“Who is Truly Religious?
(Updated and revised from Parashiot Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parashiot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, are 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, while Kedoshim has thirteen positive and thirty-eight negative commandments.

The aspiration to live as קְדֹשִׁים , “kedoshim”–to live as a holy people,is a major objective of the Jewish religion and of Jewish life. Unfortunately, because of our people’s countless enemies and persecutors, Jews have really not had much opportunity to live עַל קִדּוּשׁ השׁםal kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of G-d’s name. Lamentably, for many millennia, a far-too-common experience of the Jewish People has been to die al kiddush Hashem, to give up one’s life in sanctification of G-d’s name. This week’s parashiot, especially parashat Kedoshim, underscore the importance of living al kiddush Hashem, in a manner that sanctifies G-d’s name.

Parashat Kedoshim opens with G-d’s directive to Moses to speak to all the people of Israel and to say to them: (Leviticus 19:2), קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם , You shall be holy for I, G-d, your L-rd, 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 מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ , a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It was a clarion call from the Al-mighty that every Jew is to serve as a role model to the world of ethical and moral living.

If we look carefully, we will discover that despite the many tragedies and hardships, 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 in ethical and moral living!

The Jewish people, through their Torah, have introduced untold numbers of revolutionary ideas to the world, ranging from loving one’s neighbor as oneself, to the revolutionary concepts of charity, caring for the poor, the infirm and the 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, somewhat of a redefinition of Jewish terminology has taken place. So, for instance, if one were to ask whether a particular individual is a “religious” or “observant” Jew or not, the general criteria that is used today to make such an assessment 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 essential importance. But, there’s something wrong, very wrong, with that definition. It’s incomplete. As important as the “big three” mitzvot are, in order to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” there must be an ethical component included in that definition.

The need for an 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 one is very careful about the food one eats, 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 regarded as a righteous Jew if one observes the Sabbath meticulously, but withholds the wages of a hired worker, or fails to pay debts in a timely manner.

This “redefinition” of what it means to be a good and righteous Jew has led the traditionally observant Jewish community to lose much of its ethical edge over the last fifty years. As traditional Judaism has gained in strength and numbers over this period of time, its leaders have become rather outspoken on many issues, both, theological and political, but have been mostly mute regarding the increasing instances of ethical lapses in the traditional community.

Surely, if any traditional Jew or group of traditional 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 their Jewish leaders. Imagine encountering five or six great rabbis eating pork in a restaurant. All hell would break lose!! But, when significant numbers of traditionalists and their leaders are accused and convicted of misusing government funds, or laundering improper charitable donations, the lack of public outcry is truly embarrassing.

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

These remarks should not be misconstrued to be a general indictment of traditional or “religious” Jews, leaving the impression that these communities are any worse than the less observant community or the non-Jewish community. I believe, and I hope that I am right, that, thank G-d, the traditional Jewish community still measures up exceptionally well when compared to others. But, these violations must not be tolerated or countenanced. They must be strongly and roundly condemned by the religious Jewish leaders, and the highest standards must be demanded and expected of all.

And, so, the message of this week’s double Torah portion is bold and clear. 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 that your speech and comportment are also sanctified.

May you be blessed.
Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, which begins Monday night, April 27th) is observed this year on the 5h of Iyar, Tuesday evening, April 28th, and all day Wednesday April 29th.