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Cold Shoulders And Cheeseburgers


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Having received a number of comments regarding my Jan. 1 op-ed article “Its Time to Bring Back the Communal Cold Shoulder,” it’s apparent that I need to clarify my position.

I’ve often thought it would be exceedingly difficult to give out report cards for Jews that would accurately evaluate their adherence to the requirements of an observant Jewish life. For if one were to list all the requirements – all the mitzvos – on such a report card, the term “observant Jew” would take on a meaning somewhat different from what one might expect.

I can actually visualize a Jew who with every fiber of his being relates to, and acts upon, the needs of his fellow Jews and society as a whole but who is not shomer Shabbos achieving a better grade than one who attends hashkama minyan and studies Daf Yomi.

A number of years ago I was a delegate to the annual convention of the then-National Jewish Community Relations Council (now United Jewish Communities) in Washington on behalf of Chicago’s Federation. I was paired with a prominent couple from Chicago during our lobbying efforts on the Hill. As we walked around the Capitol building, stopping for a brief lunch, we began talking about Judaism. I was saddened when Mrs. X stated in an ever so matter-of-fact manner that she understood I didn’t consider her much of a Jew as she did not keep kosher or attend Sabbath services.

I was taken aback, as this was coming from an individual whose entire life had been dedicated to the Jewish people. She and her husband, then in their early 70s, were renowned for their outstanding philanthropy. They’d served on the boards and as officers of many national and indeed international Jewish organizations, played an important role in the American Jewish effort supporting the establishment of Israel, enjoyed a first-name relationship with several prime ministers of Israel, and fought on the front lines defending Jewish rights at home and abroad.

I considered those two warm and dear people exemplary Jews. I have no doubt their overall Jewish report card would be one in which they could take a great deal of pride.

For this woman, however, being religious only meant eating kosher, going to shul, etc. She found it hard to accept my response that many a so-called observant Jew would fall far short of her Jewish report card. She told me that at least her married daughter had taken upon herself a religious lifestyle, keeping kosher and observing Shabbos.

We are taught that the Decalogue is divided into two categories – commandments between man and God (ben adam laMakom) and between man and man (ben adam l’chavero). Commentators have noted that in fulfilling the commandments between man and man we fulfill, in a manner of speaking, those between man and God. For how can we truly serve God if we devaluate to the point of violation His preeminent creation – man?

Unfortunately, many of us in the frum community have for some time now devaluated the importance of the commandments between man and man.

To better appreciate that statement, imagine for a moment that I and another person enter a McDonald’s located in or nearby an observant community – both of us with full beards and wearing black hats, long black coats, and tzitzis out for all to see – and that we seat ourselves near the front window to chow down on a Big Mac.

How long would it take for word to spread that Rabbi Lefkowitz was seen eating treif? How long do you expect it would take for Orthodox Jews to turn their backs on me, to give me the “communal cold shoulder” and demand my removal from the pulpit?

And there lies the conundrum. The activities to which I was referring in my Jan. 1 op-ed are illegal and immoral deeds that hurt others (violations of the commandments between man and man), as opposed to, say, consuming a cheeseburger (for all intents and purposes a violation of a commandment between man and God).

Now it becomes clearer, no? Violations of commandments between man and man seem to evoke little moral indignation in the frum community – certainly not nearly as much indignation as would the report of an Orthodox Jew eating a cheeseburger.

Orthodox Jews all too often transgress the most basic of the ben adam l’chavero mitzvos, leading one to wonder what shortcoming exists in the frum world that allows for such behavior to be so routinely perpetrated – and so casually explained away or dismissed by others.

Why are we so quick to express outrage and give the cold shoulder to a frum Jew for devouring a cheeseburger while we react with such relative equanimity to horrific violations of communal and societal standards by those who would never dream of eating a Big Mac?

There is something fundamentally wrong with this picture.

About the Author: Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz is the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he has led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom and served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.


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