You do not have to be traditionally religious to be pious.
Piety means that you live day-to-day and physically act with a connection to Judaism. It means that you maintain vivid moods and motivations in accord with a faith in the Torah.
Piety means that you transform everyday activities, decisions, and attitudes. It means that you give them special significance. And where does that come from? It can come from the historical, mystical, and redemptive beliefs of Judaism. When you live with piety, you create and perform new practices based on your faith.
- Your motives and goals as a pious person are to enhance every day of your life.
- To bring you sanctification, qedushah.
- To bring you more awe, love, or fear of God.
- To allow you to submit to a higher power and create a sense of creatureliness.
- To guarantee you an entry to paradise in the "World to Come" (for those who believe in the afterlife or heaven).
- To bring for all in your world some form of redemption.
- And, on a most basic level, you may believe that piety also brings you some material gain.
We call piety custom or minhag when it is more limited in time and place and less authoritative. Most often this distinction goes unrecognized in your life as a pious Jew.
The ultimate yardstick of piety is the Zaddiq -- the righteous saint. He or she adheres most closely to the norms of ultimate piety. The righteous saints are those who we would call purely ethical, those who flourish as proper humans, and those who achieve true virtue.
Not many of us reach the ultimate in any part of our lives. We play golf, never expecting to become a Tiger Woods. We paint, do business, make love, for the fulfillment of each element of our lives. Yet we sometimes forsake religion because we think piety is out of our reach.
Piety is there for all of us.
Case in point: cognitive piety. Learning any new things about Judaism is an act of great piety. "The study of Torah is as important as all other acts of piety combined."
Another dimension: mind-piety. Striving for any pure thoughts. You only need a few minutes of meditation, prayer, and contemplation in your daily life as a Jew.
Third example: body-piety. A simple act of bowing a few inches. Washing for extra-hygienic purposes. Wearing proper clothing and appurtenances of pious living. Not just tzitzit (fringes), tefillin, yarmulke, or a hat. But piety can be found in any dress that is out of the ordinary for synagogue, a holiday, a wedding, a funeral.
Piety should never be confined to a few minutes in the synagogue. Some of us lead lives of profound piety without finding much meaning in blowing and hearing the shofar on the New Year, or shaking the lulav on the festival of Sukkot.
Some modern, secular, attitudes appear to deflate the value of a life defined by piety. But secularity need not negate piety why deny one modality for fulfilling a basic human need? Piety provides connections for individuals to the past and future, to heaven and earth, to family, to community and to the self. Has the rise in pure secularization been accompanied by an increase in happiness, or by a decline in economic oppression or a drop-off in the rate of psychological dysfunctions? The modern-secular person bereft of piety lives a more lonely, detached life with less passion and devotion.
Piety does not have to devalue a worshiper's relationship to the deity and render it rote and mechanical. On the contrary. The pious life can bring you the intimacy you crave. God wants constant contact with his believers. Like an obsessive love affair, intimacy needs to be renewed frequently by expected daily affirmations. Constant devotion to the divine provides you with perpetual conditioning for that elusive relationship.
Piety invigorates with energy all devotions of your life: your marriage, raising children, advancing your vocation, and the vigor of your community. Anytime is a good time to do something about enhancing the Judaism of our daily lives throughout the year. Each one of us can become more of a Zaddiq in our own terms. (Repr. from 1997, JCN and posted here first 8/9/06.)