Absence or Presence?

Image: Corncob with kernels and empty spaces. Photo by MarcPascual/Pixabay.

Is Judaism an absence or a presence in your life?

For some people who grow up Jewish, Judaism is mostly about what Jews don’t do:

  • Don’t turn on the TV on Shabbes
  • Don’t date non-Jewish boys
  • Don’t eat pork or shellfish
  • Don’t have a Christmas tree
  • Don’t sing Christmas carols
  • Don’t celebrate Easter
  • Don’t go in a church, ever, even to a friend’s wedding
  • Don’t, don’t, don’t

It all adds up to “we are different, and not in a happy way.”

Many of us feel a need for connection to a tradition, something larger and older than ourselves. The obvious choice is the tradition of our youth, but when that was all “don’t’s,” or when it was used to make us feel bad about ourselves, it can take a lot of courage to explore it anew.

Judaism is more than “don’t’s.” It is an ancient tradition offering meaning and joy as well as connection to other Jews. It connects us to Jews in the present, but also to those of the past and those yet to come. Jews today “tend the flame” for Jews in the future.

Judaism offers us:

  • The joy of Shabbat, every week.
  • A year rich with holidays that speak to every human emotion
  • A winter festival of light
  • A spring festival of new life and hope
  • A summer festival of wisdom and plenty
  • A fall renewal of the spirit
  • Freedom to ask questions
  • Ethics without dogma
  • A framework for making sense of the world.

If you grew up feeling that Judaism was about deprivation and “don’t’s,” I hope that you will find the courage to ask questions and look deeper. There are many ways to be Jewish, and if the one you learned as a child was unsatisfying, know that it isn’t the only way.



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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

18 thoughts on “Absence or Presence?”

  1. During a time when Christmas is everywhere, the reminder of our Jewish “presence” is so apropos. Shabbat is a Jewish holiday every week!

    But as a Jewish child in an interfaith family, I definitely grew up hearing about the “don’ts” of both Judaism and Shabbos. It took me decades to appreciate Judaism.

  2. My Jewish family immigrated from Germany to Amsterdam and then to the US in the late 1800s.
    The traditions were practiced until my Grandfather married an Irish Catholic woman with a child born out of wedlock. The story is the Rabbi was not pleased and we left. I am now retired and interested in learning more about Judaism as a cousin converted recently and I am wondering. Do you have any suggestions?

  3. As someone who is not Jewish I don’t think of Judaism as a religion of don’t or can’ts. In some ways it is a richer tradition of family than Christianity can ever achieve (at this point in history); a longer practice of the seasons turning than paganism can claim. From food, the truest part of respect for a terrible god, to finding time to pray, to be quiet, to the miztvahs of Chronos & Chairos to the Awesome & Aweful regard of the creator, it seems to me, outside the strictures that Judaism is perhaps the best form of faith. The laws are structured but the interior is as big as a needles head.
    Thank you.

    1. LunaMarie — As a Jew, I’d like to thank you for recognizing and naming many of important aspects of what Judaism offers to help followers live a life of meaning. Family is the center of Jewish life, and gathering to mark not just the passing of seasons, but also sacred moments filled with awe and wonder are indeed very integral to Judaism. I wish more people who had grown up Jewish could easily see the beauty that you and I see!! Thank you again, and may Life bestow many blessing upon you. jen

  4. On the 22nd of December I join with friends to celebrate Winter Solstice for 10 days. If my memory serves me right, this early in the morning, the word Hanukkah comes to mind.

    For a list of “can’t do, can’t say, don’t ask and 1000s more ask a recovering Catholic.

  5. Rabbi Adar — I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word “commandment” . . . about how we need to continue reframing that concept so that it speaks to people living today. The best I’ve come up with so far is that I simply refuse to speak of commandments as “obligations” –instead, I call them “opportunities,” because many of them –regardless whether on the “do-list” or “don’t-list”– can be reframed as opportunities to step out of our shallow, self-serving egos and connect to The Infinite and Timeless Power that flows through our Universe.
    For me, who honestly doesn’t know all of the commandments or intentionally follow that many of them, it’s the little moments of acknowledging The Unity throughout the day that make Judaism a Presence in my life. And those moments are not a “burden,” they are a gift from our ancestors that I carry with me wherever I go!! Thank you, and shavua tov!! jen

    1. You are asking a very good question, Jen. The translation that works for me is “sacred duty,” but it is up to me to decide how I will fulfill that duty.

      I like your word, “opportunity” – a reminder that every mitzvah offers me a chance to grow in holiness. Thank you!

      1. Yes, exactly! “Grow in holiness,” “connect to the Infinite,” “remember our place in the sacred chain of generations” … all of these phrases are references to the same mental or spiritual “space”– an unselfish, loving, “abundance” framework from which we are more likely to welcome the stranger, care for the orphan and widow, feed the hungry, etc. …and Mitzvot are opportunities to step out of life’s routine and into that “sacred space” … to grow in holiness and be more likely to engage in more mitzvot over time (not because we were “commanded” but because that “sacred space” is a pretty happy place from which to live!!!).
        Thank you for hearing me.
        Happy Hanukkah to you and yours, jen

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