Sometimes, messages come to us from the most unexpected sources. While, Baruch HaShem, there is currently a substantial upsurge in commitment to Torah and mitzvos, and statistics demonstrate that the Orthodox community is experiencing an unprecedented resurgence, sadly, there is also a flip side to this story. Assimilation continues to eat away at our innards, sapping at our vitality and victimizing our youth. Intermarriage and alienation remain deadly scourges, infecting countless of our people.
Recently, a jarring message came to us from a news article that I picked up in The New York Times. I do not watch TV. I am not familiar with the programs that are currently in vogue, but The Times related a story about an incident that occurred on one of the more popular salacious TV shows. The program portrayed a young Gentile woman on a date with a Jewish young man. They went out for dinner, during which she brought up the subject of marriage, to which he responded that he could not marry a non-Jew. Absorbing this piece of information, the girl challenged him with a simple question: “So how come you ordered pork tenderloin?”
Without batting an eye, he answered, “I’m Conservative.”
It was only a television show, but his response appears to have ignited a great hullabaloo – so much so that it made The New York Times. A spokesman for the Conservative movement vehemently voiced his objections to the producers of the show, stating that the young man’s rationalization that he is permitted to eat pork because he is “Conservative” was totally fallacious and misleading. The producers responded that the story was based on statistics that demonstrate that the great majority of Jews who refer to themselves as “Conservative” do not adhere to the laws of kashruth.
Now, the purpose of my writing about this incident is not to castigate any one group, but rather, to point out the tragic consequences that accrue when people believe that affiliation with a certain movement endows them with the right to depart from halacha – the laws of our Torah.
Over the years, in my work in outreach, I have time and again encountered this rationale:
“I’m Conservative,” – “I’m Reform,” – “I’m Reconstructionist” – “Therefore, those mitzvos do not apply to me.”
And herein is to be found a major contributing factor to the breakdown of American Jewish life. The average person who joins one of these groups is under the impression that doing so legitimizes his rejection of certain commandments – kashruth being only one of them.
To be sure, there are many Jews who identify with the Orthodox community who are also guilty of disregarding halacha, but there is one fine difference – they recognize that they are in violation of Jewish law, and they do not try to legitimize their lack of observance. They will never claim that they have the latitude to disregard the mitzvot. Rather, they will admit to their weaknesses, keeping the door of teshuva open.
American culture espouses the philosophy that man’s goal in life mirrors the Constitution: “the right to the pursuit of happiness”. Nowhere in the Torah however, is it written that the goal and purpose of our lives is happiness. We have responsibilities and obligations, and even if these responsibilities are in conflict with our proclivities, they nevertheless remain immutable and transcend all cultural, all generational boundaries. Our commitment to Judaism is not based upon vogue or upon that which suits our immediate needs or fancy, but upon our Covenant which was sealed at Sinai – a Covenant that is eternal and non-negotiable. Once you start tampering with that Covenant, however, once you believe that you are not bound by it, and that “labeling” yourself entitles you to declare certain commandments null and void, it is only a question of time until the very structure of your Jewish life disintegrates.
The question posed by the Gentile girl on the show, “If you can eat pork tenderloin, why can’t you marry me?” should make every parent who has come to neglect the observance of mitzvot re-think his or her Jewish commitment. Our Torah and mitzvot as given to us at Sinai have enabled us to survive the centuries, but if we declare them irrelevant, our children will simply abandon all of Judaism, and tragically, that is exactly what we are witnessing today.
I remember over 30 years ago, at the inception of our Hineni movement, I was lecturing in Miami Beach, Florida, when a broken-hearted elderly bubbie approached me. Tears flowing down her cheeks, she related her tale of woe. Her grandson was planning to marry out.
“Oy, Rebbetzin,” she wept. “What did I do to deserve this? I never burdened him with anything. My daughter never asked anything of him. We asked only one thing…. ‘Don’t marry a gentile.’ And now look! Why, Rebbetzin? Why?”
It never occurred to that poor bubbie that perhaps the answer she was seeking was to be found in the very fact that neither she nor her daughter had ever demanded anything of that boy. Her grandson was never challenged, was never charged with his Jewish responsibilities; the yoke of mitzvot was never placed on his shoulders; his soul was never ignited by our commandments, and he never felt the glory and majesty of Sinai. So why shouldn’t he marry out? As the girl on the show asked, “If you can eat pork tenderloin, why can’t you marry me?”
The question hangs painfully in the air and all those who one day hope to see Jewish grandchildren must grapple with it.