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Monday, April 26, 2010


Chilul Hashem

What is Chilul Hashem?

I think the phrase is bandied about too often and used as a cudgel. How many times have we been lectured before a class trip, "You'd better behave, or else it'll be a Chilul Hashem!" Or, "Don't behave that way, you're causing a Chilul Hashem!" Or, "That guy [insert publicly shamed Jew here] is such a Chilul Hashem!"

I don't think the average person sees a kid with a yarmulke acting out and thinks, "If this is how God's chosen people behave, He must not be too powerful/important/awe-inspiring."

So what's it about? I think, ultimately, it's about making yiddishkeit and frumkeit look bad. Saying "Don't be a PR nightmare" is more apt than saying "Don't make a Chilul Hashem."

We want the system to stay stable and we want the boat to sail steadily, so we'd prefer if nobody made yiddishkeit 'look bad.' And nowadays, with all the lousy publicity different Jews have been getting, yiddishkeit does, in fact, look pretty bad.

And I'm not going to combat that perspective. Because the brand of yiddishkeit that's getting so much negative publicity deserves the negative publicity. I'm not going to apologize for it. I'd like to see the perpetrators fix it.

What's bringing this to mind now? Well, two recent incidents. Here's the first:

As some of you may know, but many others not, my wife and I welcomed twin boys into the world a few weeks ago. They were premature, so they spent several weeks in the NICU. While there, one of the nurses asked my wife, and then me, about metzitza b'peh. "Why do you people do that?"

Now, all the red flags are up, right? "You people!" But she wasn't asking to attack; she was genuinely curious, because she's been at the bedside of several babies, caring for them after an infection introduced by this rite, and nursing them through 3-week courses of IV antibiotics. So she wasn't asking as a hater; she was asking as the person who has to clean up the mess when something goes wrong.

I explained to her that normative Judaism figured out metzitza b'peh was a problem 120 years ago and took steps to ameliorate the danger by using some instrument that prevented actual fluid exchange. She was happy to hear this. To her mind, all Orthodox Jews engaged in this ritual, either ignorant or well aware of the dangers, and not caring. That's not the kind of yiddishkeit I'd like to be a part of, even though it's the exact kind of yiddishkeit that many others espouse as the 'only' true way. I hope I helped change her opinion, at least. Lord knows I'm not going to change the opinions of the motz'tzim.

The second incident happened just this Friday. I was outside the local kosher supermarket, chatting with a friend, when a chasidishe gentleman walked up and declared, loudly, "Give me your names. I'm going to Israel for lag b'omer, and I'll put your names into a kvitel in Meron."

First off, he interrupted our conversation rudely. Second, he wasn't asking out of the goodness of his heart. He wanted money. I said, "Thanks for the offer, but no. Have a safe trip."

He persisted. "I need money. Give me money." (I'm not making this up.)

I said, "I don't have any money to give you." (And I wasn't kidding. I had $17 in my wallet, and the medications I bought at the pharmacy for my newborn twins cost $16.99. I'm not rolling in dough.)

He said, "Then you need me to daven for you at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai! I have teachers to pay today! Listen to what I say! I have to pay teachers today!" My friend, at this point, returned to his car. The chasidishe man noticed that his plea rhymed, so he began singing it loudly. (Again, not making this up.)

So apparently, this gentleman is some kind of school administrator? And he needed to make payroll that day, so he was begging in front of a supermarket. Does that make sense?

So either he's lying, or he's stupid, or both?

Again - this is not the yiddishkeit I want to have any part of.

And you'll tell me, No, obviously, that's not representative of yiddishkeit! Don't confuse Jews with Judaism! Don't generalize so much!

The problem is, this guy *is* the standard of yiddishkeit where I live. And every line in the sand or outpost of 'normalcy' is fading fast. I don't want to be the last centrist standing. (Whatever the he11 that means.) But I will be if I have to. I think I owe that much, at least, to these new additions.

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