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Why ‘Can’t’ Is no Longer a Four-Letter Word

A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, my older sister invited me to join her family and our mother in New Jersey for the holiday. “Is it a three day Yom Tov?” I asked, referring to when a holiday is followed immediately by Shabbat. “I don’t think I can handle that,” I said. My sister, though she feels the same way, would observe regardless of holiday fatigue. She couldn’t entertain a different possibility.

But for me, “can’t” is no longer a four-letter word. Sometimes Orthodox Jews appear to be only what they can’t do. They can’t eat pork and they can’t go to the movies on the Sabbath.

As a Jewish woman, there seemed to be even more Thou Shalt Nots than there were for my male counterparts. The guys were ordered to actually do things — whether it was to lead services or study Torah — while the girls were constantly warned away from things, like immodest dress and participation in communal life. If only I had lived in the Temple times then I at least could’ve brought a sacrifice to at the altar after giving birth. That would’ve been one for the “can” column.

While in day school I learned that there are actually a lot of things I could do, 248 positive commandments to be exact, I was always more focused on the restrictions. Perhaps it’s my pessimistic nature or maybe it’s because there are significantly more Thou Shall Nots, 365 according to most rabbinic tallies, than can-dos.

Failing to perform a commandment is not that big a deal. But you do something you’re prohibited from doing, you get punished. Murder resulted in stoning. But even lesser crimes were brutally punished. The Mekoshesh Etzim, the one who gathered wood on Shabbos, was killed for it. It’s not hard to understand why can’t became a significant term in my daily vocabulary.

“I can’t eat at the mall food court,” I explained to a friend when we were shopping. “I can’t go to that party – it’s on Shabbos.” Or, “I can’t do a back flip on the balance beam.” After such frequent use in daily religious life, the word had wormed its way into other situations. It’s also the way Orthodox Jews regard rabbinic prohibitions, as though they were physical impossibilities, as many would consider a back flip on a narrow plank.

Some will note that “can’t” within Orthodoxy isn’t absolute. My teachers stressed that the laws of Shabbat could be violated in an emergency. But it is hardly a liberal stance when matters of life and death are practically equated with watching television on Saturdays. So I regarded doing things that even the most moral Gentile wouldn’t give a second thought to, like eating certain foods and wearing certain items of clothing with trepidation akin to the type I would feel if asked to hold a gun to the temple of another person.

And I reacted as though witnessing an execution when I saw family members violate the Sabbath. Once in the midst of a heat wave, our air conditioner failed to respond to the Shabbos clock. To my horror, my mother turned it on manually. It was not an emergency. We could all have endured a few hours of humidity.

“Oh, shut up,” she said as she flipped the switch. I considered staying outside for the rest of afternoon instead of benefiting from my mother’s forbidden “work,” but as the air cooled so did my temper. I made my mother promise she would never do it again. Little did I know I would later be the one to make a habit of such actions.

When I flipped my first Saturday light switch I was way past my teens, and no one witnessed the initial transgression. I wanted to discover how I would feel, if after years of saying “can’t,” I in fact could.

At first violating Shabbos felt surreal. I was hyperconscious of every action. I am swiping my Metrocard… on Shabbos. I am eating a restaurant brunch… on Shabbos.

But I didn’t feel guilty. By the time I started to lapse in earnest, I no longer believed in the credibility of the lawmakers and by extension, the rules themselves.

I had been of a legalistic mindset and thought that the rabbis adjudicated fairly. But as I learned more about the halachic process and my feminist impulses grew stronger, I started to see in rabbinic decisions not the hand of God, but the agenda of men intent on keeping power and responsibility away from the second sex. Once belief in them as fair and honest arbiters disappeared, so did my willpower to observe.

I have many friends who feel the same way about egalitarianism yet observe more than I do. But for someone like me, for whom observance had always felt like a burden, figuring out what was behind the wizard’s curtain was the death knell.

Which brings me to Rosh Hashanah. Though I love and respect my family and will go home on occasion for a Shabbat during which I follow the laws, I knew I couldn’t make it through three full days without cracking.

Because “can’t” has lost it’s magic. And for me, it is no longer a four-letter word.

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