The Last of Deuteronomy
Take care to observe all the laws and rules that I have set before you this day. Deuteronomy 11:32
(No discussion is included below of the “observer effect” in physics, which I do not understand and, unless you have studied physics, neither do you. Really.)
The specialized vocabulary that is part of Jewish life has its analogs in other faith traditions. Except for those that developed in American English-speaking denominations (American evangelicalism, Latter Day Saints and Scientology, for example), those vocabularies as we use them in the United States are translations. And, as the Italians say, traduttore, traditore. That is, to translate is to betray. (It doesn’t work as well in English.)
I know that there are some words that have found their way into the American idiom from Hebrew and Yiddish. Those are the words that convey something in their original form that can’t be as well communicated in the necessary – schlep, chutzpah, shtick, for example, as well as a variety of epithets and the universal exclamation of distress, oy (which is Biblical, by the way). Similarly, Hebrew speakers find themselves at a loss to find equivalents to some of the native idioms that they find so useful – mah pit’om, chaval (al haz’man), tit’chadesh. I won’t even try to betray them.
Maybe the most difficult concept to translate for Jews committed to the ritual and ethical practice of Judaism is represented by the word “observe.” The most common use of the word in English is as a synonym of “watch.” It is an action conducted primarily by the eyes directed at a person or object outside of one’s self. When you observe something, you set yourself at come distance and take note of what you see, ideally without interfering with whom or what you observe.
But when a Jew says they “observe” Shabbat or “observe” the dietary requirement of kashrut, they mean anything but detached examination. The person who sits back and watches the Sabbath will never have a day off of work, and the one who simply keeps an eye on how kosher food is produced will probably go hungry. Observing Jewish traditions means getting involved in the very messiness of interfering with them in their pristine forms. That’s because, in the end, even the most compulsively stringent observers have their own spin on how they do so. And as for those not quite so stringent…well, the other meaning of the Hebrew term for “observe” makes things more complicated.
The same word translated as “observe” when it comes to ritual practice also means “guard” or “protect” when something of value is at stake. The soldier at the gate, the chaperone at the children’s overnight, even God bear the title/descriptor that is the same as observer. In this context, observe and preserve seem to be synonymous.
I have written and spoken with some frequency about the essential role of change in any living entity. It is true biologically and it is true figuratively. No living creature remains unchanged, even if the rate of change is almost imperceptible. And no object that does not change is alive – it may be abiotic (that is, without life to begin with) or it may be dead (that is, formerly alive). So, while it may seem a contradiction in terms, both senses of the word “observe” are at play when we “take care to observe all the laws and rules.” In order to keep the instruction alive, we facilitate change. In order to keep the instruction from changing, we preserve it in its abiotic ideal.
Perhaps it is a little inside baseball to suggest that this framework can explain the manifold ways Jewish life expresses itself throughout history but at no time more so than the present. Some expressions of Jewish life put more emphasis on engagement and others on preservation, but adherents of each believe they are taking care to observe.
What is true of Judaism is true of every system of belief and culture. Observance, in the practical sense, is sometimes patriotism, politics, arts or sciences. Observance, in the preservative sense, is sometimes, well, patriotism, politics, arts or sciences. Mostly, it is understood from the inside.
So, what irony there is in acknowledging that the plain meaning of the English word “observe” is virtually irrelevant in its usage as translation. I guess, as the Italians say, traduttore, traditore.