Every now and again Jewish skeptics of various stripes respond with some surprise when I tell them that I am observant of Jewish rituals, traditions and the like. Sure, they can understand wearing a yarmulkah for social reasons, playing along while in public and eating Thursday night chulent, but observance in private for its own sake seems like a bewildering concept. So I'd like to go over here my reasons for observance in no particular order.
First off there's the basic essential of Jewish identity. Of course many Jews are not observant and especially not of all the minutiae of Halacha and yet still consider their self-identification as Jews to be very strong, but I find that if I'm not cognizant of the likes of Shabbos and our annual pageant of holidays then I'm missing a big part of the Jewish experience. I'm set apart from core Jewry if I don't know where the local synagogue is or what time candles are supposed to be lit. I'd feel out of sync and adrift if I'm not fasting on Tisha B'av or attending a seder for Pesach or even keeping kosher in inconvenient places. There's nothing immoral about eating meat during the nine days, but you're breaking with a shared Jewish experience if you do so. To be Jewish is to DO Jewish and identity absent these core activities may be fragile.
And this leads into the related reason of demographics. I care about the Jewish people and our fate as a group - but demographically we are suffering deeply from the likes of assimilation and intermarriage. And who are most likely to marry out or otherwise be lost from Jewry? These are the people who are least observant. Reform Jews have an astounding intermarriage rate and low retention over generations. If Reform Judaism was the only brand of Judaism available today I would have grave doubts about the survival of Jews as an identifiable group for even just a few generations down the line. Observance is correlated with significant knowledge of Jewish texts and general heritage and is correlated with intramarriage and strong Jewish identities over generations. Commitment to an observant life is a vote of confidence in the livelihood of the Jewish people.
Another important reason is that doing frank religious acts is a way of bringing the sacred into everyday life. Modern man is overly concerned about what he can get out of an activity. Shaking a bush and a lemon seems like a silly (and costly) thing to do without any benefit to anyone - and materially that's true. But what it does, through our history of investing in the act a sense of the divine, it brings the divine into what is otherwise a very secular existence. Now, as is well known by most who read my blog (I think), my conceptions of God are rather different from the popular views and even from what much of tradition suggests, but nevertheless, raising our minds to the transcendent of existence by using Jewish rituals as vehicles is something I consider a worthwhile effort.
This is also related to another criticism I've heard from a friend of mind who stated that he didn't particularly believe in God because once it was understood that God wasn't a doorway for on high reward or punishment and that intercessionary prayer is ineffective then he didn't really care about the metaphysics of the matter as it doesn't really effect him either way. The philosophical abstractions I tend to conceive of don't interest him, even while he may recognize them as plausible. This is a fair criticism if you are seeking religiosity as a means to an end in the way modern man approaches virtually everything - What's in it for me? But if the goal is simply truth-seeking then it is simply that life choices follow convictions. The point is not to choose convictions for the mere sake of making your life easier. So it is from my conviction of basic philosophical positions that observant life follows.
Now, here's a bunch of potluck ideas that are not full justifications on their own but do string through my mind: There's the sense of continuity and history with thousands year old practices. Pride in being a Jew and in being a Jew and a man in the street and at home. A sense of irony that Jews should give up their cultural and religious vocation at a unique time in history when Jews can choose whether to be Jewish or not. A sense of duty to past generations that have suffered and sacrificed on behalf of being Jewish and doing Jewish. Ethical improvement that can be accomplished through correctly applying various traditional experiences and measures. And of course for various acts there is the simple fact that I enjoy performing them.
So is it still so surprising why I remain Orthoprax?