Torah from the Heart

By: Mindy Rubenstein
August 23, 2023

Sixteen years ago, my husband and I–with our two toddlers–attended a beautiful Shabbat dinner with a rabbi and his family. Though I was born Jewish, I was brought up secular and had little connection to Judaism until then. At that meal I literally fell in love with Judaism, but it was not a mutual infatuation. I saw a holy, meaningful and exciting lifestyle, and wanted to jump in with both feet. My husband, however, was hesitant. Together, over the next decade and a half, along with our children, we navigated what would become an all-encompassing lifestyle.

We started somewhat slowly, from lighting Shabbat candles and eating challah and chicken soup on Friday nights, to eventually fully observing Shabbat, keeping kosher (Jewish dietary laws) in and out of the home, and adhering to family purity laws. We also had more children, in essence doubling the family size to which we were both accustomed.

In time, we acted and dressed the part of Torah-observant Jews.

King David wrote: “Your decrees are my eternal heritage; they are my heart’s delight.” Psalms 119:111

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reflects this sentiment in the Koren Sacks Shavuot Mahzor where he writes: “For in truth this always was our greatest gift: the Torah, our constitution of liberty under the sovereignty of God, our marriage contract with Heaven itself, written in letters of black fire on white fire, joining the infinity of God and the finitude of humankind in an unbreakable bond of law and love, the scroll Jews carried wherever they went, and that carried them. This is the Torah: the voice of Heaven as it is Heard on Earth, the word that lights the world.”

I felt this Heavenly bond then and still feel it today, but looking back it was not the most seamless and sensitive transition. I was at times judgmental of our extended families, for example, for not having given us “more Judaism,” and then for not embracing our newly found nirvana.

Those of us who “find” religion often go through changes, as we examine parts of our inner selves we didn’t know existed, says Rabbi Aron Moss, co-director of Nefesh Shul in Sydney, Australia, in his article “Is Judaism a Cult?” As a result, we may re-evaluate ourselves and our lives. All growth is accompanied by some upheaval and instability. But when we make sudden changes, we may leave part of ourselves behind.

This is not the Jewish way, Rabbi Moss adds. Any life changes should be done gradually and with thought, integrating with your personality rather than overcoming it.

In other words, religion should enhance and deepen your identity to make you a better you. That’s what God wants, I think. To serve Him, but not to lose yourself in the process. And since I was already married with children at the time, that meant also preserving and respecting my relationship with my husband as I embarked on the path towards Torah-observant Judaism. We needed to work together slowly and methodically while embracing the mitzvot (commandments) in an effort to retain peace within the home.

Not only was it important to maintain a peaceful relationship with my husband, I realized that it was necessary to maintain a healthy relationship with my extended family as well. When we started keeping kosher, I was very vocal at our families’ homes about it, essentially using food to separate myself from them. I have learned over the years, through my mistakes, that there are ways to keep kosher and still participate respectfully and lovingly in family get-togethers. Religious observance shouldn’t be a source of stress or contention—if it is, it’s not being done the right way.

Another lesson I learned along my journey is that becoming more observant should be done slowly and thoughtfully as Rabbi Moss wrote. Partway into our evolution, when I announced proudly that I wanted to stop driving on Shabbat, my rebbetzin (female spiritual counselor) warned me, “Don’t take the decision to keep Shabbat lightly. Once you cross that line, you don’t want to give it up because it becomes too difficult.” So we waited until the right time.

I understood her wisdom when, early on in my observant lifestyle, I went and bought a wig, the traditional way many Jewish women choose to cover their hair. It was gorgeous. But I didn’t consult my husband first, or a rabbi or rebbetzin, or make a plan for observing the command. Over the years that followed, I struggled with this mitzvah (commandment). Because it wasn’t done gradually or with thought.

I also understand the significance of Rabbi Moss’ teaching that life changes should be integrated into your personality and not overcome it. While on the path to Jewish observance, there were times that I looked at myself in the mirror and no longer saw the free-spirited, creative, earthy young woman my family once knew. Now I understand better why they may have balked at our new lifestyle. It wasn’t so much that we adopted unfamiliar Jewish rituals, but rather that I had in essence closed a door on my former self, rather than integrate her into my new life.

As someone once told me, “It’s better to be on the outside looking in than on the inside looking out.” After working so hard to be in the fold of observant Judaism, I suddenly found myself having feelings of resistance. As if these mitzvot (commandments) and this lifestyle were being forced upon me, even though I had so passionately embraced them. Perhaps because I had left behind, or ignored, parts of myself that needed tending.

This may be the reason that some baalai teshuvah (returnees to observant Judaism) veer off the path completely. It’s so important to find a mentor who truly loves Torah, and to consult with them throughout the ongoing process. And I don’t think we are all meant to jump so fully into a life-transforming version of Judaism. The key is to go slowly. And, most importantly, it should be done with love and respect for those around us.

This became more important as my kids grew older. My teens value authenticity and they recognize when their teachers (and parents) are acting more out of duty than with a deep sense of purpose and connection to God.

So I gave them–and myself–space to really get to know who they are as individuals and how their unique gifts fit into a Torah observant lifestyle.

For me, I think the key to embracing my identity as an observant Jewish woman was to create a balance, where my old self could come back again, but with an enhanced depth and direction. I realized that my creativity and talents should not be shunted away, but should be utilized within a framework of Torah to reveal the unique aspects of myself and the role God has placed before me.

As it says in Deuteronomy (6:5-7), “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.”

Rabbi Noah Wienberg explains that loving God with your soul means using your energy and talents to serve Him. Living an observant lifestyle does not require us to bury or hide the unique personalities and talents that God has gifted us, but to use them in a way that will better ourselves and others and to bring God into this world. I try to model a sense of taking to heart God’s instructions–balancing His Torah rules with personal expression–with my four children and others.

Last year I made aliyah with my family, and I see how being Jewish here in Israel is much easier in many ways. My kids go to Israeli schools near our home in the northern part of the country, and the stories from the Bible and Jewish history literally surround us as we visit places like the Sea of Galilee, the Tomb of Maimonides, Cave of Elijah the Prophet, Mount Carmel, holy Safed, and Beit She’arim National Park.

After 16 years of growing and learning–as a family and as individuals–and then traveling across an ocean to return to the Promised Land, it seems we have finally come “home” spiritually and geographically.

Sometimes, it seems, you do have to lose a bit of yourself to really find yourself again.

And it’s so worth it.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

Mindy Rubenstein

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