), I even went to an Ivy League University. But for all my “intelligence,” I am most fulfilled while being creative — sewing, writing, baking, producing children, molding them to be tomorrow’s leaders.

    I was SO pushed in HS towards a Science or Math career, because I was “a girl who is good at math!” but I didn’t WANT to go into science or math. (Only it took me until halfway through college to figure that out, and a lot of wasted tuition dollars!) Sometimes talent needs to be “wasted,” or saved for pure entertainment (or to help my children with their homework) instead of turned into a profession. All children are “steered” by their family’s and culture’s expectations. Don’t come down so hard on the cheredi just because you don’t happen to agree with their choices.

    As an adult, a person may choose to do something that he or she is good at but doesn’t enjoy for the money to support their families, and that’s not necessarily a problem, but if they choose to do something they enjoy and feel fulfilled through instead, then that is their choice, not yours.

  4. This may not be new; perhaps it is more akin to the world of our forefathers in the old country, where there was little in the way of the Young Israel movement or Bnei Akiva

    Ron Coleman:

    Some of our ancestors came from places like Germany and Lithuania, that had thriving “MO” style communities; others came from the Sefardic/Mizrahhi world, which never broke up the spectrum of observance into an all-or-nothing proposition.

  5. In America, Jews have a fuller range of choice as to how to live their lives than ever existed before. There is an entire mindset that was common to the rest of the non-Western world, and even to most of American life before the 1950’s that is completely strange to most Americans alive today. Until fairly modern times almost everyone in the world understood that there are certain things that a person just must do, obligations that transcend personal satisfaction and sometimes comprehension; that self-fulfillment as defined by the self is not the alpha and omega of existence; that meaning, wisdom and transcendence are not necessarily, or even at all, intuitively obvious. These mindsets could lead to abuses of power and privilege and negation or repression of the individual, but in their modern-day mirror-images, we have the opposite problems, which most of the commenters here have addressed.

    In contrast, the other main enclave of Jewish life, Israel, consists of what is mainly perceived as a black — deep black — and white set of choices, and those who don’t make it in the haredi world are not, as they might be in America, allowed any kind of soft option out. (My impression is that while there are exceptions, most dati Israelis grew up that way, and are not former haredim. I meet MO Israelis from haredi families here, not there.) This may not be new; perhaps it is more akin to the world of our forefathers in the old country, where there was little in the way of the Young Israel movement or Bnei Akiva — you were in the the shtetl or you were in one or another form of anti-religious group.

    I wonder which situation presents a greater challenge to a young person growing up frum.

  6. Shoshi: “They are all forced into the “Yeshiva” mold.”

    This really isn’t true except for in strict charedi circles. And even then, it doesn’t mean it’s right or particularly representative of Orthodox circles as a whole. The correct way to educate Orthodox children is to bring them up according to their needs. Not everyone is cut out to be in yeshiva/sem all day.. people have different traits and if they aren’t catered for they will turn away from the religion. That’s exactly the mistake. But if the kids are taught to use their tendencies for elevated purposes, they are no less righteous and holy than someone who’s in yeshiva all day. e.g. someone who has a thirst for blood and guns and hates learning -what do you do with him? You either send him to the IDF or you train him to be a shochet (someone who cuts kosher meat) or a mohel (someone who circumcises). Etc.

  7. Well, I suppose that this has not changed a great deal, if you read blogs of “OTD” -people.

    I suppose orthodox judaism does not suit everybody.

    Take classical music: of course it is be
    autiful, it is beautiful to have an orchestra and skilled soloists… But not everyone is gifted for it… And not everyone wants to spend half an hour, an hour, two hours, x hours a day practicing.

    Perhaps there are orthodox jewish boys who are gifted for ballet, or for sports, or for music. They are all forced into the “Yeshiva” mold.

    Perhaps there are orthodox jewish girls who are intellectually gifted, more so than their brothers… No, they will be prepared to have as many children as possible…

    At least, in music families, it is known that children might be gifted for something else… ….even if they might consider it a disgrace…

  8. Thanks Steve. Sometimes aleph bet soup can be a bit confusing. We say names, phrases and words every day, but put them into initials and much head scratching results.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  9. Gary-RYBS is Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ZTL and SA is Shulchan Aruch. Arevim,one of the other better and older blogs has a full list of abbreviations that many bloggers utilize as a kind of shorthand.

  10. Steve,

    Could you help me out with the full wording of “RYBS” and “SA”?

    Your statement that we must adhere to halachot that prohibit certain activities while also experiencing the joy of rituals is beyond dispute. However, most of us don’t reach that level all at once.

    I would say that someone whose increased observance consist of “nothing more” than having a proper Shabbat dinner while not becoming completely Shomer Shabbat has still grown significantly.

    I never thought I would be beyond that level. Then one Friday night, I decided that starting the dishwasher immediately after dinner would cause too rapid a descent from the tranquil feeling that accompanied the dinner.

    It hasn’t been a straight line to my present level of observance, and there have been dips below the early baseline as well. However, it was the “fun” experiences that got me back on this path, followed by a growth in appreciation for halachical detail and Torah learning.

  11. I would suggest that inevitably every Jew who is growing in their level of observance will confront the fact that Torah and Halacha include both what RYBS called the Divine Discipline of SA or Shmiras HaMitzvos and the religious experience associated with them. For example, Shabbos includes both Zacor and Shamor. Yet, one cannot evade the fact that adherence to Hilcos Shabbos vis a vis the Melachos, Toldos and associated Halachos such as Muktzeh, etc, as opposed to making Kiddush, a Seudah or eating cholent is how one defines a Shomer Shabbos. All of the Yamim Tovim have both a positive and a negative element, of which one must be aware of both elements to have the maximum spiritual experience.

  12. Gemma,

    This is a very nice article.

    The word “fun” may not be all-encompassing, but it is certainly relevant in any discussion of Jewish observance.

    People often arrive at the decision to commit to observant Judaism after introspection or contemplation of personal or newsworthy events. They often seek guidelines that are superior to those that they have encountered in the secular world. Mussar works such as Mesillat Yesharim/Pathway of the Just, which are a great source for people such as us, are not new. Now, with English translations and vowelized Hebrew, these great texts are now getting the attention and accessibility that they deserve.

  13. Cady:

    Did you ever indicate that you would like to experience a shabbos meal, by going to shul, speaking to the rabbi or rebbetzin, etc? Most frum adults are hesitant to preach, or be perceived as proselytizing and unfortunately that translates to a hesitancy to reach out to those whom they don’t perceive as interested. Please try to give the benefit of the doubt. Even in the most insular of communities there are families who are very welcoming. It may not be the majority, but how many non-religious folks have invited you *as a stranger* to a meal in their home??? For some, it’s a hard thing to do.

  14. I have heard many times that it was the Fathers who came home on a Friday night and collapsed into the chair with a Kreks and an Oy Vey that sent so many of there children off to search for what they thought would be a better life. But there certainly were and have always been many Yiddishe parents who have served Hashem with Simcha and passed that on to their families. Without there would be no Frum Yidden today !!
    Having said all of that, a very Chasuv Ba’al Teshuva who is also a Talmid Chacham once said to his students that the Ba’alei Teshuva have a special job in this generation to make a revolution in the frum world to overturn the staleness and emptiness which can be quite pervasive and replace it with Simcha Shel Mitzvah and true depth of Mitzvah Observance.

    Onward and Upward. May I also point out that this is a central foundation of Channukah. The Miracles in those days and these days as we say in the Al Hanissim. The Channukah Miracle today is when Jewish Children can find more Geshmak in learning and doing Mitzvos in the middle of the Mheshuganah Galus in which we all live ! That Jewish families can find happiness and fulfillment in Shabbos Menuchah while the Goyish world rages on outside with all of its excitement and entertainment.

  15. Cady,

    It’s not the shul I belong to, but Cong. Etz Chaim in KGH about 5 years ago had a brochure that stated that people come up to new-comers and ask them to come over for Shabbos/Yom-Tov. It actually happened to me!


  16. This is to Cady, if you’re anywhere remotely near NYC, get my email from the admin on this site (or admin, send it to Cady), and then come on over. Very laid back, friendly atmosphere, no preaching.

  17. Thanks for all your replies and feedback. I accept that “fun” is definitely the wrong word, but you get the idea – “What, Judaism can actually involve happiness?” just doesn’t have the same ring.

    To cady – I guess that’s one of the things I’m getting at here… but I find it hard to believe there’s nobody in your area who would turn you down for a shabbat meal. Maybe that’s also the problem – they wouldn’t turn you down but they wouldn’t invite you. However where I’ve been and I know that in most Jewish areas, the hospitality is enormous and families will have up to 20 people, total strangers of all backgrounds, round their Shabbat table. It might be worth exploring, I’m sure the local community rabbi knows of loads of families who have guests for shabbat.

  18. You’re hereby invited to my house. It’s in RI, so you might have to travel, but we can offer a place to stay for the whole 25 hours or so — complete with meals.

    Anyway, this article really hit home to me — my mother is not frum because although her parents sent her to yeshiva, they also “taught” her that she would lose out if she kept Shabbos — when she refused to join them on a shopping trip on Shabbos, her mother’s reaction was “I guess you won’t get a new coat this year then. Yet when she didn’t keep Shabbos because she saw her parents didn’t (they both went to work) her father saw her with a pen and screamed at her for breaking Shabbos. The hypocrisy and the focus on the “thou shalt nots” without keeping any of the positive commandments really ruined it for her. What she learned from her parents was that religion is all about what you “can’t do.” I never even thought to ask her to pay for seminary/a year in Israel for me, so I just didn’t go. For all that this mother whined, she was still helping her daughter grow in Judaism. That’s amazing to me.

  19. > yet how many of them have actually seen a religious family on Shabbat?

    I certainly haven’t because I’ve never been invited to a shabbat dinner by a frum Jew. Since not-frum-enough strangers are not really welcome in frum enclaves all your supposed joyful Shabbat dinners are hearsay to me.

  20. I have to echo Charnie-

    I agree very much with the main thought, I just think you were more on point with “happiness” as apposed to “fun”.

    –as I heard many a time when in Yeshiva, “there is no Hebrew for ‘fun'”.

    –great post – Judaism is a lifestyle, not a life sentence.

  21. Perhaps this post would have been clearer if it were called “with simcha”, instead of “fun”.

    Listening to Rabbi Orlofsky is fun. Simchas are fun. Sharing Shabbos with others is fun. But generally, the word fun has a foolish connotation.

  22. And when the nisyonos of the frum life threaten to make it cease being fun (tuition bills, exhaustion from caring for large families), does one give it up? The reason to keep mitzvos is because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s fun. Of course, one benefits from seeing the beauty of mitzvos, but it ain’t always smooth sailing.

  23. Look at the first of the 19 Letters. RSRH makes a similar statement about “cheder chinuch” and the non-obervant view of it. Lack of Simchas HaChaim results in feeling that Torah Observance is burden, not a gift from Hashem.

  24. I second Yaakov’s point above, and also disagree with the article’s statement,”…the only way the older generations were taught was through force, prescriptive and seemingly meaningless laws.” Anyone who can use the word “only” in this context has done no research at all. But I guess “some” would have lacked that zing.

  25. While I like the message the suggestion that this is why there are so many non-observant families is a major simplification and most like historically inaccurate…

  26. This was a great post.
    I have heard the following from three different people all quoting Rav Mattiyahu Salomon (the Mashgiach in Lakewood):

    This post is a must read for anyone in Kiruv.

  27. It’s not what you CAN’T do…it’s what you CAN do! That’s it…along with not stressing the negatives (don’t do this, that, etc.) but stressing the positives (the happiness you feel because it’s Shabbos!)


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