Fabulously Observant: Myths of Judaism

Jewish law calls for sexual attitudes that are modest - not prudish.

David Benkoff 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Benkoff 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Too many Jews unfortunately know little about Judaism and Jewish history. Worse, some of what they do know about their own people is inaccurate. Below are four examples of the myths about Judaism that are widely held: • Kissing kippot. From time to time I see ba'alei teshuva (returnees to observance) and non-Orthodox Jews kissing a skullcap that has fallen to the ground. While covering men's heads is a lovely custom, the kippa has no inherent holiness. In fact, it can be stomped on by one's foot, thrown in the garbage or burned without violating any Jewish law. Further, it's not so clear that Jews are required to kiss any object in Judaism - including a holy book that has fallen, or even a mezuza. Some authorities (including the Vilna Gaon and the Orthodox Union Web site ou.org) go so far as to discourage men from the common custom of kissing their tzitzit on the word "tzitzit" in the Shema because it's a hefsek - an interruption of the prayer. • Herzl's conversion to Zionism. Many Jews "know" that Theodor Herzl become a Zionist in 1895 as a reaction to the anti-Semitism connected to the Dreyfus Affair in France, which he covered as a journalist. But according to an article by my Jewish history mentor, Dr. Aron Rodrigue, who just finished a term as chairman of the history department at Stanford, "Herzl created the myth of 'conversion' to Zionism in 1898-99 after the full explosion of the affair and that his gradual path to Zionism was paved by his complex reaction to the Jewish predicament in an increasingly anti-Semitic Vienna of the 1880s and 1890s." One important piece of evidence is that Herzl didn't mention Dreyfus's trial or degradation in the diary in which he recounted how he came to the idea of the Jewish state. So the famous story appears to tell us more about Herzl's process of identity formation than it does about the Dreyfus Affair. • The hole in the sheet. Many non-Orthodox and even some Orthodox Jews believe that very observant Jews procreate using a hole in a sheet. This is not true. It is not uncommon in history for outsider groups (blacks, Orthodox Jews, gays) to be hypersexualized or undersexualized by the majority as a mechanism of stigmatizing the "other." In this case, Orthodox Jews are considered to beso meticulous about observance and so obsessive about male-female separation that they cannot have normal sex lives. But Jewish law calls for sexual attitudes and behaviors that are modest - not prudish. • Bread in the water at tashlich. Many Jews - including many Orthodox ones - observe the tashlich ritual on Rosh Hashana by throwing bread into a body of water and saying a prayer. The ritual is like a symbolic "going to water," related to God's kingship. It is quite an old ritual, performed by both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Some people think the custom of putting bread in the water is related to the idea of feeding fish - similar to the fish heads Jews traditionally taste the night of the holiday. Even that explanation is problematic, since there is a halachic question as to whether one may feed animals on a Jewish holiday. Even if the bread does not violate Jewish law, no authority within Judaism considers the bread to be essential to tashlich - but nonetheless Jews continue every September to throw bread into the water. DavidBenkof@aol.com