By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was raised a Reform Jew. During the past couple of years, I’ve become more involved in Jewish learning and am concerned about my lack of observance. For example, I know the Torah forbids eating shellfish, but I’m not ready to give up eating shrimp. I’m afraid I might be punished by God because I know I’m not supposed to eat shrimp, but still do so.
If I’m not intending, at the moment, to become more observant, is it better I don’t study so won’t be “liable” in heaven for what I know or don’t know? Or is it better for me to continue my studies even if I know I’m not ready to be more observant?
— Nicole S.
As we shall see, your question was addressed by the Al-mighty Himself!
Jeremiah the prophet says in the name of God: “ … And it shall be that when you tell all these things to this people, they will say to you, ‘Why has God spoken all this great evil against us? What is our iniquity, what is our transgression that we have transgressed before Hashem our God? Say to them: ‘It is because your forefathers have forsaken Me — the word of God — and they followed the gods of others; they worshiped them … but Me, they have forsaken; and My Torah they did not observe.’’ (Jeremiah 16:10-11). The sages note the seeming redundancy at the end of this verse; obviously if we forsook God we did not observe His Torah!
According to the Talmud, the Al-Mighty meant to say, “Halevay (I only wish) that Myself they have forsaken (by not observing the mitzvot), but they continued to study My Torah, because the illumination within it (the Torah) would eventually bring them back to Me”. The Talmud states further, based upon another verse, that the Al-Mighty told the Jews “I’m willing to pardon you for the transgression of the three cardinal sins; murder, idol worship and forbidden relations, but your forsaking the study of Torah I can not forgive”, as the study of Torah is God’s final hope for the Jews’ connection to Him, (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 1:7).
As we see, the Al-Mighty Himself has proclaimed that, no matter how far a Jew is from observance, His desire is that each and every Jew should be involved in the study of Torah. Torah study, more than the observance of any mitzvah, is the key to Jewish continuity.
Leaders of the former Soviet Union understood this well when they banned the study of Torah. A rabbi once visited communist Russia, as a “tourist.” While at the airport, the rabbi was stopped by the authorities who opened his suitcases, taking out numerous pairs of tefillin, mezuzot, tallit and the like. Also in the collection were books discussing various aspects of Torah. The officials smirked at him, and returned the religious paraphernalia. They confiscated the books, however, claiming the volumes were “enemies of the people.”
The Soviet officials recognized that Torah study would have the power to give Soviet Jews the inner strength to stand up to their ideologies, which, in turn, created “enemies of the people.”
The Soviet officials learned this lesson from the Greeks and Romans of old who first enacted decrees to forbid the Jews from study, punishable by death. The miracle of Chanukah was the celebration of the Jews’ steadfast commitment to learning, the “light within the Torah” represented by the Menorah, which overcame the darkness of those decrees.
Judaism, furthermore, does not believe that “what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.” When we have the opportunity to learn and know, we are responsible for what we could and should have known even though we chose not to know. To choose to not study lest one learns something she is not willing, at this point, to observe is not a reason to refrain from study. On the contrary, besides not knowing that item, one then becomes liable for not studying!
Now, getting back to your specific concern, you should not think you are worse off for knowing about shrimp and not refraining, (though I’m not condoning shrimp!) By virtue of the Torah study, you are no longer the same person you were before; you have taken a tremendous step ahead in your Jewish identity and connection with God. In the new space you inhabit, at least shrimp is an issue. Before you began your study, shrimp was not even a topic of concern!
You should be proud of what you have achieved. Always look out for the next small, meaningful step that you can handle. All Jews, regardless of age, background or affiliation, need to continue climbing and growing throughout their lives to become stronger Jews and stronger human beings.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.