Do you remember the old TV show, To Tell the Truth? The show had three contestants all claiming to be Mr. X. Celebrity guests then had to figure which of the candidates were lying, and which was the real Mr. X. I have only a vague recollection of the show being aired and the title didn’t even pique my interest. As a naïve, impressionable boy living in an Orthodox Jewish enclave, I assumed everyone told the truth. And since everyone told the truth, my teachers and Rabbis were almost divine incarnations. It was inconceivable to me that a falsehood would ever emanate from their lips. Ok
My youthful innocence has all but disappeared, and cynicism and skepticism have filled the void. I am now unwilling to sit idly by and permit questionable statements or religious inconsistencies to have free reign in my mind. I no longer have faith in the infallibility of the fallible, or in the fidelity of those who spew venom on whomever they deem infidels. I am not only referring to extreme examples, such as the insane radicalism of Nigerian Islamists who kidnapped over 200 innocent girls threatening to sell them into prostitution and slavery. How they can profess to be peace loving and religious is incomprehensible; yet such incongruity in religion is wide spread.
Instead of casting aspersion on others, I want to explore our own faith and teachings. The Torah portion of Behar focuses on laws that were never taught in Hebrew school. One law states “V’lo tonu ish et amito” – And you shall not distress your friend. One can derive from this law that it is prohibited to give advice that is beneficial to the advisor and not advisee. Unfortunately this seems to be the pervasive attitude amongst today’s religious leaders. Kashrut agencies profiting millions of dollars by certifying products that need no certification, are but one example. The advice given to the ‘pious’ masses are financially beneficial to the organizations while causing major hardship on the consumer. I challenge the leadership to change their focus and demand compassion for those hurting due to higher prices. Instead of coercing them to adhere to a rigidity of Jewish law that is unnecessary, offer alternatives that would allow the consumer multiple options. I agree that a high standard in Jewish law is of paramount importance but it should be slanted towards enhancing the life of the individual and not the profit of the organizations. The Torah constantly rebukes those who abandon the needs of the elderly, widow or orphan. Unfortunately they are often the most challenged by trying to maintain a kosher home in an ever costly environment. If kosher meat is kosher why is only ‘glatt’ meat sold in kosher stores? If all water is kosher, why is water with a kosher label permitted? Women have been the kosher supervisors of the Jewish home for thousands of years, why is the Israeli rabbinate opposed to this basic tenet? I am all for transparency in Washington, but I expect nothing less from our rabbinic courts and Beit Din.
The Talmud in Bava Metzia 58b enumerates various components of the law of Lo Tonu – the prohibition against distressing another person.
One may not bother a salesman by asking the price of an item if there is no intention of purchasing the item in that store.
One may not say to a Baal Teshuvah – a person who has repented and shown remorse, that his integrity is questionable due to a prior lifestyle.
One may not say to a convert to remember where they came from and what their ancestors did.
One may not tell a person suffering an afflication that their actions (sins) caused God’s wrath to descend upon them.
One may not speak in a denigrating manner to your spouse. Yes, we are all equal in the eyes of God.
Obviously these are just a brief selection of laws. However these laws are no less a part of Judaism as Kashrut and Shabbat. Yet many of these ‘truths’ have been relegated to a secondary importance, often being disregarded and trampled upon by those who claim to represent our God. As horrified as we must be when the Muslim acts in divergence with their faith it is no less our responsibility to stand with conviction against those claim to be representatives of Judaism and act in defiance of the values they aim to uphold.
Rabbi Jack Engel