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
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.
also known to frequently criticize – even dismiss – Jews who do not adhere to
his high standards of observance.
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
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
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
countless prayers he’d so proudly recited all day – not to mention his
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
the entire day. However, despite my inferior knowledge of Judaica, I
unequivocally knew that the suffering man needed help, and considering
venue we were in, it appeared to be a no-brainer that any doctor in
would do what he or she could to ensure the man was cared for. I
didn’t need to be trained in a yeshiva to understand as much.
have been an isolated incident, and the more cynical among us may even
with the religious doctor in question, knowing the perils of dealing
potentially litigious individuals.
However, his conduct clearly
illustrates the jarring, and all-too-common, disconnect between
observance and practice
– as well as the belief that less religious Jews
somehow inferior because of our limited observance. In short: those who
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
Carola’s tragic and beautiful life – and her influence on me to make
despite my secular outlook – I received dozens of lovely letters
uplifting message of the piece.
But I also received one critical letter
from a man, whose anonymity I will maintain, who implicitly identified
as an Orthodox Jew (and a doctor, no less!).
He wrote the following: Dear
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.
you fill your article with Carola’s influence on you but I can’t imagine
an atheist. So if it isn’t for her spiritual impact on you, why should
important enough that you discarded the material comforts you describe?
writing because it seems your [sic] confusing matters of eternity with
potentially infinite questions. Israel is now in [an] existential
whether [it] is obvious or not.
I was at the Tel Aviv flea market for
first time last week. I saw a lot of secular Israelis who are part of
crisis. Do they care that they are Jews or not? Maybe this may be of
assistance to you. It’s necessarily nonspecific.
Yonatan Doe, M.D.
Dr. Doe is obviously a religious man,
and I respect that. However, he makes the false assumption that because I
religious that I am “atheist.” This is not remotely true, as I am a very
Jew, and believe in God with all my heart. I just have my own way of
out to Him, or Her.
The reader also entirely overlooks the central
message of my piece – and my unshakable commitment to protecting and
my grandmother’s, and our murdered family’s, Jewish legacy – even though
He also appears to forget that the Ten Commandments focus
far more on heightened humanity than how we choose to observe God
Indeed, many religious Jews seem to write their own code of ethics by
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
Unless you adhere to a traditional standard of religious observance
level of observance) you are a second-class citizen here. Even
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
bathwater. It’s a gross generalization, and a dangerous one, at
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
and represent this beautiful and important country?
A man who can recite
backward and forward, keeps kosher and follows Jewish law with total
or someone who couldn’t read a Torah portion if his life depended on it,
actually likes cheeseburgers, but has a solid moral compass?
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
live less traditionally than others, all we do is create a family feud
result in a weakened group dynamic.
And, in this case, a weakened
In the end, it does not come down to degrees of religiosity, but
rather, how each person conducts themselves. How they treat
Carola herself used to say: “A head without a heart is a dangerous
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
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 you do. And I’m willing to bet that the majority of our brothers and
whom you so casually disregard feel the same way.
Good Shabbos to you,