Mesorah (Jewish stuff)

Why Religious Hypocrisy Isn’t A Deal Breaker For Me

{Howdy!  This post is up on Aish.com in a revised form.  If you wanna read it, go here}  

I don’t really feel like writing.  There are a number of excuses I could use:  There’s a lot of housework to do; it’s a beautiful day out; my nails are too long (no, really, it bothers me when I’m typing).  But I haven’t written in two weeks, and that’s led to internal entropy.  Any thoughts I have up there in my still-fatigued-from-Yom-Tov head are tangled together in a way that makes extricating them a slow, unwieldy process.  Write, delete, think, repeat.  That’s what’s going on here.

Can’t I just go back to reading my book?

I could.  But to grow, sometimes we have to do things even when we don’t feel like it.

This is evident in any artistic field.  Practice is necessary just to maintain one’s level, and surely to improve.  There’s a quote attributed to the talented violinist Jascha Heifetz on this topic:

“If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”

Even on days when an artist feels yucky or unmotivated or uninspired, that doesn’t absolve them from going through the motions, just to keep their muscles from atrophying.

This phenomenon is also found in the athletic world (or so I hear), and, more to the point of this post, in the religious world.

And here it is

Orthodoxy is very much a religion of practice, of doing.  In the morning, I wake up and thank G-d for creating me and giving me another day.  Then I ritually wash my hands.  If I’m really on it, I’ll say my morning blessings after that (though sometimes they get said a little later).  Before I eat anything, I make a blessing on the food, thanking G-d for the sustenance.

When I was first getting into this whole Orthodoxy thing, I remember asking a woman I was close with about the spiritual ecstasy she must experience every day.  After all, weren’t we both thinking about lofty concepts such as G-d’s sovereignty over the entire universe, the creative power of speech, and the intrinsic holiness of everything?  I was an idealistic 20-something, she, the mother of several small children.  The conversation went something like this:

Me:  “It must be so mind-blowing to start your day off with these blessings where you get to think about how G-d returned your soul to you and how everything we need is provided for us!!!”

Her:  “Well, usually I just end up mumbling through them in a semi-conscious stupor.”

The honesty of her statement was, frankly, lost on me until I became a mother of several small children myself, but she touched on a deeper challenge that comes with adhering to the ritualistic aspect of Jewish life.

When you do something every day, it becomes routine.  And then something which is really quite sublime can become rote.  And then the emotional component of spirituality which is, for many people, a big draw, can become divorced from the physical component of spirituality.  And then you get people who are just going through the motions of Jewish life, but aren’t actually living it.  

I know.  I’ve been there.  I AM there in some areas of my practice.

So, isn’t it, like, hypocritical to keep going through the motions, saying blessings without the correct intentions, or mumbling through the grace after meals without thinking about the meaning of the words?  Isn’t that just empty practice which signifies spiritual death, or the shell of a spiritual life held up only by communal pressure to conform?

Am I a total fraud?

In seminary, my rabbi once told me that even when I don’t feel like davening, I should still try to daven.  Even if I feel completely disconnected from the action that I’m doing.  Why?  Because there will come a day when I will feel like davening, and if I haven’t been keeping my muscles in shape, I won’t be able to connect to my Creator through the vehicle of prayer.  It will be so foreign to me that it will impede my attempt to connect.

So by going through the motions, even in times of spiritual famine, I am keeping the lines of communication clear.  I’m weeding my spiritual garden, even though I may not be harvesting any vegetables at the time.

This is spoken of in the Talmud, in Pesachim 50b, where it says that a person should always be engaged in Torah and mitzvos, even if they’re not doing them for the “right” reasons, because simply through doing the actions of Torah and mitzvos, a person will eventually come to do them for the right reasons.

If the wrong reason is “I want to fit in with my community,” or maybe “I want the honor of being considered a Torah scholar,” then by going through the motions, a person may come to be changed for the better, to appreciate the value of their actions for their own sake.  

Before a person gets to that desired state, though, there may be years, or even decades, where they’re not quite there.  Their practice isn’t quite what it should be.  But, little by little, they are making progress.

Then it’s fine to be a zombie?  You’re okay with that?

Seriously?  Of course it’s not okay to be a zombie.  While the reality of my morning blessings may be that I don’t have the best concentration while saying them, that doesn’t exempt me from trying to improve their quality.

What I’m saying is that when I see another Orthodox Jew doing something that seems, well, wrong or shallow, I don’t write them off, and I certainly don’t write off the entirety of Orthodox practice.

In addition to considering the very serious Jewish obligation to give others the benefit of the doubt, it’s important to internalize that the only person’s observance we can control is our own.  And guess what?  People aren’t perfect.  I’m not, you’re not (sorry, maybe you are).  And sometimes there are serious imperfections that get distorted through the lens of religion and yeah, that can get really ugly.

But you know what else is ugly?  Standing in the line in the checkout lane at the grocery store and seeing the headlines about which celebrities have the best and worst bikini bodies.  And whose divorce is worth a bazillion dollars.  And how you can finally lose those last ten pounds, for good.

I see hypocrisy everywhere.  I see it in a society which encourages women to work but doesn’t provide reasonable childcare options (and still pays women less than men, btw).  I see it in a society which deifies sports but marginalizes educators.  I see it in society which still votes for president by who is the most physically attractive.

So basically, this:

If you are a religious person, or have any spiritual practice, keep it up.  Keep striving to do your best and observe your practice on a continually higher level.  Work through those obstacles and revel in the feeling of achievement when you arrive at your goal.  And then do it again.

If you don’t style yourself as religious, maybe cut us some slack.  After all, we’re people, too.  And while some of us may be jerks, that’s not exclusive to religion, sadly.

I know that there have been countless wars and horrors committed in the name of religion, but from my foray into Orthodox Judaism, I see a tradition that has also brought to the world the concepts of charity, justice, loving-kindness, literacy, honoring parents, being hospitable, treating the dead with respect, gratitude, and humility.

So, yeah, even though I have been disappointed by various individuals over the past eight years of my observant life, it has not altered my opinion of religious life.  On the contrary, it has encouraged me to delve deeper into tradition to learn about how to improve my own acts, and how to strengthen my own understanding of why I’m here anyways.

Is my life all unicorns prancing through a rainbow-filled forest?  Not so much.  Has being religious saved me from difficulties and pain?  Nope.  But it has made a noticeable improvement in the quality of my life and improved my ability to cope with the inevitable challenges that are part of life, and that makes it valuable to me.

And for the hypocrites?  Well, I’m so busy trying not to be one that I don’t have much time to be offended by anyone else.  

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52 thoughts on “Why Religious Hypocrisy Isn’t A Deal Breaker For Me

  1. I love this.

    You know that I’m struggling right now. People have asked me if I’ve lost my faith. Rivki, this journey has been horrible BUT in some ways I’ve become more connected to G-d. I feel energy in everything. I can hardly stand to see those magazines: they hurt my new sensibility. Since benzo withdrawal, I’ve unintentionally returned to the laws of Kashrut. I’m eating GF, organic, vegetarian, dairy-free and sugar-free! Crazy right? But the food that I can eat tastes so good and I’m sooooo grateful for it. And I know it is good for me. I find myself giving thanks all the time! Weird, right? Here I’m uncomfortable — feel like I’m stuck on a boat, feel like my eyes are burning with the light and my ears can hardly handle loud noises, BUT I’m so grateful that I’m here. People have their spiritual awakenings at different times: you never know when you may need to call upon those rituals. (During taschlich this year, I chanted the Sh’ma over and over again. It felt right. And I thank G-d that I had the words.

    1. Thanks, Renee. People respond so differently to adversity, and I’m while I’m certainly *not* glad that you’re going through this right now, I *am* glad that you’re finding gratitude amid the chaos. And your diet sounds amazing. I had macaroni noodles with pasta sauce and shredded cheese for lunch, and it didn’t exactly make me feel great, if you know what I mean. Your unintentional kosherness should be a merit for you. :)

  2. I took offense at your comment how we’re not perfect already. Hey, Rivki – speak for yourself, okay?

    :))) Seriously though, I struggle with this – and feel guilty (I’m told I’m the queen of guilt) when I can’t do it all perfectly. Can’t daven in the way I want to. Can’t focus…can’t can’t…so why bother? Your post encouraged me.

    1. Yes, yes, I should edit that. Everyone EXCEPT Miriam. ;)

      I completely relate to the perfectionism leading to defeatism. We can do it! Little steps! I’m happy to have provided encouragement.

  3. This is so awesome and honest. I love that idea of weeding the spiritual garden. It does seem easy to get bogged down in the actions required in Judaism and forget to allow some feeling sometimes. I think that’s one of the reasons I feel so conflicted during Passover, for example.

    I could go on and on. This is such a thoughtful post–I mean, it literally filled me with thought.

    1. Aw, I’m so glad it had that effect on you!

      Have you seen the Katz Haggadah illustrated by Gadi Pollack? It’s amazing for getting “into” Pesach. Also, one year I read “Let my Nation Go” by Yosef Deutsch, which is kind of a historical fiction set during the time of the exodus and is based on traditional sources.

      When I really have my act together (which, having three kids, is hardly ever), I read up on a holiday a few weeks before it starts. To get into the mood before I have to get into the practice.

  4. It tickled me that immediately following your acknowledgement of the obligation to give others the benefit of the doubt, you say no one is perfect. Made me laugh, even if it wasn’t intentional. If they’re out there I haven’t met them yet.

  5. As a reform Jew and new mother, I recently started a Facebook page, Mommellah, to help keep me focused on connecting to my Judaism and spirituality on a more consistent basis through motherhood. I like this post because it gives me hope that if Orthodox mothers can get caught up in the motions of religious life, then I can cut myself slack for thinking my effort to connect to my religion and it’s mysticism needs to be a conscious one.

    I’ve been finding more and more Jewish/mom blogs and I’ve finding yours to be particularly inspiring and readable. Can you suggest a few of the ones you enjoy reading?

    1. Mazel tov on the new addition! Motherhood is such an all-consuming state of being that it’s totally normal to feel like focus on, well, anything else, is a challenge.

      Thank you for the kind compliment about my blog! For Jewish Mommy blogs, I would recommend Ruchi Koval’s, Nina Badzin’s, Alishevre Givre’s, Renee A Schuls-Jacobson’s, and I know I’m probably forgetting and offending people by my omissions, so please other readers of this comment thread, if you have suggestions, share them! And please, forgive me if I’ve left you out.

  6. Hi Rivki! I really enjoy your blog posts! This one in particular hit me, as I have been thinking about both subjects lately. But mostly how bad I feel for not blogging. I have things I want to say, but sometimes I can’t seen to put them in words that might be entertaining or interesting to someone over the age of 6! Do you ever have this problem? Oy. Thanks for the reminder about stretching and using those muscles. I almost forgot I had them ;)

    1. Thanks! I absolutely have that problem. Do you ever journal? That helps me loosen my writing muscles sometimes. I don’t even write anything particularly interesting, just kind of chronicle my day to myself, and sometimes, through this mundane act of writing in my grown-up diary, I spark a little something of my erstwhile capability to talk to adults. ;)

  7. Thank you for this post! I’m trying to regularly daven and learn more and this is what I needed to give me that extra oomph. I couldn’t have read this at a better time :)

  8. I loved your comparison of religious practice to musical practice…everyone knows you have better days and off days musically, and it’s nothing to beat yourself up over. I’ll have to remember that next time I’m feeling bad about my Yiddishkeit as well :)

  9. Thanks for this. As usual, you must be spying on me to see what area I really need to work on at each point. This couldn’t have come at a better time.

  10. This is so SO true, especially about davening. I’ve been struggling with that since I had my baby (19 months ago–ack!). I haven’t been able to get into a routine beyond brachos, and while I know I’m not obligated, I feel less connected without it. And don’t get me started on learning….love the idea of keeping muscles active in whatever way we can even if we’re not totally “there” emotionally.

    1. I completely, completely relate. 4 1/2 years into motherhood and I’m *still* working on brachos (though there are moments of more here and there. I was able to daven Shacharis on Yom Kippur while my kids played. I left my oldest “in charge,” and it actually worked out).

      And sometimes on Shabbos, when everyone is sleeping and I’ve finished reading my Shabbos magazines, I will actually crack a sefer. It doesn’t happen often but it feels SO GOOD when it happens. Hatzlacha!

  11. Wait wait wait…
    … you’re human???

    What I love so much about Judaism is that it allows me to be human; to fail, and do better, to allow others to be human too and not judge, to get sucked into routine, and then renew, to know that every single minuscule effort counts in an infinite way, to know that I may be getting into a rut, but know even more that I am loved by my creator, and that tomorrow is a new day.

    Thanks for this! Though it really does help my chizzuk to know how much Jews are under a magnifying glass. May seem “unfair”, but honestly, sometimes it really helps me put in some extra kavannah :)

    PS – you are awesome!

  12. rivki, you are amazing. I really enjoyed reading this article. You expressed everything so eloquently. I believe religion is a journey. That’s helped me tremendously in giving people the benefit of the doubt and being less judgmental, and probably not being so hard on myself, too.

    Thank you for your inspiring writing!

  13. for someone who didn’t feel like writing you sure hit the nail on the head! I haven’t written since Rosh Hashanah and had a pretty intense hagim experience this year. so i hadn’t read many blogs either. i finally put myself in front of the screen today and wrote. the fact that THIS was the ONE post I read today after finally writing was AMAZING. brings it all together. Each year, every day, a little bit more. Baby steps. I definitely say the same thing. But you really gave me some insight in making the rote meaningful… “weeding my spiritual garden” even if we’re not harvesting – really well said. PRACTICE being just that, practice! Thank you for that. Seriously amazing timing. xo – Frida

    1. Haha, I’m happy that some coherent thoughts to escape my head! And I’m very glad for the hashgacha, the timing, of you reading the post when you did.

      Best wishes in making your practice meaningful!

  14. Oh yes… discipline in spiritual exercise – a topic that follows me like a stupid, but faithful dog… What I found helpful lately was reading a few texts by Mary Ward (17. century, founded a Christian women’s congregation), an now I’ll do my best to re-translate them: ;-) One thing she said was something like “I made the decision that even if I feel very distant form G*d, I will constantly act as if He were close to me. […] In times that make you you feel abandoned by G*d, it’s the wrong thing to turn away form Him – especially in such times it’s much better to call im and lament to HIm.”

    And, concerning discipline, something she wrote after she had been inspired to lots of new ways to pray and to serve G*d – she felt that “what had been easy suddenly became hard and annoying, filling me with fear I wouldn’t be able to follow the good inspirations, because it was impossible to do all of them, there were too many. G*d had mercy and gave me the courage to tell myself: these are things of devotion, not of duty, and we don’t please G*d by acts of duty that we do for our own contentment; so I will do these things with love and freedom or leave them. So I began sometimes to do the said things, then to leave them, always with G*d’s pleasure in mind. After a short time, my usual lightness in these things came back.”

    … I’m sure Mary Ward turns in her grave at these translations, and I hope no religious expert ever reads them, :-D but maybe they illustrate what direction seems good to me: a little basic discipline, yes – forcing yourself all the time, no. For example – I do my evening meditation without stupid excuses, but if I’m so tired I keep falling asleep, I tell G*d “sorry, I’m too tired today” and go to bed. I see it can be compared to discipline in music making, still, there’s something about the comparison that I don’t like. Maybe because it’s also about a relationship, and relationships need freedom. – I’ll stop (for now) before I write more pretentious and confused stuff. ;-) I hope, of course, that a few things are understandable.

  15. Rivki, I read the piece on aish.com and then here, per email from Miriam Hendeles. Loved what you said about getting muscles into shape. Remembered it last night while too exhausted to pay attention to the words of krias shma.
    Like you, I made friends with Miriam via email. I love your site and posts. A lot of good seichel (common sense) and good ideas for life, kids, etc. Will forward to my daughters and daughter-in-law.
    Faigie Horowitz
    Am in Miriam’s age group!

  16. Great, thought-provoking post! If I had to label people, instead of hypocrite, I think it would be more like, conscious and unconscious. I’m spiritual, not religious, and I think most days when I’m feeling centered and grounded, I am conscious of my connection with Spirit/God/Oneness.

    1. Thanks, Nicole. I agree that conscious and unconscious is a more accurate (and kind) label. And no matter the spiritual path, I think striving for consciousness is a worthy (and challenging!) goal. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  17. I’m a Christian, but the struggle is similar. I think we run into trouble when we are critical of others. Then they feel judged, and accuse religious people of hypocrisy. As I see it, we are all flawed, hence our need for God and forgiveness.

    1. Excellent point. The need to not judge people until we’re in their shoes (which is, essentially, never), and to give others the benefit of the doubt are crucial. I think there’s also a sort of general cultural mindset that those who openly identify as religious should be held to a higher standard, but without acknowledging that religious people are still human, and, as you pointed out, flawed.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  18. This is a wonderfully written post! I find that I question my actions (or lack thereof) on a daily basis, which in itself keeps me present, even if I am inactive at that moment. My grandfather, who was an Orthodox Jew, told me that if I do one mitzvah a day, I am a good Jew. I think he was doing his best to keep his grandchildren connected to the religion during a time when our parents weren’t doing such a good job.

    Happy SITS day – I’m thrilled that a blogger writing about her Judaism is being spotlighted. I also touch on Judaism in my posts (I’m Reform, but I know you won’t judge me for it :-) ) so I hope you will stop by and share your opinions with me. I’ll be back :-)

    1. Hi Beth! I’m looking forward to popping by! I think whenever we try to be present, no matter our spiritual path, it definitely makes an impact in our lives. Thanks for taking the time to leave such a lovely comment!

  19. Glad you’re too occupied to worry about hypocrites. I do not have any religious affiliation but I was raised Christian and just didn’t approve of any of it. I think of all the religions Judaism and Buddhism are the most interesting. I like the principles of Buddhism and I like the community within Judaism. I don’t judge anyone who has any religious affiliation because like you said we’re all people and people do what feels right to them and what they know to be true based on what they know and how they were raised. So it is what it is. Hope you’re enjoying your davening by now :) Have a great one Rivki! -Iva

  20. Happy SITS Day! I enjoyed reading this. I never thought about it in these terms. That you should still go through the motions even if you don’t feel it, just so you want lose your connection with God.

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