Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Incrementalism, Take 2

I remember, at some point during my studies prior to conversion, being absolutely bewildered by the vast array of Jewish rituals and practices I was learning about. I remember feeling frustrated and wondering how – or even, if – I ever could make the transition from “not-Jew” to “Jew.” Being Jewish, I was learning, should impact every single aspect of my daily life – it wasn’t something I could only pull out and wear at defined times.

Maybe I was making a mistake, I thought. Maybe it was too much to ask to go from being a ham-and-cheese or cheeseburger-with-milkshake lover to a kashruth-observant Jew who would automatically know whether something was permissible or not. Or from being a hey-it’s-Friday-night-let’s-order-a-pizza-in kinda person to a candles-wine-and-challah-with-Shabbat-dinner adherent.

I wish I had access to Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s It’s a Mitzvah! Step-by-Step to Jewish Living when I was grappling with these questions. Unfortunately (?) I converted in 1982, a full 13 years before Rabbi Artson’s book was published. I first became familiar with it in September 2001, as I was writing a post-September 11th Home-and-School curriculum, entitled “Rainbow People.” It’s a Mitzvah! became a primary source as I wrote that curriculum.

What made it particularly attractive was Brad’s “baby steps” along the way to observance of mitzvot. Instead of taking an “all or nothing” approach, Brad advocates a gradual approach. In his own words:

One of the excuses Jews use to disregard the demands of our religion is an inability to observe its totality immediately. Far too often we look upon Judaism as an all-or-nothing affair; either observe it 100 percent or don’t even bother. Such as approach ends up discouraging willing Jews from exploring their own heritage and distorts the true nature of Judaism. This book advocates a gradual approach to Jewish life without abandoning the traditional goals of Judaism. … Such a method allows the reader to absorb a new skill, value, or priority while taking advantage of his or her life history. Some growth is better than none, and a lot is better than a little.

It was an intriguing concept for me to explore. There had been conscious, deliberate decisions that my husband and I had made regarding how we would observe some of the home-centered mitzvot – kashruth, Shabbat rest, tefillot. Since those choices rarely lived up to the standard set by the orthodox community, I often wondered as if my commitment to Judaism was as sincere as it should be. What I wasn’t doing sometimes seemed more definitive than what I was doing. Since I wasn’t doing it all, I felt as if what I was doing was nothing.

In the last seven years – since I first discovered It’s a Mitzvah! – it’s become my go-to source for many questions of observance. Consequently, I’ve found myself focusing more on what I do, instead of feeling guilty about what I don’t do. Therefore, I’ve found it easier to continue to progress in some areas. Where I’ve chosen to remain at my level of current observance, it’s been a mindful choice – not one that rules out the possibility of future change.

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