Jews were given a set of rules from God. Where Christians were given ten, Jews were given the same ten. But, because all animals are created equal, Jews were given an additional 613 to live by. That’s right, 613 rules that rule the world of my Orthodox Jewish friends.
Each rule is called a Mitzvah (and talking about more than one you would use the plural Mitzvot). To make it extra fun, one can fulfill one Mitzvah in more than one way.
Ready to convert to Agnosticism? Not so fast. A lot of these Mitzvot are things most Christians, Muslims and Buddhist already tend to do anyway. I am all in favor of sexual freedom, but as far as I know most people refrain from having sex with their mothers. And that is just one of the mitzvot about sex.
A whole bunch of other Mitzvot are things that come to mind when one thinks about ultra orthodox Jews. Like the side curls, or payot, that stem from the Mitzvah not to shave the corners of your head. Circumcision and not working on the seventh day are two other well known Mitzvot.
A good Jew can only pass the ultimate trial at the Heavenly Court after his death if he has done two things right. He has to have Emuna (more on this in a seperate post) and he has to follow and perform all 613 Mitzvot. Did I say two things right? Make that 614…
And here comes the tricky part: How does one perform all the Mitzvot correctly? That’s a hell of a job! A job that my Haredi friends struggle with every day.
When little three year old Nathan doesn’t want to share his Pretzels, his mother will call out to him that it is a Mitzvah to share, and so little Nathan will share. When men in my street turn their heads and eyes away from me to look at the wall, I know it is not because they are too rude to greet me. I know it is a mitzvah not to look at other women. I am well aware of the rules my friends live by.
I know they are so afraid to eat anything not-kosher, I will buy the watermelon I want to share with them only from the Jewish store. If I buy it from the Arab store they will not eat it. We take the plastic wrapper with Arabic on it from the napkins before we offer them one. And shame on me when I offered one of the kids in the park a sip of water from a bottled water company called Jericho. The mother gently but firmly pulled the water bottle away from the child. Jericho is an Arab brand.
Men should not wear women’s clothes and women should not wear men’s clothes. Shopping for clothes has never been less fun then in Jerusalem because there is so very little we can buy and wear everywhere we go. Hotpants are a waste of money, but even regular pants can only be worn by the girls when we go out of town. If I want to be nice and approachable for my friends in the park, I will have to cover neckline, knees and preferably elbows. Some days, the girls and I just don’t want to leave the house because we don’t want to change in to less offending clothes. I am fine with that. If I want to live here, if I want to be friends with people that can not go to heaven if they do not follow certain rules, I should oblige.
But then a severely disabled man who suffered from spasticity needed help to get off the bus the other day. Two Haredi women were standing right beside him. He held out his hand to them, so that they could grab it and help the man off the few steps he needed to take to get to the sidewalk. And in stead of the Mitzvah to help this man in need, they withdrew. Both women took a step back from the man. Thinking they could not touch his hand or they would burn in hell touching the body of another man that did not belong to their family and was not their husband.
In Ashdod rockets were threatening to kill it’s inhabitants. When the sirens went off, men were directed to a shelter, but women could not enter and had to go to a separate room. Sex segregation might be a great way to prevent adultery, but during a rocket attack we might want to stretch the rules a bit, maybe?
I love the idea that in order to live a good life, 613 rules will lead the way. But I can not live a life that consists of rules only, without the freedom to think and apply. My friends can. They think about what is right, but only according to these strict rules. That. I think, is worrisome.
And what worries me most these days: It is a Mitzvah, too, not to panic and retreat from battle.