Michael Ross

Regents College




In Mid-June I spent a Shabbat weekend with the Oxford University Chabad Society in Wyboston, Bedfordshire.  During Shabbat dinner at the Shabbaton I got a chance to say a few words in front of the crowd.  We were all eating dinner in the dining room, comprised of Jews of different ages, affiliations, and areas of the UK and beyond.  Each of the dozen or so tables was asked to discuss and comment on a different issue in contemporary Judaism.  Our table was given the phrase Na’aseh V’nishmah (“we will do and then we will understand”), and was asked to comment on its relevance to contemporary Jewish culture.  I was elected to speak before the crowd, and I got up and said something a-bit-too-academic about post-modernism and the contemporary Jew.  What I did not say then was that the concept of Na’aseh V’nishmah has had a very personal significance to me, and especially to my experience with Oxford Chabad.


In my year at Oxford, I studied Christian theology and Western philosophy.  I spent many hours reading various texts and authors, learning about different beliefs and opinions on religion and the questions of human existence.  I read countless books in dusty libraries and wrote dozens of papers in my room at home.  This was the nature of my academic learning. 


Yet, there was something essentially different about the nature of my learning about Judaism.  This has been true over the course of my life, as it was true in Oxford.  Although I have studied books and texts – and I did do so with Rabbi Brackman at Chabad– it has not been through these texts that I have come to learn what is important to me about Judaism.  It has not been in studying texts, but in practicing Judaism that I have learned.  Not by understanding first, and then doing – but by doing, and then coming to understand.

At the Shabbaton, although many instructive things were said, it was not from what anyone said that I learned most.  Instead, it was the keeping of Shabbat with a community of fellow Jews that was most instructive.  Likewise, Shabbat with the Brackmans at Chabad was not instructive just because of Rabbi Brackman’s insightful commentary on each week’s portion – but more importantly, it was instructive because of together we kept Shabbat each week with our fellow Jews. 


The Jews I spent Shabbat with held a wide variety of beliefs, and espoused an even wider variety of opinions.  I remember arguments and disagreements of opinion that sustained whole evenings of discussion and dialogue.  Sometimes our conversations even got a bit heated.  But the opinions and beliefs that we each held and argued for were never really that important.  What was important was that we were all together practicing as Jews – keeping Shabbat together, doing mitzvoth together, saying blessing together.  It is really impossible to understand what these things can mean without doing them.  And by doing them, despite our other differences of opinion, we all came together and learned from each other as Jews.


Despite all the studying that I did in Oxford of the beliefs, opinions, and theories of different authors, it was the practice of Judaism with Chabad that left the most lasting impression.  It seems to me that Judaism is essentially about doing – keeping Shabbat, performing mitzvoth – as opposed to simply believing, or thinking.  And it was by practicing Judaism with Chabad that I learned – by going on the Shabbaton, by keeping Shabbat each Friday night, by praying on Shavuouth, etc….  And it is for this reason that I have come to begin wrapping tefillin each morning – not because I already understand what performing this mitzvah means, but because I trust that by doing, I might come to understand.