One Shabbat morning a few years ago I decided to skip shul and head over to a friend’s apartment for coffee. I didn’t time my visit well. Strolling along in sweatpants, I ran into one of the rabbis in my community coming home from shul with his family. I was mortified. While he could not have been any friendlier and wished me a good Shabbos, I was embarrassed to be seen in non-Shabbat-like clothing during peak Shabbat hours.
I’ve thought about that incident and plenty of others over the course of the years, trying to understand how in my 30s I can still be so concerned about what others think of my religious decisions. And I know it’s not just me. On Simchat Torah afternoon I saw someone finishing a jog, and she too told me she was rushing home worried about running into one of the rabbis. And it’s not just rabbis. We can feel embarrassed in front of other community members being caught doing something on Shabbat that they might not do or eating someplace they might not eat.
In one of the funnier instances of this, I remember being at an out-of-town aufruf, and one of the guests I am friendly with showed up groggy and disheveled, his hair looking like he literally rolled out of bed. He said his wife told him that surely no one in this crowd would be showering on Shabbat, and that it would be disrespectful for him to show up with wet, nicely groomed hair. Meanwhile, as the pews began filling up he found himself surrounded by a large number of men who had clearly showered that morning, and he spent the remainder of shul trying to flatten his vertical hairdo.
So what’s going on here? Aren’t we grown-ups? Aren’t we technically allowed to do whatever we want on Shabbat or Yom Tov regardless of what others choose to do in their own lives?
I think the answer is yes and no. I am an adult, and, together with my husband and in accordance with the sense of Jewish tradition and education we have been raised with, have decided on the particular ways in which we observe Shabbat, kashrut, taharat ha mishpacha (family purity laws) and so on. But my husband and I are also a part of a community, a Jewish school life and synagogue life that cannot help but influence our decisions. There are standards that become acceptable in every community, and somehow we all are affected by them.
Every community is different in this regard. In some communities everyone heads off to play Saturday afternoon basketball games, and in some they do not. In some communities, women feel comfortable walking around Saturday afternoon in pants or shorts and in some they do not. In some communities people shower on Shabbat and in some they do not. In some communities people ride elevators or bicycles or scooters on Shabbat and in others they do not.
The list obviously goes on, but I think the point is that as members of a community we constantly struggle to find the right balance between respecting our community’s standards of observance, while trying to be honest with ourselves about our own religious decisions. All of us are occasionally religiously “peer pressured” — persuaded to do certain things because we are worried about how it looks — but we must also make sure we are not embarrassed by our own particular form of observance, since ultimately, even in Modern Orthodox circles, people are observant in so many different ways.
I live in a community where there is a wide spectrum of observance, and while I may have been embarrassed to be seen in my sweatpants on a Shabbat morning, others may be embarrassed doing certain things on Shabbat in front of me.
I have been asked on a number of occasions if someone can have me over for a Shabbat meal even if they do this or that. Or what can they do so that I am comfortable eating in their home. These questions leave a deep impact on me. Someone is telling me openly and honestly that they have a different religious life than I do, but they would like to find a way to make me feel comfortable.
I think that this openness is vital to the growth of a community. The more honest the members of a community are with each other, the more they can learn from one another, and the more likely it is that the community as a whole can grow in sync with its members, giving them standards that resonate with them and inspire them to be better Jews.
Erica Schachter Schwartz’s column appears the first week of the month.