I was born and raised in the largest shtetl in Pennsylvania known as northeast Philadelphia. The neighborhood was lined with a whole host of synagogues whose members were similar theologically and were mainly comprised of Conservative, traditional Jews, and Holocaust survivors.
When it came to the practice of the religion there were not many observant Jews, but at first there were few totally unaffiliated Jews either. There was also very little diversity in the belief and practice amongst these Jewish residents of the northeast.
Over the years, the composition of northeast Philadelphia Jewry began to change. There was a change in the level of observance, in the level of Jewish identity and in their practices and observances as the Jews in the middle began to disappear. The new Jews on the left were unaffiliated with any denomination or movement; they were assimilated and had a very limited knowledge about Judaism. Many of them skipped becoming a bar or bat mitzva and other important lifestyle Jewish events. Few held seders in their homes or observed Yom Kippur, Yizkor or even Chanuka (except for gifts). There appeared many Jewish families where one sibling would observe Christmas while another embraced Chabad or another Jewish Orthodox Baal Teshuvah movement.
Jews on the right who were ultra-Orthodox began building a wall between themselves and the rest of the Jewish population unless it was for Orthodox outreach programs. In many Orthodox synagogues, worshippers were banned from membership and from all honors if they drove to shul on Shabbat or were not fully frum. G-d forbid, if you were a Jewish male who went around the neighborhood and did not constantly wear a yarmulke or if one was a non-Orthodox woman who preferred to wear a yarmulke when attending shul.
Jews could no longer pray or socialize together even when they were part of the same household. They were akin to two distinct ethnic groups that were living in the same community but in two very different worlds. Unfortunately, as time passed both groups of Jewish people began to disappear as the Great Northeast’s many synagogues were converted to churches, and all the Jewish shops evolved into Korean and Indian restaurants of Castor Avenue.
This week’s Torah portion, Naso, cautions us against the pursuit of Jewish lifestyles that are of opposite extremes. When it comes to the choice of a religious lifestyle, either extreme path can lead to sin and/or the abandonment of Jewish practice.
This week’s Torah portion discusses two polar Jewish opposites. It first discusses the sota or wayward wife who follows an extremely liberal path to sexuality, passion and pleasure. Her lifestyle gave her husband a good reason to suspect her of adultery. The Torah provides for us a miraculous process to prove that she was faithful and as a result, their marital relationship would be restored.
On the other extreme, the Torah portion discusses what occurs when a man or woman choose the beliefs of the extreme right and its far-reaching religious restrictions and prohibitions, and begin to abstain from participating in that which is permitted. The Nazarite voluntary refrains from some of life’s simple pleasures such as consuming wine. These restrictions make them believe that they will be protected from the same enticement that doomed the wayward wife. At the end of the Nazarite period the Nazarite is required to bring to the temple a sin offering because of this self-imposed deprivation from the permitted pleasures of life.
Judaism is not a religion of abstinence and deprivation but a religion of life; a religion of restriction is not what Judaism teaches. In Deuteronomy, G-d informs us that in the future the Jewish people will be punished because they did not serve Hashem amid gladness and joy of heart when their material resources and good things were abundant.
Let us go back to the Judaism of our bubbas and zaidas who practiced their Judaism in a religious and traditional manner. Despite their Torah commitment, they never became fanatics or zealous, they learned how to properly divide their time between life and shul. Our bubbas and zaidas, whether they lived in the shtetles of Eastern Europe or western Pennsylvania, were relatively tolerant, open minded and accepting all. Let us return to the tolerant traditional Judaism of the past.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)