Mesorah (Jewish stuff)

Why I Love Restrictions

Yesterday I saw an advertisement for a vacation to Tasmania. It extolled the beauty of the land’s rugged landscape as well as the friendliness and easygoing disposition of the local population.

When I read about far-flung places, I image what it would take for us to go there. The logistics of traveling with four small children notwithstanding, just thinking about if it would be a possibility. How tricky would it be to eat there? Would there be any anti-Semitism which would necessitate being very incognito?

Going through this mental checklist caused me a moment of angst. For a moment, a too long moment, I felt frustrated. I wished that I could just pick up and go visit anywhere in the world that I wanted to without having to worry about kashrus or Jewish safety issues.

I’m very happy with my life and with the choices I’ve made. But that doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t have twinges of not exactly regret, but a second cousin to that emotion. After the feeling of frustration at the restrictions I’ve brought upon myself mellowed, I thought about the trade off.

It reminded me of something I said on a Rivka Malka Perlman video some years ago. Yes, there are fewer choices within my Orthodox life, but I think, for me, they are fewer choices between better options.

When I go to the grocery store, there are a bazillion types of cereal in the cereal aisle. A bazillion. This doesn’t even feel like hyperbole. I remember returning from Israel and being completely overwhelmed with the sheer amount of choices the consumer paradise that is the American grocery store offered.

But being a kosher consumer, the number of choices is reduced (though, truly, not by all that much. Most major cereals are kosher, even a lot of the natural or organic brands are also).

When I’m going shopping for clothes, an activity that I either love or hate depending on my mood and the state of my waistline, I really appreciate the boundaries of tznius that instruct what I wear. It gives me a focus when I’m shopping that prevents the overwhelming array of choices from, well, overwhelming me.

It may seem like it’s a bummer to have these restrictions, but I don’t see it that way. Time is so finite, and there are so many things that pull us in this way or that, begging for attention. This new food, that new look, this new destination, that new activity.

All of these distractions, while they do have the potential to enrich my life, are auxiliary to the core values of my life I get so easily distracted by trends in the news that I see on Facebook, by debates and causes and fads. It takes my attention away from the meat and potatoes of my life, which is to connect to my family, to G-d, to my community.


So the restrictions come in handy to remind me what I’m here for during this too short sojourn we call life. I appreciate the focus and direction they provide, and the guidance that halacha brings to the table. Less time thinking about what cereal or clothes to buy, more time thinking about how to be a better person, how to make the world better.

Life is full of restrictions anyways, not even just religious ones. When I married my husband, I restricted myself to just one romantic relationship. When I chose to stay home with my children, I restricted the financial contributions I could make to our family. When we chose to have a large(ish) family, that placed additional restrictions on us.

But none of those things feel like such restrictions. They just feel like the choices that have formed my life. And I love my life, so I don’t mind the restrictions.

It’s a similar feeling when I contemplate my choice to become Orthodox. Yes, it has narrowed down some of the options I have in my life. But my quality of life has been so enhanced that it doesn’t feel onerous.

And what would I rather have, the ability to travel anywhere I wanted to without restrictions, or the connection to a tradition which regularly provides me with guidance and tools to enrich my life, and which, G-d willing, will also provide my children the framework to have a meaningful, connected and joyful life?

It’s really no contest.

16 thoughts on “Why I Love Restrictions

  1. It’s a slight tangent, but one of the books I read a couple months back about writing and creating in general is weeding out all the extraneous “stuff” – ideas that really veer away from the theme, characters or events that don’t move the plot along. When looking at a blank page, it can be overwhelming because none of those extraneous things have been weeded away yet. That’s why so many people thrive on story starters, deadlines, themes, and so on.Why poems often have a set structure. Why so many people rely heavily on Beta readers or editors to tell them where to cut material. All those things force writers to put limits on their ideas.

    After reading what you wrote above, it made me grateful that I’m not staring at a blank page every day in a figurative sense. I remember before becoming religious, and also just being young, and waking up with this feeling of “I have no idea what I’m doing. This is so overwhelming. I have no direction.” I’d hit a decision and have no idea how to choose wisely. It happened almost every day, and it didn’t feel very good.

    1. Indeed. When I graduated from college and set out to look for a job, I had the realization that I no longer had a syllabus. And I felt very unmoored.

      And oh boy do I work better on a deadline. So much better!!!!

  2. I’m not looking at the “Orthodox lifestyle” as being full of “restrictions” any more, as I did when I was a child looking at religious peoples’ behavior. Rather, I’ve reframed it: they are guidelines. I like having an unassailable, universal metric by which I can determine how and to what extent I must act in the many, many confusing and challenging situations I face every day. Coincidentally, I was just musing on this aspect of living today, so I am sure it is NO COINCIDENCE. I actually LIKE having the framework of Torah around me just because it DOES restrict me, and thereby channel me, away from and toward right action and right thinking.

  3. Concerning clothes and other worly possessions, I regularly think “it would be best to live in a monastery and not to own anything”, and when I’m in that mood I empty my wardrobe, get rid of two thirds of the contents and feel very relieved and happy. With this sort of things I really like limitations. I wonder, though: would I feel the same if I lived in a part of the world where you can’t have more than the absolute minimum (of clothes, for example) because you can’t buy anything? I don’t think so. I think I’d feel poor and limited in an unjust way.

    Another example: Nowadays I don’t colour my hair any more (for example: blue :-) ) because I prefer to have hair that’s healthy. What if, let’s say my parents kept telling me all my life that it’s bad and evil to colour your hair blue? Would I feel equally relaxed about not doing it? Probably not.

    I’m not quite sure what my point is, maybe you get it anyway. ;-) It’s something like: In a lot of ways I’m also fond of restrictions, but my restrictions are very different from those that I mentioned above: being too poor to have access to certain things, having restrictions imposed upon you, etc.. For me, everything’s fine as long as I may choose my restrictions. And in that case, they aren’t really restrictions any longer. Or are they? I don’t know.

    1. …and another thing that came to my mind (good that you write such thoughtful texts!) about my own rules/restrictions: Now an then I find it important to remember that the rules are supposed to help me with life, but that they aren’t life. They may even get in the way of life, and then it may be a good thing to re-think about them. I won’t construct an absurd example about dyed hair now,:-D I hope you get what I mean anyway.

    2. This is such a insightful comment (and I love the blue hair example!), and something I think about quite often regarding my children, because they are being born into this lifestyle that I actively chose, and so their opinion of it will be, likely, all tied up with the normal emotions and struggles that most people have within their formative years.

      I hope that my children will find these restrictions to be as beneficial as I do, but I think that can only happen if they actively choose their guidelines, you know? And there’s no way to tell what will be until they’re grown.

      sidenote: I had blue hair for a spell when I was in college. I also appreciate my hair being more healthy now, but I have such a fond memory for that shade of blue. :)

      1. Oh yes, teaching children about religion – that’s one of my topics, too… I want my kid to learn about religion and what I find positive about it, still I need to remind myself that what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for others, not even for my own child. I think you’re totally right, guidelines that people don’t choose and really want for themselves will hardly turn out positive. So I continuously try to offer and establish certain things, without force or being too demanding… it’s not always easy. As you probably know. ;-)

        Yes, I read about your formerly blue hair – I also had it for some time and have fond memories. :-) (And I still feel slightly envious when I see people with blue hair. Not enough for ruining my own hair, though.)

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