A (not so) innocent abroad: The measure of a Jew

In the end, it does not come down to degrees of religiosity, but rather, how each person conducts themselves. As my grandmother, Carola, says: 'A head without a heart is dangerous.'

Haredim 521 (photo credit: buyitinisrael.com)
Haredim 521
(photo credit: buyitinisrael.com)
Several years ago I attended a Yom Kippur service at a small Orthodox synagogue in Philadelphia. During the seemingly never-ending procession of prayers recited among this tightknit group of neighborhood parishioners, a man appeared to become quite ill.
You didn’t have to be a doctor to see that he was clearly suffering from some sort of respiratory condition, and considering that he was fasting the entire day, it was likely that his symptoms were exacerbated.
Thankfully there was a physician sitting two rows in front of him. Or so I thought.
I knew the doctor in question fairly well, as he was a family friend. He is a proud Orthodox Jew, who could practically recite every prayer in the mahzor by heart, and regularly spoke of the importance of maintaining Jewish tradition.
Indeed, he is known to have mastered an uncommon amount of Jewish liturgy that few could hope to match.
He is also known to frequently criticize – even dismiss – Jews who do not adhere to his high standards of observance.
Myself included.
When I motioned to the doctor in alarm, pointing out the sick man just a few feet behind him, the doctor briefly glanced at him, then turned back in his seat as if he just saw a clip of the most boring movie ever made, shrugged at me with an expression of complete apathy, and resumed diligently reciting whatever prayer the service had reached at that point.
I looked at the sick man, then at the nonchalant doctor sitting before him, engrossed in his prayer book, and felt sickened by the juxtaposition.
This doctor was literally in the midst of begging God’s forgiveness for his sins – during the holiest day of the year – promising to live a just life full of charitable and good deeds, yet sat idle as a sick man directly behind him needed his help. If this wasn’t the time to do something righteous, when was? The hypocrisy was mind-blowing to me.
After the service concluded, I angrily asked the doctor why he hadn’t done anything to assist the sick man. In a very matter-of-fact response, he said that he hadn’t wanted to help him because it may have resulted in a potential malpractice lawsuit, and therefore was not worth the risk.
I, in return, looked at him with complete bewilderment, knowing that he had just treated the countless prayers he’d so proudly recited all day – not to mention his sacred Hippocratic Oath – like toilet paper.
Now, I can say with confidence that I had absolutely no idea what the rabbi presiding over the service was reading the entire day. However, despite my inferior knowledge of Judaica, I unequivocally knew that the suffering man needed help, and considering the holy venue we were in, it appeared to be a no-brainer that any doctor in attendance would do what he or she could to ensure the man was cared for. I certainly didn’t need to be trained in a yeshiva to understand as much.
This may have been an isolated incident, and the more cynical among us may even agree with the religious doctor in question, knowing the perils of dealing with potentially litigious individuals.
However, his conduct clearly illustrates the jarring, and all-too-common, disconnect between religious observance and practice – as well as the belief that less religious Jews are somehow inferior because of our limited observance. In short: those who talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.
I bring this up because last week, following the publication of a column I dedicated to my beloved grandmother Carola’s tragic and beautiful life – and her influence on me to make aliya, despite my secular outlook – I received dozens of lovely letters regarding the uplifting message of the piece.
But I also received one critical letter from a man, whose anonymity I will maintain, who implicitly identified himself as an Orthodox Jew (and a doctor, no less!).
He wrote the following:
Dear Mr. Eisenbud:

I was drawn into your story today and was left disappointed at the end. You make an initial point that you are not remotely religious.

Then you fill your article with Carola’s influence on you but I can’t imagine she is an atheist. So if it isn’t for her spiritual impact on you, why should Israel be important enough that you discarded the material comforts you describe? I’m writing because it seems your [sic] confusing matters of eternity with potentially infinite questions. Israel is now in [an] existential struggle whether [it] is obvious or not.

I was at the Tel Aviv flea market for the first time last week. I saw a lot of secular Israelis who are part of the prime crisis. Do they care that they are Jews or not? Maybe this may be of some assistance to you. It’s necessarily nonspecific.

Good Shabbos.

Yonatan Doe, M.D.
Dr. Doe is obviously a religious man, and I respect that. However, he makes the false assumption that because I am not religious that I am “atheist.” This is not remotely true, as I am a very proud Jew, and believe in God with all my heart. I just have my own way of reaching out to Him, or Her.
The reader also entirely overlooks the central message of my piece – and my unshakable commitment to protecting and preserving my grandmother’s, and our murdered family’s, Jewish legacy – even though I am not observant.
He also appears to forget that the Ten Commandments focus far more on heightened humanity than how we choose to observe God directly. Indeed, many religious Jews seem to write their own code of ethics by adhering to a definitively subjective version of the Shulhan Aruch (the book that codifies Jewish ritual observance).
But what really troubled me about his letter was his message to me – and those like me – which comes down to this: Unless you adhere to a traditional standard of religious observance (i.e., his level of observance) you are a second-class citizen here. Even useless.
This man’s questioning of my value as a Jew, despite my obvious commitment to Zionism, is the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s a gross generalization, and a dangerous one, at that.
Ultimately the most practical question is: What is the true measure of a man? Of a Jew? Is it the number of prayers one knows and can recite? Or how one conducts oneself in real life? In real time? Who is most worthy to fight for and represent this beautiful and important country?
A man who can recite prayers backward and forward, keeps kosher and follows Jewish law with total adherence; or someone who couldn’t read a Torah portion if his life depended on it, and actually likes cheeseburgers, but has a solid moral compass?
The answer, in my opinion, is both.
You see, we’re all part of the same family, and by myopically dismissing or mitigating the value of certain relatives who choose to live less traditionally than others, all we do is create a family feud that will result in a weakened group dynamic.
And, in this case, a weakened country.
In the end, it does not come down to degrees of religiosity, but rather, how each person conducts themselves. How they treat people.
As Carola herself used to say: “A head without a heart is a dangerous weapon.”
That said, I’d like to make a deal with Dr. Doe, and those who think like him: Don’t judge me by my religious observance, but by my deeds, and I’ll do the same for you.
Fair enough? And to answer the good doctor’s question of whether I care about being Jewish or not? Yes, sir. I care as much as you do. And I’m willing to bet that the majority of our brothers and sisters whom you so casually disregard feel the same way.
Good Shabbos to you, indeed.