On being an Observant Jew

What does it mean to be an "observant" Jew? We think of observing, usually, in terms of following the laws: To observe is to adhere to or abide by a law or duty. And certainly observing the laws of kashrut (dietary laws), or observing the injunction to wear fringes on our garments, or to cover our heads, are all parts of what people mean when they say of someone, "She is an observant Jew."

In this week's Torah portion, for example, Metzorang, Moses receives (in the same great detail that he has received the dietary laws and the instructions for building the tent and conducting the rituals of the sacrifical cult) the conclusion of the "law of the leper," along with the other laws concerning ritual cleanliness. It is in the details of observance -- the priest observing the condition of a leper's skin, the members of the community observing the taboos -- that tradition and community are created.

What I have been realizing lately is that there are layers and layers of meaning of "observe." I want to talk about three of them.

The first meaning of "observe" is the definition that has to do with Shabbat, festivals, and the cycles of the year. In this sense, to observe is to keep or pay tribute to a holiday, custom, or rite by celebration or solemnity. Shabbat observance has the status of a commandment. The rules of leprosy and ritual cleanliness require ritual observance. The Passover seder marks a celebration of our exodus from Egypt. We are commanded to remember, to celebrate. We come together on Friday nights like this one to welcome, with solemnity and ritual and revelry, this time that reminds us that we are made in the image of G-d, who after the work of Creation hallowed a whole day -- one-seventh of all time -- to peace and joy. Observe.

Observe the holidays, of which Shabbat is simply the first. Observe, on the 14th day of the first month, the Passover offering, the seder and the preparations for it. Observe the counting of the omer. Observe, on the first day of the 7th month, the coming of the New Year, and blow the shofar. Observe, on the tenth day of the 7th month, Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement. Observe, on the 15th day of the 7th month, Succoth, the feast of the tabernacles, the days of solemn assembly. (The reference text here is Lev. XXIII:1-44.) There is, in short, no limit to community, to the observances that bind us one to another ... and to another ... and to G-d.

Observe the cycles of the year. We have portions of the Torah and the Haftorah for each shabbat. We have the announcement of the new moon each month. Some of us even greet the dawn. And we mark, as a community, the important happenings in one another's lives -- life-cycle events such as births, deaths, yartzeits, anniversaries, bar and bat mitzvahs, adult renamings, new jobs, new homes, commitments and marriages, and the like. Observe.

The second meaning of "observe" is perhaps a bit simpler -- to observe is to say something, to make a comment or remark, as on a text. An observant Jew does not just "study," does not merely read the text or go through the motions of ritual. An observant Jew makes a comment, makes a mark, makes it hers.

For me, this has been central to the ways that something as familiar and comforting as engagement with a text could be the gateway to something as unfamiliar and profoundly terrifying as prayer. All my life, I have been a good little scholar, a voracious reader, and not afraid to "talk back" to the text. It was simply impossible to sustain indifference to Torah (and by extension indifference to G-d) once I begin to make "observations" on the powerful narratives of our traditional texts. At the beginning of my second semester of Torah study, my rabbi had us go around the table and explain why we were there. I said, "How could I not study? You might as well ask me not to breathe."

To be an observant Jew in this sense, then, is to recognize not only that we are made in the image of G-d. It is to recognize also that by engaging with this text, we engage in the Creation, in the history of our people and tradition. Most importantly, when we study and daven together, we learn that G-d is One. Oneness means that G-d enters into equal relationships. Observe.

The third and I think perhaps most challenging and important meaning of "observe" is, of course, contradictory.

On the one hand, then, to observe is to take notice; to perceive, to watch attentively. See the world. Listen to your heart. Notice the joy and pain of another human being. Attend to Creation. Notice the task at hand, and show your respect for it, and for yourself (created, of course, in the image of G-d), by really Being There. Imagine the sustained and intimate attention required for the Creation -- the powers of observation. G-d is One, and we are one with that Creation -- and so are compelled to observe. The essence of this meaning of "observance" is, I believe, for an observant Jew to strive to live the ordinary life (which we see all around us all the time; or rather, so often fail to observe) in a nonordinary way. That is, to be an observant Jew is to live our lives with full and rapt attention.

This sense of observance captures our need to use the gifts we have (because we are created in the image of G-d) to notice Creation. We see the difference between darkness and light, and note the separation of day and night. We are abusing those gifts if we do not use them well; misusing the gift of hearing, we are told, if we attend a concert but are thinking about business. We must observe life, choose life, and observe love, choose love -- for what is love other than attending (filled with wonder) to another human being as though witnessing the Creation in progress? Observe, and create a True Present, a present with moments in the same timeframe as the Creation. These are the moments where healing and connection are possible.

How do observant Jews attend to the moment? As in most traditions, through practice -- in this case, the practice of reciting a blessing to mark the moment and draw attention to the Oneness of which the moment is a microcosm. We bless the lighting of the candles that kindle the spirit of Shabbat and Yom Tov. We bless the wine we sip and the bread we break. There is a blessing on smelling fragrant woods, on putting on a new garment, on buying a new house and placing a mezuzah on the doorpost. An observant Jew recites a blessing upon witnessing lightening, or upon beholding falling stars, lofty mountains, or vast deserts. An observant Jew recites a blessing upon hearing thunder rumble through the heavens, and at the sight of the rainbow. Observant Jews are in this sense very in the moment; observant Jews have so many opportunities to observe the wonder of Creation, the Oneness of all, and our Oneness with all that is.

On the other hand, to observe in this sense is also to watch or be present without participating actively -- to be, as it was so bluntly put in an action movie a few years ago, a JAFO (Just Another [Expletive Deleted] Observer). We send "observers" to oversee elections. We expect our scientists to "observe" the orbits of the planets, or the oscillations of subatomic particles, or the dynamics of human interaction and society. We still sometimes wish that they could do so without acknowledging that human presence as "mere observers" -- even "objective observers" -- changes the very things we seek to see.

For the truly observant, our attention -- our attending the world, whether or not we also recite the appropriate blessing -- matters. Our attention makes a deep difference in what we notice. Our attention makes a deep difference in ourselves. It is, I believe, a contradiction in terms to be "observant" and not to "participate actively." And it is a contradiction in terms to allow our "practice" of awareness to become mere "rehersal." The whole point of observance, in this sense, is to use practice to increase the frequency with which our experience of the world brings us open-eyed upon the Present Moment. Our return to awareness may be as gentle as featherfall, or a jolt that makes us sit bolt upright in our noticing. Either way, observance increases the amount of time we spend -- alone and together -- in a moment where real transformation is possible. Observant Jews know: transformation is possible when human beings -- and therefore the image of G-d -- are fully present.

So by observing Shabbat, we help make gladness reign and joy increase. By observing the holidays, we create community and enrich our collective lives. By observing the cycles of human life and the natural world, we enrich our capacity to care for each other and the planet. By observing the texts of our tradition, we change ourselves and enhance tradition itself. By observing the beauty of the natural world and the moments of transition in our lives, we increase the energy available for thoughtful efforts to make whole our damaged world. And by observing one another and ourselves, while participating with full attention in the ongoing work of living our lives, we make possible healing, compassion, integrity, passion, love. This, to me, is what it means to be an "observant" Jew.

Sit here and observe the moment, and enhance its peace and meaningfulness with your observance. Breathe it in and out and really notice it -- be an observant Jew. And then go out and take every moment you can to observe -- and heal, and love -- the world and one another. Shabbat shalom.