Jan 1, 2009

Rabbi Reuven Hammer: "Defining a Religious Jew"

Defining A Religious Jew
Reuven Hammer

I assume that I am not the only one who cringes when reading about a religiously-identified Jew who is revealed to have committed a crime by misusing funds in some illegal financial scheme. This happened recently when I read of the case of a prominent individual who was closely connected to an outstanding Jewish religious institution in New York and who handled – or mishandled – funds for many Jewish philanthropic institutions. Unfortunately this was not the first time such a thing has happened. Several years ago another man connected with a different, but equally prestigious Jewish institution, was similarly prosecuted and convicted of financial misdoings. I have the same feeling whenever those identified as "religious" are apprehended in Israel as well, which has happened all too often. It always amazes me to see on the television news members of criminal gangs in Israel parading in the courts wearing kippot.

Similarly I am appalled when Jewish terrorists are caught harming Arabs. Of course I am outraged when Arabs or other non-Jews commit terrible acts against Jews, but the difference is that when Jews do any of these things in addition to everything else there is the element of hillul ha-shem, "the desecration of God's name,"i.e. bringing disgrace upon God, the Torah and Judaism. Hillul ha-shem, and its opposite- kiddush ha-shem, apply both in regard to non-Jews and to Jews. Certainly those who live in the Diaspora are especially concerned when Jews there are justly depicted in a bad light. These stories of crooked financial dealings only give anti-Semites an excuse for their prejudices. All the stereotypes of the greedy Jew, long immortalized in Shylock and Fagin, are brought to life, confirming the worst thoughts about Jews. The fact that there are non-Jews guilty of these same crimes matters not. When a Christian does these things no one says, "Well what can you expect from a Christian!"

It should be noted, however, that when a priest commits a sexual crime it does reflect similarly on the Catholic Church. In all of these cases there is a question of hypocrisy – someone who purports to represent the standards of his religious belief and then acts immorally. Such a person causes that religion to be suspect, even despised, in the eyes of others. Alternatively when a religiously identified person acts in a highly ethical way it causes his or her religion to be praised. That is an act of Kiddush ha-shem. The classic tale in rabbinic times is the story of well known Tanna, Shimon ben Shetah, whose students purchased an ass for him from an Arab. When he found that there was a precious pearl on the animal he insisted that the pearl be returned to the Arab. His students protested that the law did not require that but he replied, "

I purchase an ass, I did not purchase a pearl. Do you think I am a barbarian?! I would prefer to hear the Arab say, 'Blessed be the God of the Jews' than to have all the riches of the world" and thus it was (Deuteronomy Rabba Ekev 3:3). But these concepts are not limited to the effect upon non-Jews. They apply to Jews as well. I am even more concerned with what Jews will say than with what non-Jews will say. As a religious Jew I do not want to give non-observant Jews a reason to despise the teachings of Judaism. I do not want them to say – "Look – he wears a kippa and then he goes and does that! So much for religious Jews!" Of course they do not realize that wearing a kippa or even a streimel and kappote, or even observing kashrut and Shabbat does not mean that one is "religious." You can be moral but not religious but you cannot be religious and not moral. That is an oxymoron. We see this time and time again in Biblical writings. For example Psalm 24, recited on Sundays and as part of the Torah service on days other than Shabbat poses the question of who is worthy of coming into the Temple in Jerusalem and answers that it is one "who has clean hands and a pure heart," not a word about so-called rituals.

Similarly Isaiah in the reading used as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur says very clearly that the fast God desires is not "lying in sackcloth and ashes" (58:5) but "to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him… (58:6-7). One could go on and on with citations from the Bible and from the Sages. We have to change the definition of a religious person. None of these criminals are religious. They do not deserve that name. Unfortunately most people do not know that. About all we can do, then, is to try to live in such a way as to give Judaism a good name so that others will not cringe.