In plain language: Lines in the sand

Orthodox Jews must be able to say “Ad kan v’lo yoter – until here, but no further” when the situation demands.

August 16, 2012 12:42
Wedding 521

Wedding 521. (photo credit: JPOST.COM STAFF)

From the rabbi’s case file: Miriam, an observant Jew, was invited to a (non-observant) cousin’s wedding in America. Happy as she was to participate in a family simha, Miriam was concerned about the religious implications of her attendance. The wedding was scheduled to start on a Saturday evening, a full hour before Shabbat concluded. This would necessitate either staying at a hotel and walking a long distance to the wedding hall for the start of the ceremony, or waiting until Shabbat was over and then joining the function considerably late. In addition, while her cousin had promised her that there would be kosher “TV dinners” served on plastic-ware for her family, Miriam felt uncomfortable that everyone else around her would be eating non-kosher, freshly made food.

And so, after much deliberation, she decided that under the circumstances, she would regretfully decline the invitation and wait for the video to come out.

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Miriam’s family, to put it mildly, did not take this decision well.

They were shocked, even outraged. “How can you be so intolerant, so rigid, so uncompromising?” they exclaimed. “Why can’t you meet us halfway and bend a few of your umpteen rules?” And then they hit her with the coup de grace: “Don’t you remember when we visited your home for a Shabbat last year?” they said. “You asked us to pray at your synagogue, which necessitated us sitting separately, and we agreed, even though that was not the style to which we are accustomed in our home synagogue.

“And then you asked us to walk home from services, rather than drive, and so we did. And you also requested that we not use our cell phones in your house – not even for texting, for God’s sake! And you informed us that smoking was not allowed, even outside on your balcony. Did we not comply with every one of your rules, despite the fact that we would have preferred otherwise? And now you tell us that you won’t go along with our needs and requests? “Is accommodation a one-way street, with you as the almighty policewoman deciding which is the one way?!” Miriam was speechless, at a loss. Desperate for a come-back, she tried to think of something, anything, which was taboo, beyond limits, a deal-breaker for her cousins; some border which they, too, could not and would not cross. But she came up empty.

THE FACT is, on a spiritual-ritual level, there are few, if any, things that constitute an absolute “no-go” zone for many in the liberal, non-Orthodox Jewish camp. Aside perhaps from rejecting any belief in Jesus, what “truths” are held to be incontrovertible and sacred across the board? Certainly not the laws of Shabbat; many temples light candles as part of Friday night services, long after nightfall.

Certainly not kashrut; many congregations feature shrimp, even bacon at post-prayer meals and synagogue functions. Not circumcision, not fasting on Yom Kippur, not refraining from hametz on Passover.

Add to the mix intermarriages, same-sex weddings, the excision of God (and, at one time, Israel) from many prayer books along with the re-ordering of the Jewish calendar so as to schedule holidays when they are most convenient for the masses, and you start to get the picture.

A close friend in the liberal rabbinate (some of my best friends are non-Orthodox) told me that a colleague of his once stood up at a certain rabbinical convention and asked the presidium, only half in jest: “Short of having illicit relations with the sisterhood president on the bima during services, what would a rabbi have to do in order to be thrown out of our organization and have his ordination revoked?” In the Orthodox world, there are ritual red lines, rules that cannot be broken except for life-and-death considerations – and sometimes not even then. These responsibilities and restrictions define the discipline and Divine dimensions of a lifestyle that answers to a higher calling, beyond the whims and wants of mortal man. It is what gives power and potency to one’s Judaism and what transforms it from a culture, a club or a casual hobby into a serious, 24/7 pursuit of meaning in an otherwise senseless, chaotic universe.

My sainted rabbis often defined one of the primary rabbinic challenges as the search for avenues – within the halachic framework – that make life spiritually satisfying yet eminently livable in a normal, modern, cosmopolitan world. Yet at the same time, there must be a limit, a line beyond which we cannot go. Precisely defining these lines can be a tricky business, to be sure, but however one does ultimately define them, to exceed the boundaries is to step off into the void of endless, spiritually empty space. Just where the slippery slope becomes dangerous is hard to say, but once on it, the plunge is precipitous.

So, while we recognize that others may allow themselves a healthy amount of carte blanche, Orthodox Jews must be able to say “Ad kan v’lo yoter – until here, but no further” when the situation demands.

As anyone who has fathered (or mothered) a child knows all too well, there is a constant clash between parenting and permissiveness.

Giving in every time to the child’s wants and desires may provide some short-term relief, but it ultimately deprives the child of a framework that sets limits and develops a strong sense of self-control. On a spiritual level, our “Father” in Heaven makes these same demands upon His earthly children, all for our own benefit.

I often wish that our government here in Israel was, in a sense, “more Orthodox.” I wish we held certain principles to be inviolate and immutable. That when we said we would not speak with terrorists, let alone negotiate our future with them, we would not capitulate.

That when our courts sentence a bloodthirsty barbarian to six life sentences for destroying a dozen young lives, he (or she, as in the case of Ahlam Tamimi, the devilish planner of the Sbarro bombing) does not walk out as a free person after serving but a fraction of the sentence. That when we trumpet Israel as a paradigm of religious freedom, we extend that same privilege to Jews wishing to pray on the Temple Mount as well. That when we sign a “peace” treaty with our neighbors, we insist on their scrupulous compliance, doing more than just shrugging our shoulders when the terms are violated. That campaign promises become sacred vows, and pledges to care for society are more than just lip service.

It is not easy to hold fast to one’s convictions when it would be so much more convenient to humor this cousin, or please that faction. It takes a lot of will and faith to withstand the pressure. But, in the end, adhering to principles builds character and instills trust. And sticking to one’s guns helps to prevent an all-out shooting war from ever starting in the first place.

Oh, and as for our beleaguered Miriam and her search for her cousin’s red line? It all turned out OK in the end. She discovered that her cousin was a confirmed vegan, who, when invited to Miriam’s home for what turned out to be a family barbecue, suddenly began to see things from a completely different perspective.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a Ra’anana city councilman;; [email protected]

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