Follow by Email

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

You can be Orthodox but not observant

Daf Yomi Sotah 16


For the longest time, when you would meet someone new at a rabbinical convention, one of the first questions was ‘How many members in your shul?’  The traditional follow-up question was ‘And what percentage of the congregation is Shomer Shabbos?’  Rabbis with high rates of observance wore their congregants’ religious commitment as a badge of pride; so much so that a congregation with fewer, but more committed members, often trumped a larger, but uncommitted, membership.

A number of years ago, however, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin got up and flipped that logic on its head.  He declared that, on the contrary, one should be prouder to minister to a congregation with a smaller percentage of Shomrei Shabbos.  Isn’t that strange?  Why would a rabbi be proud of having fewer numbers of observant members in his congregation?

Concerning the preparation of the bitter waters, the Torah states, “And the cohen shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel; and from the dirt that will be on the ground of the Tabernacle, the cohen shall take and place in the water.”
Issi ben Menachem taught: “From the dirt that will be on the ground of the Tabernacle” teaches that one may not bring dirt from his own home-box.

When you come to the Temple, you are asked to leave your dirt from home outside.  Once inside, everyone is the same.  It doesn’t matter what you do at home.  Everyone brings the same offerings.

That’s the beauty of an Orthodox synagogue.  Whatever you do at home is irrelevant.  The fact that you choose to worship in the traditional manner, as we have practiced for thousands of years, is what counts.

And that was Rabbi Riskin’s message.  It’s no big deal that someone who is Shomer Shabbos davens at an Orthodox shul; where else would they be going?!  When someone who is not fully observant chooses to affiliate with an Orthodox shul, that says something.   They may not yet be Orthoprax – fully committed to an observant lifestyle.  But they are certainly Orthodox – believers in traditional Jewish doctrine.   And to maintain a shul that is welcoming to everyone, regardless of their level of commitment, is the ultimate badge of pride. 

But the relationship needs to be a two-way street.  From the perspective of the rabbis and shuls, they must strive to be welcoming to everyone.  And from the perspective of those coming through the door, they must understand that the home-box of dirt gets checked at the door.  You don’t try to mould the shul to suit your lifestyle and religious proclivities.  You accept the truth of tradition, no matter what your own level of commitment may be.

The good news is that Rabbi Riskin is absolutely right.  People who belong to an Orthodox shul do check their home-box at the door.  While many members of my shul drive on Shabbos, I have yet to see anyone driving around the shul sanctuary, or even the social hall, on Shabbos!  Inside the four walls of the building, we are all the same Orthodox Jews, worshiping together as we have for thousands of years.


You can be Orthodox even if you’re not yet fully observant.  As long as you check your home-box in at the door.  May you merit children and grandchildren who know the emes (truth); if they are also practicing that emes, even better!