I was asked a number of very intellegent question based on my previous post, and rather than put a long comment, I have decided to impose the answer and the viewing public. My apologies to those who dont want to read it, feel free to skip.
Up until 10 years ago or so, I practiced my form of MO, which basically was keep kosher, shabbat/chagim, learn a little here and there, go to shul on shabbat and chagim, with little thought about what my religion asked of me. Basically I was on autopilot, with the autopilot being a combination of what practices I grew up with, had seen around me, and the prevailing practice of the community around me. Gradually, I came to the realization that this may not be enough. That there was an entire shulchan aruch(code of Jewish law) full of laws and practices, some of which I performed, some of which I didnt. It occured to me that while the practices handed down to me by my parents certainly were important, that body of knowledge and deed may not be the entirety of what God expected of me as an observant Jew. This did not mean that I had to immediately adopt every specific law and practice that I came across, but it did mean that I had to examine what I did, look at the sources as best as possible, and try to figure out exactly what God expected of me, and to try, as best as I could, to do it.
Take the example of showering on Shabbat(I do not intend to make this a halacha shiur, and please dont take my word for any of this, ask a competent authority). It seems clear to me that washing on Shabbat is allowed(many used to go to a mikva on Shabbat morning, some still do), but there may be a problem with hot water and certainly with wringing out the towel or hair. So, there is probably a way to stay within the bounds of halacha and still shower, but the way I was doing it didn't, by any stretch of orthodox imagination. Showering on Shabbat was never viewed in my family as a problem. However, I could not find any viable halachic way to make it a valid practice for me. So I stopped. It didn't change my life, and no one in shul has complained about excessive body odour.
I believe in God. The God of the Bible, Tanach, on down. I believe some of the concepts of Oral Torah(Mishna/Gemara) were given at Sinai, and a lot of it was put together by the Rabbis. I accept that the Rabbis who wrote the Gemara may have made mistakes, especially in science and in society. However, I feel bound by what has been handed down over the generations and accepted as practice. As a caveat, if something has become accepted but was based on wrong information or beliefs, it doesn't neccessarily have binding authority and has to be examined carefully. In other words, rabbinic decisions(including the gemara, to some extent) have to be seen in their context, historical, social, and psychological.
What does this mean for present day practice and what I do? Lets take some examples:
Its clear to me from the sources that we are required to make a bracha before and after eating. Its not neccesarily a big deal, but it is a requirement. I sometimes forget, and if I do, and then realize it, I resolve to try to remember. No one external makes me feel bad. I feel bad because in a very small way, I haven't done what God asked me to do. The guilt doesn't ruin my day, I figure God understands. But it would have been better if I had done it, thats all.
But this examination doesn't end with minutae of practice. It also holds for broad concepts and attitudes. I dont think that my Judaism ends with practices. Unfortunately, many MO have the idea that Judaism can be Jewish practice, and secular values and culture. Concepts such as moderation of luxury, charity, education, modesty are tremendously important, and I find that they sometimes get glossed over by those of us who engage society fully. I dont want my kids watching Shakira shake her belly button, even though I think that TV can be useful and we certainly have a few in my house. I dont want my kids thinking that a 20,000 square foot home is neccessary for living. I try to live in moderation, no matter what resources are available, and if more is available, then that is more for tzeddakka. To answer the question about plunging neck lines, my guess is that the wearer of that article of clothing did not ask him/herself, "is this really what God thinks is appropriate?", and simply is following popular culture, with no thought as to what Judaism has to say about it.
I am not claiming that we all should walk around constantly thinking, "does God want me to turn here? take the elevetor to the 3rd floor?" But our thoughts and actions should be informed(always wanted to use the word that way, this is the first time) by a sense that we are God's creatures, and are here to obey His word. The exact contours of the Word is different for most of us, but we at least should try to have an acknowledgment or a thought of Him as we go through our day. That is what I am trying to achieve. It is what I think He wants.