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Can One Be a Good Jew Without Being Religious?

Can One Be a Good Jew Without Being Religious?

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Many people feel that life in accordance with Torah and mitzvot is restrictive, limiting the individual in personal creativity, particularly in the area of thinking and choosing for oneself. It is hard to reconcile such commitment with the idea of personal freedom. Furthermore, is it necessary to have the shackles of religious observance to be a good Jew or, for that matter, a good person? There are thousands of Jews who are good, moral and decent human beings, yet non-observant. They engage in acts of kindness both within the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. They lead active lives and many are role models in the worlds of science, art and commerce, yet they do not keep Shabbat, lay Tefillin etc. What is wrong with being a good but non-observant Jew?

The good life

We all wish to live a good life. Most of us think that this means having the best of what life has to offer: a good and supportive family, good parents, a good spouse, good children and grandchildren. A good income and home. A good environment and community, good friends, and – most important – having a good time. A sum total of all good things equals a good life. A person starting out in life is faced with the puzzling question of how to create this good life.

And what a great puzzle it is. Taking a look around us we see that life is far from perfect and full of pitfalls. In today’s modern fast-moving world, more and more children are born into broken homes, more couples are splitting up and more people are suffering from depression and lack of self esteem. More people are discovering that material wealth does not ensure the road to happiness. More people are taking pills, drugs and tranquillisers. You have to be very lucky indeed to hit the jackpot and have all the factors in place to create the good life. In the end most of us settle for mediocrity, acknowledging that you can’t have everything in life, a somewhat sobering but pragmatic conclusion. What is, therefore, the secret of the good life?

G–d is Good

G–d, the Creator of man, who is also Creator and Master of the whole world, surely has the best qualifications that might be expected of any authority to know what is good for man and for the world in which he lives. G–d has not withheld this knowledge from us. G–d is good and it is the nature of good to be good. In His infinite kindness He has communicated to us that if a person conducts his life in a certain way he will have a healthy soul in a healthy body, and it will be good for him in this world and in the World to Come. It just makes plain common sense that in order to have a good life one should follow the directives of the Creator of man, even if there are aspects of those directives which superficially seem restrictive.

An analogy may be drawn from a car. Before one steps into a car it is highly advisable to consult the manual in order to achieve the best performance levels from the car. Anyone who ignored the instructions could damage the car and, in some cases, the driver as well.

In truth there are many things in daily life which a person accepts and follows without question, even if he be a highly gifted intellectual with a searching bent of mind. For example, a person will board a plane without having first researched aerodynamics to verify that it is safe to fly in and that it will bring him to his destination at the scheduled time.

To take an example from the area of physical health: there are drugs which are known to be useful or harmful to one’s health and a person would not go about trying to verify the utility or harmfulness of such a drug through personal experimentation. Even if a person had a very strong inclination to research and experiment, he would surely choose those areas which have not previously been researched.

This generally accepted attitude is quite understandable and logical. For, inasmuch as experts have amply researched these areas and have determined what is good and what is harmful for physical health, or have established the methods leading to further technological advancement, it would be a waste of time to repeat those experiments from the beginning. Furthermore, there is no assurance that some error may not be made leading to the wrong conclusions being drawn, possibly with disastrous effects.

What has been said above concerning physical health is also true in regard to spiritual health, and the means by which the soul can attain perfection and fulfilment. All the more so, since spiritual health is generally related to physical health, particularly insofar as a Jew is concerned.

It is quite certain that if a human being would live long enough, and would have the necessary capacities to make all sorts of experiments without distraction, interference or error, he would undoubtedly arrive at the very same conclusions which we already find in the Torah; namely, the need to observe Shabbat, Kashrut etc. The reason for this is that the Torah is the truth and the ultimate good for a person.

But G–d, in His infinite goodness, wished to spare us all the trouble, as well as the possibility of error, and has already given us the results beforehand for the benefit both of those who have the inclination and capacity to search as well as for those who do not. G–d has definitely left areas where a person can carry on his own experiments in other areas which do not interfere with the rules laid down by Him.

Stated simply, the directives of the Torah are not a set of rules that have been given to impede or restrict the freedom of man. Rather, they are the pathway to a good life.

Let us take a few examples.

A person who works seven days a week leaves no time to recharge his spiritual batteries. Even limited leisure time is often devoted to keeping the body fit at gyms, health clubs or golf courses while the soul goes sadly neglected. To most people the severe restrictions of Shabbat appear to be limiting factors. In truth, those restrictions create an atmosphere and ambience that allows – in some cases, gently forces – a person into a totally different set of circumstances that enhance personal and familial spiritual growth.

A fictional story is told of a bird during the days of creation. This particular bird was created without wings and when it looked around at other birds soaring in the heavens it implored the Creator to allow it to fly. That night, whilst the bird was asleep, G–d affixed wings to its body. When the bird awoke and saw two new appendages to its body it said to G–d, “G–d, I asked you to make me fly, not to make me heavier.” G–d replied, “little bird, just flap them and you will see that you will fly.” The restrictions often seem like extra baggage but once we utilise them, they allow us to fly and soar into new heights.

The Rabbis tell us that “there is no free man except he who engages in the study of Torah.” This simply means that the Torah frees a person from personal restraints. Superficially this seems surprising, for the Torah places many restrictions on a person. The answer is that in every generation and age there is a form of bondage; an “Egypt”. Some people are slaves to their jobs, others to the desires of their body. Some worship money, others power. Torah is the antidote that frees a person from his personal bondage. It manoeuvres a person into the enviable position of being able to maximise the goodness of this world, as well as the next.

G–d is not an ogre or ruthless dictator who insists on His subjects keeping a meaningless routine. G–d is benevolent and good and wishes to bestow good upon His creation. The greatest act of Divine benevolence was to give us a living Torah – a pathway through life which leads us to the greatest good a human may achieve both for his body and soul.

In short, if a person wants to have good relationships with his parents, spouse or children he should follow the directives of the Torah. If he wants to have a healthy body he should follow the laws of Kashrut. If he wants to create healthy children he should keep the laws of Taharat Hamishpachah (the laws of family purity). If he wants to have a healthy mind and heart he should lay Tefillin and study Torah. To create a healthy atmosphere at home he should create a home where Torah is studied and mitzvot are kept. If he wants family dialogue he should have a Friday night table upon which words of Torah are discussed. If he wishes to be protected he should have a mezuzah on his door. If he wishes for Divine benevolence he must dispense charity to the needy. These are the pathways, not only to bliss in the World to Come, but also to a meaningful and fulfilling life in this world.

In describing how a Jew must accept the commandments, the Rabbis often use the expression “acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot”, which may imply that the mitzvot are somewhat of a burden. However, the true meaning of this expression is to be understood in the sense that human nature makes it necessary to act on imperatives. For human nature and the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) are such that an individual might easily succumb to temptation. Temptation is sweet at the beginning but bitter at the end and human nature may lead an individual to disregard the bitter consequences because of the initial gratification. We see, for example, that children, and very often adults also, may be warned that over-indulgence in certain foods would be harmful to them and may even make them so ill that for a period of time they may not be able to eat anything at all, yet they nevertheless reject all restraint to gratify their immediate appetite. In a like manner G–d has given us the “yoke” of Torah and mitzvot, telling us that whether one understands them or not, or whatever the temptation may be, one must carry out G–d’s commandments unquestioningly.

The Divine bridge

There is a further point, and this is the most essential part of the concept of “yoke” of the Torah and mitzvot. It is that although the Torah and mitzvot have been given for the benefit of man, there is an infinitely greater quality with which G–d has endowed the Torah and mitzvot. This is the quality of uniting man with G–d – that is, the created with the Creator – with whom he would otherwise have nothing in common. For, by giving man a set of mitzvot to carry out in his daily life, G–d has made it possible for man thereby to attach himself to his Creator and transcend the limitations of time and space.

The Torah and mitzvot constitute the bridge which spans the abyss separating the Creator from the created, enabling the human being to rise and attach himself to G–dliness. This bridge has been designed by G–d, for only He can span that abyss. It is quite impossible for a limited being to create his own bridge to the Infinite, for whatever bridge he may build, however spiritual it may be, it will still be limited according to the parameters of the created mind. This explains why a person cannot create his own path to G–d independent of Torah and mitzvot. Torah is a revelation from Above, “And G–d came down on Mount Sinai”. It is He who reached out to us and provided the path to Him.

Of course this relationship can only be attained if the person observes the Torah and mitzvot, not because of the reward contained therein, whether for the body or the soul, but purely because it is the will and command of G–d. It is for this reason that the text of the blessing which a Jew makes before fulfilling a mitzvah does not mention the utility of the mitzvah, rather the fact that G–d has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us.

The very word “mitzvah” means both a commandment and a connection. The 613 commandments are 613 connections that the human being may form with G–d. The mitzvot span the entire spectrum of human experience and give man the opportunity to sync with the Divine in both his spiritual and mundane affairs.

In fact, the essence of Judaism is belief in a Creator who brings the entire creation into existence from nothing every single second. His purpose is to create a physical world in which a person will create a fitting abode for the Divine. This is achieved by connecting every aspect of the creation with the Creator. In short, mitzvah performance.

Even in man’s most mundane activities he must connect with G–d. Before eating he must recite a blessing, realising who is the Creator of the food. Whilst honouring parents he must realise that this is the fifth commandment and equal to honouring G–d.

The rabbis teach, “The reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah.” Some commentaries explain this in the literal sense that the reward for a mitzvah is the opportunity to perform another mitzvah. However, in the light of the above, one may explain that the reward of a mitzvah is the very connection that the person has with his Creator whilst he is doing the mitzvah.

This connection is life itself. In a Jewish context life may be defined as something eternal, whereas death is something that is interrupted. The Rabbis teach that the righteous, even in death, are alive. The pleasures of this world are momentary. They may last for a minute, an hour, a week, or even a few years but, after a while, are gone. Life – true life – is eternal. When engaging in mitzvah performance, a person is connecting with G–d, and therefore with eternity itself, and so is truly alive. That connection lasts forever and stands above time. The righteous are alive even after death because their entire focus in this world is their connection with G–d which continues even after death.

This leads us to the true definition of happiness. Ultimate happiness may not be gauged by any amount of self-gratification, even of a spiritual nature. True happiness may be defined as the knowledge that one is doing the will of G–d at any given moment. Such happiness is constant and permanent. A person may serve G–d with joy even when going through difficult moments. That attachment is, in fact, the true goodness that a person may experience, for it is an experience of G–d Himself. In fact, the greatest good that G–d could possibly give us is Himself.

To explain further: The world is a creation by G–d and, as such, can have no common denominator with its creator. This world consists of a variety of creatures which are generally classified into four “kingdoms”: minerals, vegetation, animals and mankind. Taking the highest individual of the highest group of the four, i.e. the most intelligent of all men, there can be nothing in common between him – a created and limited being – and G–d – the Infinite Creator.

However, G–d gave us the possibility of approach and communion with Him by showing us the way that a finite created being can reach beyond his inherent limitations and commune with the Infinite. Obviously, only the Creator Himself knows the ways and means that lead to Him, and only the Creator Himself knows the capacity of His creatures in using such ways and means. Herein lies one of the most essential aspects of the Torah and mitzvot. Although, to many, the Torah may be a means to gain reward and avoid punishment or just a guide to good living, being G–d given it has infinite aspects, and one of the most important is that it provides the means whereby we may reach a plane above and beyond our status as created beings. Clearly, this plane is far beyond the highest perfection which a man can obtain within his own created – and hence limited – sphere.

From this point of view it no longer appears strange that the Torah and mitzvot find expression in such simple, material aspects as in, for example, the Dietary laws. For our intellect is also created and therefore limited within the boundaries of creation beyond which it has no access. Consequently, it cannot know the ways and means that lead beyond those bounds. The Torah, on the other hand, is the bond that unites the created with the Creator, as it is written, “And you that cleave to G–d, your G–d, are all living this day.” To the Creator all created things, the most corporeal as well as the most spiritual, are equally removed. The question, “what relationship can a material object have with G–d?”, has no more validity than if it referred to the most spiritual thing in its relationship to G–d.

The beauty of Torah and mitzvot is that through simple everyday actions – well within the reach of normal individuals – every person can connect with the Divine and transform this world into an abode for G–d. The Torah is not in heaven, rather, “it is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.”

What about a compromise?

This is also the answer to those who seek a compromised Judaism – selecting which mitzvot they will or won’t keep. Approaching Torah and mitzvot on a selective basis is a contradiction in terms. If a person reserves the right to decide what to observe and what not to observe then the whole Torah ceases to be for him a Divine instrument. Surely, it is far more honest ethically to be aware of the Torah’s standards and to aim towards them, trying one’s best, than to cut down Judaism’s standards to suit convenience.

Now let us return to the original question – can a person be a good Jew without being observant? The answer is that even if a person lives what he personally considers to be a good and moral life and engages in acts of kindness etc., although he is partially fulfilled through the mitzvot he is doing (and living a good and moral life is truly desirable in the eyes of G–d), he is nonetheless denying himself the maximum and optimum goodness available and so missing out on a very precious opportunity.

The true meaning of good

One last point. In truth, without the Torah, which illuminates and gives directives to our rather complicated and rushed lives, we could possibly err as to what good means.

Self-evident moral precepts, if left to human judgement without the binding force of Divine direction and sanction, can out of self-love be distorted so as to turn vice into virtue. Interpreting the moral precepts of “Thou shalt not kill ... Thou shalt not steal” from the viewpoint of selfish gain, many a nation, as well as many an individual, have “legalised” their abhorrent ends, not to mention justifying the means to those ends.

If in a previous generation there were people who doubted the need of Divine authority for common morality and ethics in the belief that human reason is sufficient, our present generation has unfortunately, in a most devastating and tragic way, refuted this mistaken notion. For it is precisely the nation which excelled in the exact sciences, humanities and even in philosophy and ethics, that turned out to be the most depraved nation of the world, making an ideal of robbery and murder. Anyone who knows how insignificant was the minority of Germans who opposed the Hitler regime realises that the German cult was not something which was practised by a few individuals but it had embraced the vast majority of that nation, which considered itself the “super-race”.

From this blatant historic example it is obvious that moral standards cannot be determined by individuals alone, for their human partiality will colour their values. Rather, humankind should rely on a more absolute standard of goodness and morality which is set out by G–d in the values of the Torah.

One of the basic messages of the Ten Commandments is contained in their opening words, “I am the L–rd your G–d” – the profound principle of monotheism which, in itself, was a tremendously revolutionary idea in those days of idolatry, dominated by the polytheistic culture of Egypt. This is detailed in the second commandment where all forms of idolatry are strictly prohibited. At the same time, the Ten Commandments conclude with such apparently simple and obvious injunctions as “Thou shalt not steal” etc.

The profundity of monotheism, with which the Ten Commandments begin, and the simplicity of the ethics and moral laws with which they conclude, point to two important lessons:

1. The true believer in G–d is not the one who holds abstract ideas, but the one whose knowledge of G–d leads him to the proper daily conduct even in ordinary and commonplace matters, in his dealings with his neighbours and respect for their property.

2. The ethical and moral laws, even those that are so obvious as “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt not steal”, will have actual validity and be observed only if they are based on the first and second commandments; that is to say, based on Divine authority, the authority of the One and only G–d.

The Ten Commandments emphasise, and experience has fully and repeatedly borne out, that even the simplest precepts of morality and ethics must rest on the foundation of “I am G–d” and “Thou shalt have no other g–ds” and only then can their compliance be assured. Torah and mitzvot alone provide the true content of Jewish life and are at the same time the fountains of life for each and every Jew.

In summary

1. A life of Torah and mitzvot is the surest path to a good life. It is the very best thing for a human being and will bring him to the greatest fulfilment in this world.

2. The greatest good a person may experience is G–d Himself. This connection is achieved through Torah and mitzvot.

Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov is director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK.
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Andi Haifa, Israel May 9, 2017

A superb explanation for why full Jewish observance of our mitzvot This is an outstanding article. Reply

Anonymous September 7, 2016

The answer The Torah is what frees people from the "meaninglessness" of this world that we read in Ecclesiastes. Reply

Sam.e the heart of england April 25, 2016

? I killed my scrolling finger to reach the end of this post. I always thought the first rule of being Jewish is that ones duty is to survive. God, if he exists will and demands I survive and will not wet his knickers if I get it wrong,hopefully. Reply

Gary Schuster Dearborn, MI, U.S.A. March 6, 2011

This article is wonderful! It is very precise in stating that Torah is G-d's instruction for us. As a result, we would be foolish or worse not to obey Torah. It was given in love., which was also clearly shown. Thank you! It was and is a blessing and a good reminder. Thank you again. Shalom! Reply

Vicki Fox London May 6, 2009

As a gentile I found your article quite inspiring but found that some aspects are not dissimilar to the Quaker belief, e.g. that God is within us all. Reply

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