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Right to Be Jewish on Your Own Terms

Last month I wrote a post about my decision (actually, a decision made by both Ryan and me) to return pork and other forms of treyf (unpermitted foods) to our diets. Though most Reform Jews don’t follow kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, anyway, and though we’d never gone fully kosher, those weren’t our reasons for making the change. We realized kashrut was starting to distance us from other important people in our lives, and came to the conclusion that a practice that built a wall between us and other people did not make us feel particularly closer to God.

A few days ago,  a commenter from Belgium, Bart-Jehoeda, asked this question (read the whole comment here):

“…do you think it is appropriate to eat pork while wearing a kippah? The yarmulke is a very visible form for Jews to exclude themselves from non-Jews. Our rabbi considers it as bringing shame to the Jewish people if you violate a mitzvah while wearing a kippah. I can only agree with him.”

The great thing about Judaism is that, besides that fact that every Jew has at least one opinion about everything, no single Jew–or single Jewish movement–gets to define what constitutes a “good” Jew, or “good” Jewish behavior. I respect Bart-Jehoeda’s take on things. I told him I’d respond in a blog post–so here’s my take on things…

Bart-Jehoeda, just comparing the reasons for my decision to eat pork again with your comment, it’s obvious we’re approaching the idea differently. I reject the idea that God wants Jews to wall themselves off from non-Jews. I also reject the idea that I am responsible for the opinions or feelings of other people. I believe have a right to live my Jewish life as I see fit, no matter what other people, Jewish or not, think about me or my Jewishness. I don’t believe anyone has a right to expect anyone else to abide by their personal comfort zone just to make them feel better.

We do have something in common, though. Both of our rabbis would probably prefer that I not wear a kippah and eat treyf in public. My rabbi’s practice is to remove his kippah (if he’s wearing one outside of synagogue, which is rare) if he’s eating something or doing something non-halachic (i.e. against Jewish law.) He feels wearing a kippah at those moments might signal to Jews of more traditional backgrounds that what he’s doing–or eating–is kosher, and lead them into situations that might challenge their own, more stringent, religious beliefs.

I think thinking like that just adds strength to the incredibly wrong but common assumption that traditional forms of Judaism are somehow better, more authentic, or more “correct” than liberal forms of Judasim. As a Reform Jew, I could not care less about leading, for example, an Orthodox Jew astray. Because we are all responsible for our own actions, and because I see no reason why I should lead my life in accordance with a Jewish movement of which I am not a part.

Those are my main reasons for disagreeing, but I have two more that I don’t want to leave out. First, I hold to the Jewish school of thought that believes following a mitzvah (a commandment) has worth in and of itself that cannot be canceled, and that it is better to follow some mitzvot than none at all. Observance grows and changes, and since half of the commandments cannot be performed in the (2,000-year-long) absence of the Second Temple, no one is capable of being perfectly observant, anyway. So I see nothing wrong with eating pork and wearing a kippah. In fact, since it’s my minhag (practice) to wear my kippah at all times, to my mind removing it would remove evidence of a Jew in the world, and that’s a chillul Hashem (a shame on the name of God) for which I don’t want to be responsible.

I don’t know your brand of Judaism, Bart-Jehoeda, but it’s worth noting that I adopted the beliefs about following mitzvot I shared above from the teachings/writings of Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, and that my practice of wearing a full-time kippah is highly unusual in Reform Judaism. So just because someone is a liberal Jew doesn’t mean they don’t find worth–sometimes great worth–in traditional practices and teachings.

Second, and finally, and not to kick the legs out of this whole discussion, but there’s one important thing that’s been left out so far. Wearing a kippah is not a mitzvah. There’s simply no commandment concerning Jewish head covering. It’s a longstanding traditional practice that in Orthodox Judaism has achieved the force of common law (for men, at least.) But when you get right down to it, you neither fulfill a commandment by wearing a kippah nor break a commandment by not wearing one. So in terms of observance, when wearing a kippah while eating pork, it’s likely the only important thing to God is the pork (if it’s important to God at all), not the kippah.

I think God cares that I go through the world as an unhidden Jew. But I don’t think God cares that I had a ham and cheese sandwich at my desk for lunch today while wearing a kippah. Does that make sense?

Categories: JEWISH OBSERVANCE

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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Contact: mikedoyleblogger@gmail.com

10 replies

  1. I have read some of your stuff, and coming from a Reform Movement (now Orthodox) background, with a mother a stanch Remormist, your views and theologies and philosophies are way off the boundaries of any Judaic movement. I support your right to practice Judaism as you please, but what you right about is dangerous and these types of things lead to more fractioning of Klal Yisrael and the bastardization and possible demise of the beauty of tradition, religion and ethics of Judaism.

    1. I agree with you in part. Klal Yisrael is headed for a major fracture due to key differences in practice between Orthodox (and especially Ultra-Orthodox) denominational Judaism and the various streams of liberal denominational Judaism. However, I believe the onus–and responsibility–is on Orthodox Jews to come to terms with the fact that theirs is not the only valid Judaism. The only people who think Orthodox Judaism is the only valid Judaism are Orthodox Jews. I think that speaks for itself.

  2. I think that you misunstand what I am saying. I couldn’t care less if you eat ham. I doubt anyone else cares either. My issus lies elsewhere but I think we’ll only disagree there too.

  3. Good post. I really enjoyed what you had to say and agree with you about making choices, living authentically Jewish, each in our own way, no shame, no judgement.

  4. I too had the same question but wasn’t sure if I should ask. I have to disagree with you when you say you are not responsible for other people’s feelings or opinions. Whether you like it or not, when you wear your kippah outside your home you represent me. Do I want someone to represent me by eating a big slab of pork in public with their kippah? Not really. I once had my kippah on after services when I decided to stop in a store and look for something I wanted. I realized I was wearing it and took it off because it was a Jewish Holiday. Would the people in the store know? Probably not but I know I represent the Jewish people so I removed it.

    You are probably correct when you say God doesn’t care if you had a ham sandwich while wearing your kippat but your people might. Being a Jew isn’t just about a relationship with God. That’s important of course but it’s also about your relationship with the Jewish people.

    I was also wondering how this fits in with your defintion of being observant or leaning towards traditional observance? I’m interested in this topic so you can comment here if you like or on the forum (there is a thread over there about this topic).

    I did not say these things to offend but since you put yourself out there for the world I assume you are prepared for feedback of all sorts 🙂

    1. Ok, here goes 🙂

      My answer has to be that in my stream of Judaism, which informs my Jewish values, there’s nothing wrong with eating treyf if I choose to do so. If my eating treyf upsets the values of someone who follows a different stream of Judaism, that’s not my issue. I’m not responsible for their values and not beholden to their stream of Judaism. Just because another Jews thinks their level of observance is the appropriate one does not make it so. Furthermore, there’s nothing inherent about Jews relationships with each other that says one Jew gets to tell another Jew how to be a Jew.

      In the same vein, in my stream of Judaism, being devoutly traditional in one aspect of observance and rejecting another area of observance is seen as a normal part of the healthy struggle of a Jewish life. Regarding this, at its most radical in Reform Judaism, there’s no cause for shame or judgment. I can (and do) daven in the morning with Tefillin, and in good conscience still eat a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. In fact, I did both of those things today.

      Finally, I have to say strongly that I don’t believe I represent you when I wear my kippah, any more than you represent every woman on the planet or a black person represents every black person on the planet, etc. I represent me. If anyone else feels uncomfortable that a Jew–or anyone else on the planet–might publicly exhibit a complex nature where everything doesn’t necessarily seem to add up to expectations (and I’m not aiming this comment at you), then congratulations to them. They’ve just figured out that God made us imperfect. My Jewish imperfections are just fine with me.

      1. It is a complex discussion and I read it twice. I only wish to add that I feel it is important to respect other person’s beliefs. If lunching with a vegetarian friend, I frequently will order a vegetarian meal also. It’s probably healthier and I don’t have to worry about their sensibilities when watching a carnivore.

        Mike and I share a Rabbi who likes to say that the easiest way to keep kosher is to eat vegetarian. If I am lunching with a Conservative Jew who does not eat treyf, I believe that it is a sign of respect for their sensitivities to have a fruit plate rather than a B-L-T sandwich. On the other hand if my companion is having pulled pork, I might have a cobb salad. Our family loves Maggiano’s chopped salad and we order the bacon on the side. This gives an option to people’s preferences. I would give the same respect to a Hindu who does not eat meat. Respect is for all.

  5. Thanks a lot, Mike, for your elaborate answer. I am a reconstructionist Jew (one of the few outside the USA) but, just like you, I feel a strong connection to orthodox practice/beliefs/writings.
    Anyway: a lot of food (pun intended 🙂 for thought…

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