By Ted Roberts
“And you shall be a holy people,” says our Chumash, “And you shall spread the light of Zion,” it says a little later on. And just to make sure you don’t forget, it’s repeated several times. Therein lies a great dispute between me and my lovely wife. I say - if you believe those five books are the word of G-d, it is clear that He sets a higher standard for us than our good Christian neighbors next door. Are we not the Chosen People? If you do not believe this, then all the rest is mumbo jumbo and the Holy One may as well have given his Torah to the Philistines, the Hittites, and the Jebusites. If you do believe Torah to be divine, many human delights are denied you - restraint is the essence of goodness, the repression of the savage side of our heart. Many commandments are laid upon you that are not in the code of the Philistines, the Hittites, and the Jebusites. Or your Christian neighbor.
I explain this to my bar mitzvah students with several simple analogies: Your father (G-d forbid) steals five dollars - you steal five dollars. Which is worse? Your rabbi steals five dollars - your father illegally lifts away a fiver from a friend’s wallet - G-d forbid. Who’s more culpable?
Now to the punch line. You accept too much change from the five dollar bill you gave the drug store clerk. So does the girl next door. Simple question - simple answer. Does your guilt exceeds hers? Yes. Unfortunately for you, the bar is set higher for you. Pardon the political incorrectness, you are special. Morally speaking, I can only be wrong if you look upon that five-sectioned book as only a great doorstop.
Now, let’s take a more complex step in the waltz of morality. You are ultra Orthodox. Not a single mitzvah escapes your attention. The written Torah, who many of us consider a burst of lightning from Sinai, and the Oral Law of Sinaitic origin and divined by rabbis are your guide to the blameless life. Is your bar higher than that of your fellow synagogue member who plays golf on Saturday? Tough question. I say you’re bound by a higher law because you’ve implicitly advertised your goodness. You are sorta like the father (supposedly a role model for his children, right?). Your banner is perfection. Yes, blemished by your human condition, but the sign on your back shouts your moral goal. And any failure dims the light from Zion.
No matter - whatever observance level, I hate to see a Jewish name headlined as a criminal culprit. To my intolerant reckoning, he deserves a double punishment. Not only has he displayed his violation of the legal or moral code, but he’s breached a much more important ban. I think if I, in some fantasy land, had the power of punishment, the defendant would suffer a double punishment. My code, as applied to a Madoff, for example, is stricter than that of the non-Jew.
We make our comparative judgments looking across all levels of Judaism including those that observe the mitzvahs dealing with kashruth, prayer, Shabbos, and minute ceremonial devotion – those that are not observed widespread by the majority of Jews. Mitzvahs pertaining to G-d, not to man. Those whose origins are both divine and rabbinical. I freely admit a powerful feeling - intuitive, but not factual - that the moral behavior of these devout far exceeds those of their more careless fellow Jews. I hope I’m right. What do you think?
Maybe, just maybe, I could make a case that the observant (let’s use that word) thought that their complete fulfillment of the man to G-d mitzvahs allow a violation now and then of those rules relating to their fellow human beings. I don’t eat pork roast, therefore, thirty years of abstaining from pork roast equals one small lie to my wife about my whereabouts Friday night. Some harbor that suspicion.
Then there’s another school of thought - the opposite of the mitzvot school - that says, “Judaism is a matter of behavior – behavior to one’s fellow man”. Not ceremony, not prayer, not faith. Only behavior. Deeds. This, too, is Judaism. And you shall walk in my holy ways, says Torah. This category of Judaism has great advantages since “holy ways” may be interpreted in 633 different variations. Does “holy ways” mean I can play tennis on Shabbos? Enjoy a shrimp cocktail? Eat shellfish?
What kind of Jew are you?
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from the October/November 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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