Religious vs. Observant: What's the Difference?

February 9, 2015Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

I hear a great many people say “I am not religious” when what they actually mean is, “I am not observant.” What is the difference between the two?

The way I see it, “religious” refers to beliefs and values, whereas “observant” involves ritual practices and carrying out daily mitzvotmitzvahמִצְוָהLiterally, “commandment." A sacred obligation. Jewish tradition says the Torah contains 613 mitzvot Mitzvot refer to both religious and ethical obligations. . Though many religious Jews are also observant, there are many – like me, a liberal rabbi of non-theistic persuasion, a religious naturalist by self-definition – who are not nearly as observant as, say, many Orthodox Jews. It is said that the famous Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) was known to be “a non-observant Jew” (Merriam-Webster).

The difference between religious and observant is relatively new, as traditional sources do not seem to be aware of any tension between them.

The Bible often refers to individuals who “fear God/the Eternal.” This fear is more than reverence; God was then viewed as a mysterium tremendum who could reveal awesome power and even punish people who strayed from the expected path. Thus, for example, Abraham “feared God,” y’re Elohim (Genesis 22:12); so did the midwives in the story of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 1:21). The prophet Malachi, too, speaks of those who “feared the Eternal” (yire Adonay), and in the Apocrypha, Susanna “feared the Eternal,” as well (1:2). No distinction is made between “fear God” and “fear the Eternal.” Often, the terms are used used in warning Israelites against idolatry (e.g., Exodus 20:17), but also as a means to encourage them to “walk in God’s ways” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13) – namely, to put into practice biblical teachings. Even though we do not know how “observant” biblical Jews were – and there are many indications that they did not always follow the teachings of their prophets and leaders – in the literature itself, “fear God” and "fear the Eternal” refer to the power of the Divine but also to religious beliefs, personal piety, and traditional practices.

In the late biblical period and in the early Persian times, the Hebrew term dat appears in classical texts. This word often refers to laws, customs and royal decrees. For example, in the book of Esther, the term dat often means the law of the king” (Esther 4:16; 11, 16) and is only secondarily applied to religion and religious practices. Similarly, the expression dat Moshe means both “Mosaic ritual law” as well as “Jewish faith.” (In Deuteronomy 33:2, the term dat is corrupt). Religion and observance are here closely related.

In the modern period, one who is pious as well as religiously observant is called a dati. However, there is no modern Hebrew term for someone who is religious but not observant. In Jewish life today, there are many who fall in this category and are often referred to as “cultural Jews.” It needs to be stressed that devout Orthodox Jews are not the only ones who are religious as well as observant. Many liberal Jews are also practicing Jews in line with their Reform Jewish traditions.

What am I? I am not a dati, as a Hasidic rebbe – yet, as a Reform Rabbi, I am seriously observant, in my own way, based on the critical study of tradition and my own theological outlook. Someone suggested the Hebrew term dati reformi, namely, “observant à la Reform Judaism.”

Most Jewish people I know are religious in that they hold values and beliefs, theistic or not, that are derived from the Jewish tradition and nurtured by our own culture. Our task is to encourage them to set up a discipline of religious practices that are compatible with their personal views, thus ensuring the continuity of our traditions and culture. This job belongs to dedicated parents, insightful teachers, and great role models. Are you one of them?

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