This is a compilation of passages from a few e-mails sent about a week after Josep and I met eight years ago. In it, I am answering his question about what it means, practically, to be an observant Jew.
The meaning of life for a Jew is pretty much exactly as you phrased it. To serve God by making his world a better place, in improving ourselves and in helping the rest of the world improve. Judaism is about life in this world, not about life in the next world, contrary to many other religions. We do have a whole philosophy about the next world, but it is not a major part of the religion and there are many different opinions about what happens after you die.
You want to know more about my lifestyle? There’s something that would fill a good library. 😉 You saw a little of it in Barcelona–about keeping kosher and the Sabbath. Let’s see. Jews pray three times a day, but women (considered, on the whole, more spiritual than men) are not required to say all three formal prayers, so I start off my day with the morning prayers and continue to talk to God freely throughout the day as I please (and everyone else thinks I talk to myself. 😉 ). I feel I have a close and comfortable relationship with God. I feel that He is more than my Father and my King, He is also my closest Friend. Whenever something good or bad happens to me I immediately offer a few words to Him letting Him know how I feel. They say about King David that he used to lie in his bed and talk to God at night, and when I read that I got quite a shock, because that’s what I do, too. I feel He laughs with me at all the silly, ironic things that happen in life and cries with me when things are not so good, and showers me with love in every imaginable way.
But we must not get me started on my relationship with God, because this e-mail will never end. 😉
Before we eat something we make a blessing. This is not only to thank God for giving us food to eat, but also to remember the origin of the food and think about where it came from–for instance, before I eat an apple, I say in Hebrew, “Blessed are You, Lord of the Universe, who created the fruit of the tree.” The apple comes from a tree, and the tree comes from God.
Women wear modest clothing–skirts below the knee and shirts with sleeves, usually to the elbow, and a neckline that isn’t too low. I prefer to be thought of as a person, not a sex object, and not have men’s thoughts skittering around things they shouldn’t be thinking about when they talk to me. Of course I can’t testify to the truth of this, but I’ve had male friends tell me that even a little inch of skin makes a difference. So I feel much more comfortable in modest clothing. Why skirts and not pants? I personally don’t think there’s a problem with pants (my mother wears them all the time), but there are those who do because of laws against cross-dressing and modesty and whatever. I prefer skirts because I find them more comfortable (and prettier. 😀 ).
I also mentioned about physical contact between men and women. A handshake is not a problem, or any kind of formal greeting (which is why I had no problem with the Catalonian kiss-on-the-cheek greeting), but beyond that–not unless they’re married or related by first degree (meaning I can beat up my little brothers as much as I want. 😀 ). I tend to be lenient about this with strangers, but once a person gets to be a friend I find it important. Sometimes one thing can lead to another and it’s important to set down a boundary that you simply don’t cross, in my opinion.
[Concerning Shabbat, I quoted a long passage from an excellent and highly relevant book called “Letters to Talia“, which I can’t post here for copyright reasons. The gist of it was that the actions that are forbidden on the Sabbath are those that express man’s creative power in the world, and that Shabbat is about giving up our role as creator and partners in creation with God, and returning the world to its Owner, remembering that we, too, are creations and not just creators. In this way, Shabbat is another expression of what the author sees as the purpose of halakha–to develop discipline, humility self-refinement, and awareness of one’s purpose in life. Here is a later entry where I elaborate on Shabbat.]
I think Dov’s explanation digs deep into the heart of why I love being Jewish, and things you asked about–how we make ordinary things holy. By choosing when we will or will not eat something or do something, we are making it holy. By making the conscious choice to act on our desires or not to, we are putting our God-given ability to make free choices into our lives, and thus putting God into our lives. I decide when I eat. I decide what I eat. I decide when I go on the computer and when I turn on the light. I decide these things not according to my instincts and desires, but according to what makes me as a human different from all other animals–my ability to act despite those instincts and desires. And I choose to live my life the way God commanded my ancestors and me through His Torah, believing that sticking with Him every step of the way and channeling my desires to fulfill His will is the best way to fulfill my purpose on this earth.
Blog readers: What do you do to charge your own life with a sense of purpose?