“Who is Truly Religious?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parashiot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, are once again double parashiot. Both of these parashiot are chock full of novel Jewish laws and insights. Acharei Mot contains two positive commandments and twenty-six negative commandments, whereas Kedoshim has thirteen positive and thirty-eight negative commandments.

For too many millennia, unfortunately, a far too common experience of the Jewish People has been to die al kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of G-d’s name. Because of our many enemies and persecutors, Jews have really not been able to live al kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of G-d’s name. This week’s parashiot, especially parashat Kedoshim, underscores the importance of living al kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of G-d’s name.

Parashat Kedoshim opens with G-d’s directive to Moshe to speak to all the people of Israel and to say to them (Leviticus 19:2): “K’doshim ti’hi’yu, ki kadosh ani Hashem El’o’kei’chem,” You shall be holy for I, G-d, your Lord, am holy. This commandment to be holy, harkens back to the essential charge that G-d gave the people at Sinai (Exodus 19:6) to be a “Mam’lechet Kohanim v’goy kadosh,” A kingdom of priests and a holy nation, so that every Jew may serve as a role model of ethical and moral living to the world.

If we look carefully at Jewish history, we will discover that Jewish history has really been one unending series of ethical and moral triumphs. In fact, Jewish education has proven to be the most effective means of educating large numbers of people over long periods of time to ethical and moral living. The Jewish people, through their Torah, have introduced an untold number of revolutionary ideas to the world, ranging from loving thy neighbor as thyself, to the revolutionary concepts of charity, caring for the poor, the infirm and widow, the concept of not causing undue pain to animals, the concept of the Sabbath–a day of rest for people and for land, the idea of honesty in judgment, and on and on.

However, over the recent past, and it’s difficult to define what the recent past is–whether it’s the past 100 years, 1,000 years or 1,500 years, there’s been somewhat of a redefinition of Jewish terminology that has taken place. So, for instance, if you were to ask whether a particular individual is a “religious” or “observant” Jew or not, the general criteria used to make that assessment today is to determine whether the person is observant of three major mitzvot: Shabbat, kashrut and the laws of family purity-–three ritual mitzvot that are, of course, of sublime importance. But there’s something wrong, very wrong, with that definition. As important as the “big three” mitzvot are, there must be an ethical component included in that definition.

The primacy of the ethical component in defining who is “religious” is clearly conveyed in parashat Kedoshim. One cannot really be considered to be an observant or religious Jew if they are very careful about the food they eat, but careless about dealing honestly with others, especially in business. One cannot really be considered a good Jew if one prays with great fervor in the morning, yet speaks evil about others with equal fervor in the afternoon. One cannot really be considered a righteous Jew if one observes the Sabbath meticulously, but withholds the wages of one’s hired worker, or fails to pay one’s debts in a timely manner.

This bifurcation of what it means to be a good and righteous Jew has led the so-called Orthodox Jewish community to lose much of it’s ethical edge over the last fifty years. As Orthodoxy has gained in strength and numbers over this period of time, Orthodox leaders have become rather outspoken on many issues, both theological and political.

Surely, if any Orthodox Jew or group of Orthodox Jews were publicly disdainful of any one of the “big three”–Shabbat, Kashrut and laws of family purity, that individual or group of individuals would be roundly and loudly condemned by Orthodox Jewish leaders. Imagine encountering five or six great rabbis eating pork in a restaurant. All hell would break lose!! But, when a group of Orthodox leaders are accused and convicted of stealing government funds, or charged with the misuse of Federal Pell grants, the lack of public outcry is rather embarrassing.

Because of the insufficient response to ethical violations in the Orthodox community, the problem has grown worse. Hardly a week or month now goes by without some new violation being featured in newspaper headlines, and so-called Orthodox Jews are frequently indicted and convicted. And if significant numbers of Jews are now being publicly charged with such crimes, imagine how many are never caught. Certainly, there is a problem of ethics in the Orthodox Jewish community, because after all, even one violation is cause for significant concern.

These remarks should not be misconstrued to be a general indictment, leaving the impression that the Orthodox community is any worse than the non-Orthodox community or the non-Jewish community. I believe, I hope that I am right, that thank G-d the Orthodox Jewish community still measures up very well when compared to others. But these violations cannot be tolerated or countenanced. They must be more strongly and more roundly condemned by Orthodox Jewish leaders.

And so, the message of this week’s double parashiot is very clear and resounding. Don’t forget to buy your strictly glatt kosher meat, but make certain that your business dealings are also glatt, smooth, flawless, meticulously honest. Remember to observe the Sabbath punctiliously, but make certain to pay your bills punctiliously, as well. Of course, conduct your intimate life in a sanctified manner, but make certain as well that your speech and comportment are also sanctified.

May you be blessed.