Judaism, like all faiths, are practiced in many ways by its followers. Even within a denomination, individuals have their own experiences and ways of living Jewishly. Two guests on my Living Our Beliefs podcast – Maxine Shapiro and Susan Fischer Weis – are good examples. There are differences and similarities in their approaches to their Jewish observance worth exploring.
While both Maxine and Susan identify as Jews and observe aspects of the religion, their practice and orientation differ. Maxine attends Yom Kippur services (the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish year) and fasts on that day as is customary, but is not a member of a synagogue, nor does she attend weekly Shabbat services. Instead, she prioritizes her Zen Buddhism as a regular practice and attends retreats with that community. Maxine loves ritual, whether it is fasting on Yom Kippur or those in Zen Buddhism, appreciating the way ritual keeps her practice ‘clean.’
In contrast, for Susan, the structure and values of Judaism have shaped her life. Married to a rabbi, and a Jewish professional herself, immersion in the public life of their Jewish community has been a source of purpose and identity for decades. She noted that being a Jewish professional has been “probably the most important aspect of my life for the last 33 years. My dearest friends I've met through the synagogue.” Her intention with her practice is to improve her life and be a better person.
I don't call it being religious because, you know, that connotates living the letter of the law. I think I'm more observant. I do observe many of the commandments: Shabbat and keeping kosher. But I need to do what's meaningful to me and what makes my life better and what makes me a better person for other people.
Being Present & Engaged
While being fully engaged is important to them both, the type of engagement differs. Maxine feels a strong connection to both Judaism and Zen Buddhism. The fundamental element is being present, noting: “I think it's important wherever I go, to show up. I'm ‘gonna be present. If I'm not ‘gonna be present, I'm not ‘gonna do it.”
Susan, on the other hand, is singularly focused on Jewish observance and has been all her life. Making Judaica, teaching, and leading a public life in the Jewish community are the framework. She spoke of a moving experience of connection with a prayer when she was going through a difficult period as a young adult. One night at services, something she’d read hundreds of times stood out: “There was something different about it. It just, like overwhelmed me. And at that point, nothing bothered me. ... I don't even remember what I read, but it just sort of blew my mind and changed everything for me.”
Maxine often feels uplifted in church services. She relishes singing together and being immersed in the community, unperturbed by the focus on Jesus Christ.
One of my dearest friends is a minister at a church and I always go there for Christmas Eve. Oh my God, I just love it. There is something about when you are with people and you go deep. That's why I'm saying that connection. It is the soul. It is there. It just comes naturally. It's right there. You're in it.
Susan related a surprising experience when she and her husband attended a service at the Baptist church with whom their synagogue had a partnership. She explained that “the experience of going to this Baptist church was something that I had never experienced before. The amount of faith in that room is amazing.” While she is happy in her Jewish life, she noted feeling jealous of them, saying “sometimes [I] wish that I had that unquestioning faith. I do admire it immensely.”
Faith and her relationship with God is a tricky question for Susan. On the one hand, she is a rationalist. On the other hand, when she’s praying in that small quiet space, she knows God is with her. Upon reflection, she added: “I suppose I'm a person of faith, but I don't believe that my prayers to God will necessarily be answered.” She adheres to one of the hallmarks of Judaism – that actions are more important than faith. For her, living a Jewish lifestyle – obeying the commandments of observing Shabbat, keeping kosher and doing mitzvot (good deeds) – is the key element.
Both women are committed to their paths and derive much from them. Whether it’s Maxine’s mix of various traditions, or Susan’s clarity of identity and deep roots, their lives are enriched. There is no singular ‘right’ way. The mystical and magical is present in each path.
Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli