A twist on the 'Who's a Jew' question

Focus less on the superficial trappings of what passes for Judaism.

UltraOrthodoxJews 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
UltraOrthodoxJews 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
You may have seen The New York Times headline ("Imprisoned, Rabbi Sues Over Space for Prayer," February 16), and perhaps, like I did, shook your head in amazement. A hassidic rabbi serving time in a federal penitentiary in New York State has sued the Bureau of Prisons for infringing upon his right to pray. He claims that because there is a toilet in his cell he is unable to pray there, and is demanding that the prison create another space within the facility where he can worship. The rabbi, Mordechai Samet, is serving a 27-year sentence for financial fraud - including soliciting money for a fake lottery, submitting false death claims to insurance companies, and defrauding banks with counterfeit checks. This raises the question of what constitutes being "observant" or "religious" or "Orthodox" - for God's sake. Over the years, world Jewry has debated the issue of "Who is a Jew?" hotly and ad nauseam. But I suggest that "Who is a religious Jew" is no less important a question, for the answer has profound implications for Jewish and Israeli society. HOW DO we define "religious?" Is it a function of the clothes we wear, the company we keep, the type of synagogue we pray in, the particular laws we observe? If a person defrauds a yeshiva or bribes a health inspector, if he is a child molester or a spousal abuser - but he covers his head, keeps kosher and davens three times a day - is he still "religious?" And if a soldier risks his life to defend Israel and the Jewish people - but does not put on tefillin every day or wait six hours between eating meat and milk - is he "irreligious?" We are a label-obsessed people. The moment we lay eyes on someone, before we get to know them at all, we are already drawing a box around them and sticking on all kinds of isolating labels: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, leftist, rightist, secular, observant or Orthodox. And not just Orthodox: We subdivide them into haredi, dati, dati-leumi, dosi or hardal. We have neatly judged, packaged and labeled a stranger before we know the first thing about him. SADLY, THERE are whole political parties that stake their existence on attracting the "religious" or "secular" voter, yet may not have a clue as to what those labels really mean. Shas, for example, claims to be a religious party, with all policies and platforms kosher-supervised by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. But when Shas official David Yifrach, director of the Histadrut Labor Federation's welfare services division, was suspended recently for alleged sexual harassment of three women in his office, party leaders avoided any expressions of the issue. And when Meretz, the great champion of secular rights, waged a campaign a few years ago to keep the Ramat Aviv mall open on Shabbat, the vast majority of the area's residents, who are not necessarily Sabbath observant, as well as the workers in the mall's establishments, rejected Meretz's efforts and insisted that they, too, were entitled to a day of rest. ISRAELI SOCIETY, infused with so much intensely Jewish culture and character, and built upon an ancient homestead that oozes spirituality, adamantly defies black-and-white characterization. And because we are so fiercely individualistic, with such diverse input into our personalities, we cannot be simplistically corralled into one corner or another. I vividly recall an incident when I first moved to Israel. The mover, whom I assumed was totally secular, asked me for a drink of water. When I brought it to him, he took the glass in one hand and placed his other hand over his bare head. He then pronounced the blessing before drinking. Seeing that I was astonished, he smiled and said, "I never put anything in my mouth unless I first bless God, who gave it." I learned early on that, certainly in this country, looks can be deceiving and the still waters of religiosity run deep. We have to give people the benefit of the doubt and learn to focus much more on the actions and emotions of those around us, and much less on the superficial, external trappings of what passes for religion. Instead of judging others too quickly, we should be more open-minded and less clothes-minded. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana. [email protected]