Thoughts on the Eating of a Cheeseburger

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

This article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of The Jewish Press.

I have received quite a number of comments regarding my recent Op Ed entitled “Its Time to Bring Back the Communal Cold Shoulder” in last week’s edition of the Jewish Press. While I had hoped that my words would be clear and understandable to all, it is apparent from some of those comments that I need to clarify my position further.

It is evident to me, given the very nature of the human condition, that it is extremely difficult for us to provide “report cards” for Jews evaluating their adherence to the requirements of an observant Jewish life. For if one were to list all those requirements, all the mitzvos on such a report card, it is conceivable, at least to me, the term observant Jew, frum Jew, i.e. one who scores well on his religious report card, may take on a somewhat different meaning.

I can visualize the report card of an empathetic Jew who, with every fiber of his being, relates and ACTS upon the needs of his fellow and society as a whole, while not being a Shomer Shabbos, overall achieving a better grade than one who attends Hashkama minyan and studies Daf Yomi.

Without, for the moment, factoring in the esoteric reality of the spiritual intermingling of all Jews in the future of Klall Yisrael, certain specific human behaviors have a dynamic and profound influence upon others while other behaviors do not. Place the most moral of individuals in a society lacking clear, and fast standards of morality, such as is the growing case in the United States with the watering down of the Judeo-Christian ethic, and the odds are that individual’s moral standards will plummet. “One bad apple spoils the barrel.” How much more so when there is but one good apple in a barrel of bad ones.

Conversely, if, in an observant community, an individual falls short in his kashrus observance, it is reasonable to assert his laxity will not have a profound negative effect upon the community as a whole.

A number of years ago I was a delegate to the annual convention of the then National Jewish Community Relations Council (now United Jewish Communities) in Washington, D.C. on behalf of Chicago’s Federation. I was paired with a prominent couple from Chicago during our lobbying efforts on the Hill. As we walked the Capital building, stopping for a brief lunch, we began talking about Judaism. I was saddened when Mrs. “X” stated in an ever so matter of fact manner that she understood I didn’t consider her much of a Jew as she does not keep kosher nor attend Sabbath services.

I was taken aback as this was coming from an individual whose entire life has been dedicated to the Jewish People. She and her husband, then in their early 70s, were renown for their outstanding philanthropy. Serving on the boards and as officers of many national and indeed international Jewish organizations, having played an important role in the American Jewish effort supporting the establishment of the State of Israel, on a first name basis with several former Prime Ministers of Israel, in the forefront of defending Jewish rights at home and abroad, I considered these two warm and dear people exemplary Jews. I have no doubt their Jewish report card overall would be one to be proud of. For her, however, being religious meant eating kosher going to Schul etc. She found my response that many a so called observant Jew would fall far short of her Jewish report card hard to accept countering that at least her married daughter had taken upon herself a religious life style – keeping kosher and observing Shabbos.

We are taught that the Decalogue is divided into two categories – those mitzvos that are bein adam L’makom, between man and G‑d and those bein adam l’chavero, those between man and man. Commentators have noted that in fulfilling those between man and man we, in a manner of speaking, fulfill those between man and G‑d. For how can we truly serve G‑d if we devaluate to the point of violation His preeminent creation – man? An artist is not an artist in our eyes if we cannot discern some of his essence in the hues, brush strokes, and theme of his painting – his creation. If we do not sense and value the Creator in His creation, our fellow human being, how can we truly unite with the unknowable G‑d, the realization of Anochi Hashem, I am G‑d, embodying, according to some of our Chazal, the entirety of Torah observance? For does not the Torah define the laws of kashrus, for example, as a tool to hallow the individual, bringing that individual closer to the Creator and His purpose in the very Creation itself?

This brings me to McDonalds and a cheeseburger. Imagine for a moment my entering a McDonalds located in an observant community with another like dressed individual – black hat, long black coat, our tzitizis visible for all to see and, of course, full beards, sitting ourselves near the front window to chow down on a “Big Mac”. How long would it take for the word to spread that Rabbi Lefkowitz was seen eating treif? How long do you expect it would take for Orthodox Jews to turn their backs on me, to give me the “communal cold shoulder” demanding my removal from my pulpit?

Here lies the conundrum. As I wrote in my previous Op Ed, unlike the cheeseburger which is, for all intents and purposes, a violation of bein adam l’makom, a violation of a mitzva which is between myself and G‑d, the activities I was referencing, illegal activities, immoral activities resulting in the scaring of the lives of others, are bein adam l’chavero, violations of mitzvos that are between man and his fellow, yet they evoke little moral indignation in the frum community.

Perhaps it is my understanding of Jewish observance on a very basic level that is causing me such consternation. Given human limitations, if one in theory was to stand at “ground zero” totally devoid of any Jewish expression and address Jewish observance, given that it is humanly impossible to embrace and observe all Taryag mitzvos in a single go, where should one begin? I suggest given the above, the first step should necessarily be to inculcate the bein adam l’chavro mitzvos into one’s life expression - that is to begin for lack of a better term the life of a “boy or girl scout.” Treating others with dignity and concern, caring with devotion and steadfast dedication for our fellow human being’s needs and wants. realizing the majesty of G‑d, the Divine, in the magnificence of every human being we encounter, is an excellent way to begin ones development of a close and deep connection with G‑d, to begin to live a frum life.

When, as we have seen, otherwise respected and devout Orthodox Jews transgress the most evident of our bein adam l’chavero mitzvos, ones that are evident even to our proverbial boy or girl scout, violating the being of another human, one cannot help but wonder what shortcoming there is in the frum world that can allow for such actions to be perpetrated by learned and from their outward demeanor, scrupulously observant Jews. My suggestion – it is the unwillingness of the observant community to manifest the same reaction that same outrage, the “cold shoulder” they express with the devouring of a Big Mac by a frum Jew, when horrific acts of violation of the community and the individual are perpetrated by those who would never eat that very Big Mac.

There is something fundamentally wrong with this reality.