Seven Essential Jewish Practices

Seven essential Jewish practices that are the most valuable for living a life of connected purpose with a full awareness of its many blessings.

Jewish religious life is far more focused on what we do than on what we believe. For Jews, behaving has traditionally been more important than believing. You can doubt God or even be an atheist and still practice Judaism. Our spiritual technology is focused on action and task far more than faith or dogma.

We are all, with varying degrees of intensity throughout our lives, trying to figure out how to live a life of meaning, how to be happy, how to feel whole. The core practices of Jewish life are powerful tools for noticing blessing, for finding strength in the face of struggle and pain, for building community and for finding a sense of purpose.

For progressive Jews, the effort to create meaningful spiritual life requires moving from a language of observance, to a language of practice.[fn]This idea was shared with me by R. Richard Hirsh, quoting R. Toba Spitzer.[/fn] When someone comes into my office and says, “Rabbi, I’m not very religious,” they often are judging themselves in relationship to perceived norms of observant Jewish life: rituals like keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat or celebrating holidays. Observance implies identity and often implies that one is buying into a larger system of thinking. Often what we are observing is how we stack up in relationship to some supposedly authentic, external form of Jewish living. This is often code for Orthodox. It also usually comes with a sense of judgment.[fn]The editor of the New Jersey Jewish News addresses a similar idea when he tells his reporters, “Don’t ask, ‘How Jewish are you?’ Instead, ask, ‘How are you Jewish?’ ” This is a great column to follow with consistently clearheaded thinking about Jewish life in America.[/fn]

Practice, on the other hand, is more universal. It is inclusive of all the efforts we make to live our lives more fully. Practice is more experiential and more forgiving. It assumes that we have to try, but that we will always have room to improve. When we practice, we are experimenting. Maybe we try saying a little blessing the next time we write a check to a charity. Perhaps we see what it is like to sit quietly for a few seconds before eating. Or we commit to being more honest. We try something, we evaluate it, we try it differently, we try it again, we try something else, and maybe it becomes a habit…

The Seven Essential Jewish Practices are the core Jewish practices that I believe are the most valuable for living life of connected purpose with a full awareness of its many blessings. They are all practices that can be embraced on multiple, traditional, creative and ever-deepening levels.

Stopping: (Shabbat) We need a day of rest. We need times in our days, weeks and years to turn off all the input devices, to stop trying to accomplish anything, to let go of obligation and to be present: present with ourselves, present with each other and present with the world.

Giving: (Tzedakah) We need to practice giving our money and other resources away to others in need and to organizations doing good in the world. This practice can help us to acknowledge our relative abundance and to confront our feelings of scarcity. Giving helps to tame the dominant culture’s message of “acquire, acquire, acquire.” Giving is a practice that deepens our sense of gratitude.

Interpreting: (Midrash) We should make good choices about what is entering our heads. We should make a point of finding time to sit with the teachings of those who came before us and tried to answer these fundamental questions. Most importantly, we must seek out meaningful and often new interpretations of Jewish learnings so that they become our own.

Loving: (Gemilut Hasadim) We need to act compassionately in the face of suffering. We need to open our hearts not only to the suffering we hear about in the news, which is itself a challenging practice, but also to the suffering of actual people whom we can meet and be present with face-to-face. We also have to be mindful our own experiences of suffering. Rather than running in fear from all this suffering, we need to turn towards it. To the degree that is healthy for each of us in our lives, we should try to be lovingly present with the suffering in our world.

Repairing: (Tikkun Olam) Having witnessed suffering in ourselves and on a wide-scale basis, we should take action in coordination with others in order to reduce that suffering and increase the potential for each person to be fully human, to live in safety and to experience peace.

Awakening (Tefilah): Praying and meditation are great ways to make seeing the holiness in our world a habit. Setting aside time for introspection helps waken us to the suffering and joy in our life. These practices create regular opportunities to refine our goals for being a mensch, for being fully human.

Connecting: (Brit) We especially need to spend more time with people. This includes friends and family, but also includes ever-expanding circles of community. We need to deepen the relationships in ways that remind us that we are not alone, and that we are part of a deep web of mutual interdependence.

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