PEABODY – As we head into the High Holiday season, some of us ponder our thoughts and our decisions over the last year, and whether we have followed the 613 commandments or “mitzvot” written in the Torah. Although only about half of these are still relevant today – we are no longer sacrificing animals, for example – Judaism teaches us to observe them to the best of our ability, regardless of whether we are Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.
For Chabad Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Peabody, who is Orthodox, God’s commandments are ever-present in his life. “The Torah has guidelines for every element of Jewish life, from how you eat to how you dress to how you go to the bathroom,” he said. “The more mindful and focused I am, the more conscious I am that this process doesn’t have to be mundane or ordinary, but can be and should be infused with godliness and holiness and beauty.”
Across the North Shore, however, many of us are not very observant, including most Reform and Conservative Jews. Does that make us “bad Jews?” Not according to Schusterman and several other area rabbis.
“You’re making a distinction between me and you,” said Rabbi Schusterman in relation to how people perform mitzvot. “I grew up in a certain environment and I’m used to certain behaviors because that’s how I was raised. Does that make me better than you or worse than you? It just makes me another person,” he said. “Your mitzvah is no worse than my mitzvah. I may do more of them but I also happen to be more aware of them.”
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody keeps kosher and observes Shabbat, but is accepting of all levels of adherence to the commandments. Although he chooses to observe the mitzvah of keeping kosher, he says it’s not a choice of right and wrong.
“The interpretation is to observe the commandment. You may find your own way of observing the commandment, where it’s meaningful so you’re not just doing it because you have to. It has to come from your heart,” said Perlman. However, there are many interpretations. “As long as we are going to the same place, and that is to find a way to observe the commandments, then it’s not my place to judge how people get there.”
Rabbi David Kudan of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody agrees. Laws regarding Kashrut are clearly outlined in the Torah, and are followed by observant Jews primarily because they are ordained by God. As a Reform Jew, however, he accepts a more liberal interpretation of keeping kosher.
“We may have other reasons we feel bound to have some ethical standards with regard to our food,” he said. “You might say you wish to adopt rules that help protect the environment, promote more equity in the distribution of limited resources on earth, or that your food be produced with ethical treatment of animal products and workers.” In these cases, he says, your interpretation may not be exactly what is written in the Torah but another set of rules that you deem ethical. “Although as Reform Jews we feel obligated to perform mitzvot, we have our own approach to decide which mitzvot of the Torah are binding on us today.”
Rabbi Perlman believes that all Jews are of equal standing, regardless of whether they have taken steps toward more moderate or more liberal Judaism. “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. I don’t care how people get there, as long as they have the faith and belief that God is one. I care that they live a life of Ma’asim Tovim, acting with good deeds, kind actions. That’s what sets us all apart.”
Doing good deeds is at the essence of many of the Torah’s commandments and the core of Judaism itself. This message was popularized by the famous Jewish scholar Rabbi Akiva, who said that loving your neighbor as yourself is the entire message of the Torah, and the rest is commentary.
“Rabbi Akiva puts an incredible amount of importance on treating your fellow neighbor as a proper person and to do it nicely and wonderfully,” said Schusterman. “And in doing that, I’m not just being a mensch [or good person], but I’m actually connecting with God.”