Judaism is hard. As I begin the eight days of breadlessness that is Passover, I am reminded of this. Ours is not a religion of beliefs and faith alone – we are supposed to do and not do things, and it is often quite inconvenient.
In Israel, the government makes sure that observance is easy. Buses don’t run during the Sabbath; Jewish holidays are state holidays. Hence, the recent controversy over a Jerusalem pizza store owner who wanted to stay open during Passover. Even some of the most secular Israelis, like Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, were against him. People wanted the Jewish state to keep making it easy to follow the rules. In the end the courts decided to allow the sale of bread in stores, and one zealous Passover observer protested by disrobing in one such store.
Although I do follow the anti-leavened bread rules of Passover, no matter how hard it is to munch on matzah alone for a week, I am less observant of other rules. And in America, there is no one structuring the society to minimize my indiscretions.
I felt this quite clearly last Saturday, as I sheepishly made my way into the Jewish Studies room of the New York Public Library. I had research to do, and I was not alone. On the Jewish Sabbath, the Jewish Studies library was hopping, abuzz with Jews breaking rules against writing and working on Saturday. Of particular irony in this case is that the library isn’t open on Sundays or Mondays – you’d think that the Jewish studies library, if it was going to be closed at all, would choose Friday and Saturday. Alas, no. This is America – no one is going to pave the way to observance for you.
For committed Jews in America who teeter on the edge of following the rules, observing Jewish law requires real effort. This is what religious voluntarism in America really means – not just the freedom to profess whatever belief you want but the necessity of making real, concrete and hard decisions (and one’s that I am often not strong enough to make) in order to observe the requirements of that belief.