Dear Rabbi Zahavy
Your Talmudic Advice Column
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I was at a public Jewish event where a rabbi was speaking about the future of the Jewish people. At one point in his talk he lashed out at Jews who marry non-Jews. He said that they are “finishing Hitler’s work,” which I took to mean they are destroying the Jewish people.
This criticism disturbed my friends and me, especially because I have a child who is intermarried. So do others who were present and heard this rabbi.
I was hurt and offended by this statement. I did not say anything to the rabbi. Should I have spoken up?
Offended in Oradell
Yes, as a rule, you may speak up and let people know if you feel offended by what they say. That’s how we maintain a polite and orderly society. Even if the person speaking has a claim to respect and authority because he is a rabbi, that does not give him any right to say inane things that offend others.
In this instance there is no debate about it. This rabbi’s awful public comparison of intermarried Jews to Hitler and the Holocaust is directly offensive to every Jew who married a non-Jew and all their friends and relatives.
It is wrong to equate intermarriage with the Holocaust on every level. Most particularly, it demeans the validity of the love of intermarried couples, and it debases the heartbreak and catastrophe of the Holocaust.
What then was the intent of the rabbi’s remarks? It seems he felt he had the right to shock and bully his fellow Jews with harsh words because he was thereby doing his job, that is, protecting the future of the Jewish people.
The rabbi fell seriously short of his goal because his words alienated sincere Jews, like you, who listened to them. And even within his distorted logic, his comparison was not only hurtful, it was wrong.
Sociologists long ago argued that intermarriage in theory can be a statistical net gain for the Jewish people. Consider a hypothetical case of 100 Jews, 50 men and 50 women. If they marry each other, we end up with 50 Jewish households.
But if every Jew married a non-Jew we would end up with 100 households.
All the children of the 50 intermarried Jewish women are by definition Jews, even according to strict Orthodox Jewish law.
And if only one child of an intermarried Jewish man embraces Judaism, that is a net gain. If the non-Jewish spouse converts, then even the most Orthodox rabbi would be forced to admit the benefit of intermarriage to the future of the Jewish people. And if there were no conversion, there still is the case for considering the factors of patrilineal descent that is determinative of Jewish identity for Reform Jews.
You could argue that the quality of Jewishness is lower in households where one spouse is not a Jew. But who is to say that is the case? I know of instances where children of intermarriages are strongly identified with their Jewishness.
So you could have told the rabbi that he did not do his math, that statistically intermarriage is not the continuation of Hitler’s work to exterminate the Jewish people.
You also could have noted to the rabbi that we do have some biblical cases to consider in the analysis of the dangers and benefits of intermarriage.
The biblical heroine Esther married a non-Jewish Persian king, and that led to the salvation of the Jewish people. In the book of Ruth, we find the narrative of how an upstanding Jewish man named Mahlon married a non-Jewish Moabite woman named Ruth. When he died, eventually another fine Jewish man named Boaz married Ruth, helping to carry on the family line. Perhaps Ruth converted, so this was not technically what we today call an intermarriage.
But the bottom line of that chronicle is that out of that marriage of an Israelite man to a Moabite woman came a famous great grandson, King David. We know for sure that was a good historical result for the Jewish people.
And furthermore, as Jews, we do believe that at some future date a descendant of that very same King David will come into our midst as a messiah to end the sufferings of our nation, and to usher in an age of redemption and peace for all humankind.
It seems reasonable that next time a rabbi berates you about intermarriage, you might mention to him that we Jews believe that in such notable biblical cases, intermarriage is the prerequisite for the beginning of the salvation of our people.
And lastly, you might tell the rabbi that even if all children of all intermarriages do not identify as Jews, comparing that result with the murderous acts of Hitler is baseless, tasteless, ludicrous discourse.
I was brought up in an observant Jewish home where we kept the kitchen kosher and ate only kosher foods. We had milchig utensils and fleishig utensils. And on Pesach we took out the pesachdig utensils. As I got older I found it necessary when traveling and doing business to eat at restaurants where the food was not kosher. At first I ate vegetables and fish. But then one day I realized that I did not see the point of the kosher laws anymore.
Nowadays I can’t imagine that God really cares what I eat. And I can’t see how keeping kosher is good for the Jewish people, or humankind in general.
Can you give me some positive reinforcing thoughts about the social and ethical value of our kosher laws and customs?
Eating Traif in Tenafly
It’s not obvious to me that kosher laws have identifiable global social or ethical value. Some would say that the main social consequence is that these laws discourage fraternization among Jews and non-Jews.
I spent a lot of time learning the intricacies of our Jewish food rules and pondering their meanings. To become a rabbi, I studied the tractate Hullin in the Talmud, which contains most of the materials pertaining to kosher regulations, with the famed Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
I also studied the treatises relating to milk and meat and to forbidden mixtures in Yoreh Deah in Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch code of Jewish law. I had to pass rigorous tests to get affirmed as a scholar who could teach and rule on these matters, determining what is kosher and what is not.
Subsequently, during my academic career, I spent a three-year span translating and publishing an English version of the tractate Hullin in the Babylonian Talmud, the source, as I said, of so many of the details of our food regulations. (You can find and buy a Kindle ebook version of my work on Amazon under the title “Babylonian Talmud Tractate Hullin.”)
As I recall, in all of that advanced Talmud and halachic studies, it was not the case that we considered any philosophical rationale for kashrut, any practical benefit for it, or any hygienic basis for the laws.
You asked, why should you care about kashrut? The Torah and the Talmud assure us that God does care about what we eat. So your main motivation for keeping the laws would have to be that by doing so you are following God’s commandments and will be rewarded. And by violating those laws you will sin and risk punishment, if not in a human court, then in the court of God’s judgments in the next world.
It appears from your question that those rationales don’t work for you anymore. One famous Reform Jew assured me some years ago that in growing up his family would opine in rhyme about the health benefits of not eating pork, “We Jews / do not get trichinosis / because we follow / the laws of Moses.”
But you may be asking yourself what the benefits of not cooking milk and meat together are? Or of kosher-salting raw meats to remove the blood? Or of properly slaughtering a chicken? Or of abstaining from eating lobster?
Perhaps I can appeal to your cultural and tribal identifications: We are Jews, and these are core to our laws and customs, and we ought to cherish and keep them.
And please do keep in mind that it’s surely a lot easier to eat kosher now than it was 50 years ago. There are many kosher takeout stores around us. Many supermarkets have extensive kosher sections. There are more than 600 kosher restaurants around the New York metropolitan area listed on the internet.
Of course there are 19,000 more local eateries that are not designated as kosher. You might have heard that there is even one well-regarded “pork-focused” restaurant named “Traif” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
At the end of the day, what you decide to eat is your business. I do hope that you find a motivation and keep on keeping kosher. In any case, hearty appetite, bon apétit, betayavon.
Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of numerous books about Judaism, including these ebooks on Amazon: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Talmudic Advice from Dear Rabbi” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays. And don’t forget his classic, “Babylonian Talmud Tractate Hullin.”
Dear Rabbi Zahavy offers mindful advice based on Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all of the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org