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If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

I have been talking a lot about the underlying outlook and philosophical changes that comes with moving toward an orthodox Jewish lifestyle, but actually "walking the talk" comes with its own challenges.  Moreover, there is a wide chasm between the path of a Jew who is moving toward more mitzvah observance and that of a (potential) convert.  A Jew who grew up in a non-religious home has plenty of good and real excuses for current his lack of observance.  Moving toward a more observant lifestyle should be executed with measured steps and is best done with rabbinic guidance.  Each new step is itself an accomplishment to be celebrated; there is no reason to move too quickly.  In fact, it is better to move slowly and steadily than to take on too much and back slide.

A goy who wants to convert, on the other hand, cannot take small steps.  It is all or nothing; if the aspiring convert "slips back", nothing is really lost since he had no obligation in the first place.  Of course the rabbi would have liked for me to convert because I am living with a Jewish woman and Jewish children, but there are a real issues with allowing a goy to convert if he is anything less that 100% committed..  First, a goy who eats a ham and cheese sandwich on Pesach or even Yom Kippur hasn't done anything wrong.  Once he is Jewish, however, those same actions are among the worst crimes he could commit against his own soul.  There is also a concern for the greater Jewish community.  Our Rabbis (yes... now that I am Jewish, they are my spiritual ancestors also) tell us that converts are very difficult on the Jewish people.  Rashi explains that since he did not grow up in a Jewish household he is likely to make mistakes and therefore other Jews will learn bad behavior from him.

[Aside: Yes; I know Jews who grew up in non-religious homes can also lead other Jews to make mistakes, but they are our family and need our help.  It is one thing to accept a wayward son back to your home and quite another to take a kid off the streets and bring him into your home.  I also know there are other explanations of that statement from our Rabbis.  The other explanations simply give more dimensions of the statement, they don't negate or even argue with Rashi.]

That means I (and my poor family) had to take very big steps.  Don't try this at home.

The first big three steps, as I mentioned before, were Shabbos, kashrus, and mikveh.  Kashrus was not so bad.  We told the rabbi that we'd like our house kosher enough that anyone would feel comfortable eating there.  He came over and explained about kashering the stove, counter tops, pots and pans, utensils, etc.  We also had to start only buying foods with a reliable hechsher; no more reading labels, no more non-kosher cheese and wine. Oh... and not eating out at restaurants.  We had been keeping kosher (conservative style) for some time, that that meant we could eat at nearly ay restaurant and simply order fish or vegetarian.  My vegetarian grandmother had more trouble eating out than we did because she wouldn't eat something that had been cooked on the same grill with meat.  Now, however, we couldn't eat out except at a kosher restaurant.  Dallas in those days had no kosher restaurants.  So we more or less "sucked it up" and accepted having these restrictions.  Not great, but not so bad.

Mikveh was a wee bit more sensitive.  My wife actually knew about this one from a Shabbaton that Chabad had conducted for her reform temple.  For whatever reason, the rebbitzin decided it would be great to tell these non-religious 12 year old girls about the beauty of taharas hamishpacha.  I have no clue what she was thinking, but they (my wife among them) were aghast.  My wife looked at the rabbi and said, "There will be times I can't hug my husband, right?"  "Well, yes."  "Then you may as well tell me to cut off my arm."  We Allens don't mince words.  The rabbi's wife (and other frum women) told my wife, "It will make that part of your relationship better."  Her reply to that was simply, "That part is just fine, thank you.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it!".  Honestly, I think the only really good argument, and the one that (eventually) carried the day was, "Its a mitzvah.  We don't understand it; it is one of those things we just have to do."  This was a major issue for months and months.  And months and months...

Shabbos was sort of midway between those.  We had been observing Shabbbos the way many people who observe the Conservative Jewish Religion.  We only drove to and from synagogue, we didn't go to work, and we lit candles and made kiddush.  What; there's more?  So we found out there is not driving at all, not using the telephone, not changing lights, not watching TV, not, not, not.  This did not make for a  happy household.  Plenty of grumbling (and worse),  but we did keep Shabbos; week after week of not, not, not.  After about three months, though, something truly amazing happened... we started looking forward to Shabbos!  It was not overnight (more precisely, overweek), but it was palpable.  We went from doing Shabbos because it was a Jewish thing to do, even though it is kind of boring at a bit of a pain, to... "Is it Shabbos yet??".  It was an amazing case of not realizing that things actually were broken and really needed fixing.  Had we not been forced, I don't know if we ever would have made that transition.

To be absolutely honest, I don't know if my relationship with my wife is better because of taharas hamishpacha.  I believe it is,  and I see lots of evidence that marriage is simply falling apart in the non-Orthodox world; but is that could be due to a lot of other factors (break down of the family, internet, general moral decay, etc).  I don't know that my life is better because of keeping strictly kosher.  It has, surprisingly, saved money on groceries.  The selection of ready made, frozen food is small and what is available is very expensive; so we buy mostly ingredients.  Even though the kosher ingredients are more expensive than the non-kosher counterparts, they are still cheaper by far than buying the non-kosher ready made.  As a bonus, our diet is lower in salt and fat; and much tastier!  So again, I can't say that keeping kosher has definitely improved my life; it certainly has not hurt and has been a contributing factor to a healthier lifestyle.

One thing I can I say with total confidence and conviction: Shabbos observance -- real, Orthodox, 100% Shabbos observance -- has absolutely improved my quality of life and the quality of life each each member of my family far beyond any possible expectation.  Every week we verbally express our longing for Shabbos; sometimes as early as Saturday night after havdala!  One of the 13 principles by which HaShem expects us to learn His Torah is that when the Torah teaches something about one item in a group, that concept is meant to be applied to the entire group.  Shabbos, kashrus, mikveh, and all the other mitzvos of the Torah were, so to speak, thrust upon me and my family; that's the group.  There is not a single one of us who can now imagine how anybody lives without Shabbos; that is what we have been taught about one item in the group.  I therefore must conclude that when all is said and done, all of the other mitzvos that we have had "thrust upon us" are just as vital and equally responsible for the amazing quality of life I and my entire family have merited and continue to merit to enjoy.

Sometimes even something that looks "ain't broke" really does need fixing, and we just need a little push.  For those of you who appreciate "inside" jokes, this is an example of "HaOseh doche lo sa'aseh"; hameivin yavin.

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