Jewish Observance

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Jewish Observance

Judaism and Christianity include both beliefs and practices, but beliefs are central to Christianity while practices are central to Judaism. Thus if asked to identify the core of their faith, devout Christians would undoubtedly point to the belief that Jesus is the Christ; indeed, even if they were raised as Christians and are no longer Christian, they would say that they held this belief at one time but not now. Religious Jews asked the same question, on the other hand, would indubitably cite the commandments (mitzvot) embedded in Jewish law (halakhah) as the central feature of Judaism even before they mention God, who presumably commands them, or Jewish peoplehood or Torah—and long before they would mention Jewish beliefs about the Messiah or life after death. The Torah itself stipulates, by traditional count, 613 commandments, and each of them is a demand either to do something or to refrain from doing something; none of them, with the possible exception of the first sentence of the Decalogue, is a commandment to believe something or deny something else—except as those are expressed in practice (e.g., idolatry). Thus Jewish observance is, from the very beginning, central to Judaism.

Because of the separation of church and state in the United States, with its resulting freedom of religion, Americans do not think of religious demands as legal requirements. Religion in America, in other words, is voluntary. Moreover, religion in America covers primarily ritual and family matters; other issues are left to civil law.

That is definitely not the understanding of classical Judaism, according to which Jewish law is a full, legal system. Jewish legal texts therefore include not only laws about prayer, holidays, other rituals, marriage, and divorce, but also landlord-tenant relations, contracts, judicial procedures, and criminal matters. It also includes as legal obligations a number of duties that Americans would classify as merely moral, such as the duty to give charity to the poor and the duty to help someone who is drowning. Thus the scope of Jewish law is as wide as that of any other legal system—and, in some respects, wider.

The means of enforcement used by Jewish law also parallel those of other legal systems. During most of their history, Jews lived in semiautonomous Jewish communities in which Jewish law was enforced by Jewish authorities and backed up by the non-Jewish government. The Enlightenment changed that, but it was not until 1945 that the majority of the world's Jews lived in countries governed by Enlightenment principles. In the four centuries before then, most Jews lived in eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, where the old, corporate system of government prevailed. Thus it is only since 1945 that most of the world's Jews have settled their disputes in the government's courts. Moreover, ultimately, religious Jews believe, Jewish law is enforced by God. Thus from the perspective of classical Jewish texts and Jewish practice over the ages, Jewish observance is anything but voluntary.

Now, though, almost all of the world's Jews live in free, democratic countries where religious strictures are not enforced by the government. Orthodox Jews—comprising about 7 percent of America's Jews—believe that Jewish law as it has come down to us is nevertheless required of Jews by God. Conservative Jews—approximately 38 percent of America's Jews—believe that, too, but they understand Judaism historically and therefore believe that the content of Jewish law may and should change over time, just as it has historically. However, most of traditional Jewish law is to be conserved (hence the name "Conservative"), and the burden of proof is on those who wish to change it. For Conservative Jews, it is the community, led by its rabbis, that decides which laws to add, modify, or delete; in contrast, for Reform Jews, comprising 42 percent of America's Jews, it is the individual who determines what he or she will observe—although, according to Reform ideology, only after duly studying the tradition. In practice, while the various movements' synagogues and schools follow the ideological position of their respective movement, individual Jews are generally eclectic in their own personal observance. In all denominations of American Judaism, but especially in Conservative and Reform Judaism, new observances marking the lives of women have been introduced in the twentieth century, especially in the past few decades.

Because the ultimate authority for Jewish observance is God, the scope of Jewish observance has been extremely wide, including even how to tie your shoes in the morning and how often a man has to offer to engage in sexual relations with his wife. This broad scope of Jewish law is one factor that marks it as a distinctly religious legal system: It shapes a person's relationship not only to the other members of the community, but also to other human societies, to nature, and to God.

Furthermore, while the classical tradition sees all of the demands of the tradition as one seamless web, moderns typically see some aspects of Jewish observance as primarily ritual in character and other parts as primarily moral. So, for example, Jewish law demands (not just suggests) observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws just as much as it demands honesty in business and respect for others. Moreover, some parts of Jewish law, such as the laws of personal injury and contracts, are, from the perspective of the Jewish tradition, part of Jewish observance rather than a separate set of criminal and civil concerns to be handled by the government. Precisely because Judaism has not differentiated Jewish law into these various categories, the moral aspects of life very much influence the ritual, criminal, and civil elements of Jewish law. That is why the Hebrew word for Jewish observance or Jewish law, halakhah, actually encompasses more than moderns usually have in mind when they use words like "observance" and "law." The etymological root of halakhah is the Hebrew verb "to go," and so halakhah is the way to go in life. It includes moral demands, civil and criminal law, rituals, and family law, and all of these aspects of halakhah are inspired and motivated by the loving relationship, or Covenant, that Jewish observance forms with the Jewish People and with God.

See alsoDivorce, Jewish; Freedom of Religion; Jewish Identity; Judaism; Marriage, Jewish; Torah.


Dorff, Elliot, and Arthur Rosett. A Living Tree:TheRoots and Growth of Jewish Law. 1988.

Jacobs, Louis. The Book of Jewish Practice. 1995.

Klein, Isaac. A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. 1979.

Orenstein, Debra, ed. Lifecycles: Jewish WomenonLifePassages and Personal Milestones, 2 vols. 1994.

Elliot N. Dorff

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Jewish Observance

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