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Jewish “Fake News”

July 2, 2017 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

5 common misconceptions about Jews and Judaism.

Jews have been around for thousands of years. Judaism is older by far than Christianity and Islam, the two other major religions of the world – both of which claim descent from our patriarch Abraham. You would think enough time has passed for us not to be misunderstood or to remain victims of the kind of “fake news” which distorts our faith, misrepresents our teachings and falsifies our beliefs.

Here are five common mistakes people make which need to be corrected:

1. Jews are a race

To speak of a Jewish race is to perpetuate a myth propagated by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. In their fanatical quest to carry out a final solution, the total extermination of the entire Jewish people, the standard was “Jewish blood” going back countless generations. Even the smallest trace of Jewish ancestry was sufficient to warrant execution.

In fact, over the course of centuries and as a result of migrations around the globe, Jews developed a multitude of different physical characteristics because of their fusion with other racial blends wherever they lived. Although, unlike Christianity they never actively missionized, Jews readily accepted sincere converts into their fold. Ruth, born a Moabite who voluntarily chose to enter into the covenant, is not only a biblical hero but also – by way of blessing for her noble deed – the ancestress of King David. From David will eventually come forth the Messiah whose mission is to bring the entire world together as children of one God.

No one can change their race but people can and have, through the ages, chosen to share their lot with the Jewish people. Which means quite clearly that the Jews are not a race. They are people who share a religion whose ideal is to perfect the world and make all human kind worthy of God’s care and compassion.

2. Israeli and Jew are synonymous

Israel was always “the promised land” – in Jewish tradition the holiest place on earth. But Jews long ago learned that their faith transcends boundaries, that with Torah they could find spiritual fulfillment even when they were in exile.

Why, the rabbis asked, did God give the Ten Commandments in the desert of Sinai rather than in the holiest of all lands, Israel? So that, they explained, Jews would never be misled into thinking that the Torah is a Constitution meant only for the state of Israel or that God’s law is limited to a special place, no matter how holy and unique.

After 2000 years of separation, the Jews miraculously returned to the land promised them by the prophets. Calling the newly created state “Israel”, Jews became modern day Israelis. But in a remarkable display of universal brotherhood, Israel was created as a democracy. Citizenship is open to all. You don’t have to be Jewish to be an Israeli. There have been 77 past and present Israeli Arab members of the Knesset ever since the first Knesset elections in 1949 and one of Israel's Supreme Court judges is a Palestinian Arab.

So non-Jews can be Israelis. And Jews living outside of Israel are still Jews – as well as Israelis by way of their shared faith and heritage.

3. Jews believe in a God of law; Christians believe in a God of love

Christianity has long claimed that the difference between it and Judaism is that Christianity is a religion of love and Judaism is a religion of law. The comparison was meant to put Judaism in a less favorable light. Jews, however, accept this analysis not as criticism but rather as a compliment.

For Jews, a religion that stresses God’s love even for those who continue to sin too readily takes for granted that men and women can’t be better. It emphasizes humankind’s great faith in God but diminishes God’s faith in human kind. A God of law forces people to recognize that their blessings impose obligations, that privileges carry responsibilities and that obeying rules is the rent we pay for the gift of being allowed to live here on earth.

Jews recognize that God has two names. One of them, Adoshem, Hebrew for Lord, emphasizes God’s attribute of love. The other name, Elokim, Hebrew for God, stresses divine strictness and justice. For Judaism, the Lord our God is a God of love who forgives imperfect people even when they don’t get it 100 percent right – but at the same time he is a God of law who has enough confidence in us to believe we can live up to our responsibilities at least for a passing grade.

4. Jews believe in “an eye for an eye”

How can Jews claim to be kind and compassionate when their Torah teaches something as cruel as “an eye for an eye”? We teach our kids two wrongs don’t make a right – should we commit a barbaric act just because someone else did?

No, of course we shouldn’t, and put your mind at ease – in spite of this” fake news” the Torah doesn’t want us to either. Here is a perfect example of the need to understand the written law as interpreted by the oral law. The Talmud makes clear that the intent is to fine a person who put out another’s eye, to exact monetary retribution, not physical vengeance.

Why then does the text say “an eye for an eye”? For a simple reason: the Torah couldn’t possibly say “money for an eye” because that would suggest there is parity between them! Just imagine a very wealthy man who hates his neighbor. He looks at the Bible and sees “money for an eye.” He says to himself, “I can afford it,” and knocks out the other person’s eye.

The written law says “an eye for an eye” because as far as God is concerned, that’s what should be the law. If God based law on strict justice, when you take out somebody’s eye you ought to lose your own. But God won’t stoop to your level. The oral law teaches us how God tempers justice with mercy. Together the written and oral law manage to convey the duality of God’s response: the harsh sentence that should be carried out and the merciful judgment that is in fact the law.

5. Kosher food is food that’s blessed by a Rabbi

No, kosher food isn’t food that’s blessed by a Rabbi. That’s probably the first misconception people have. The second is that kosher means clean – which sometimes I can only wish were really so. Actually the word kosher in Hebrew means “fit” or “suitable by Jewish law.” It doesn’t have to be applied to food; it can refer to almost anything else as well. Immodest dress can be not strictly kosher and a man who steals from his employer is doing something that’s definitely not kosher. In the realm of food it’s what’s accepted a Jewish law as permissible. Hopefully it’s also clean, but what makes it kosher is that is prepared according to the dictates of the Highest Authority.

And interestingly enough, nowhere are we told that the laws of kashrut for food are based on matters of health and are meant to prevent disease and sickness. Instead, the Bible explicitly says these laws should be followed so that “you sanctify yourselves and be holy” (Lev. 11:44). We are to be concerned with what we eat not for the sake of our bodies but for the sake of our souls.

How can observing dietary laws make a person more holy? How does the way we eat affect the spirituality of our souls?

Perhaps the best answer is that the laws of kashrut impose the need for self-discipline. We all know how hard it is for people to stick to a diet. The dietary laws are even more demanding. To learn to control cravings, to say, “This I can eat and this I can’t because God said so”, is to become holy – because holiness means to learn how to conquer our own passions, so that we control them and they don’t control us.

The very first law God ever gave humankind had to do with food: “From all the trees of the garden you may surely eat, but from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it” (Genesis 2:16 – 17). God didn’t give Adam and Eve a reason. Maybe that was the very meaning of the commandment. Do it even though you don’t understand it to prove you acknowledge that God has more knowledge than you. That’s why disobeying meant they ate of the “tree of knowledge” – they felt they knew better. To refrain from eating something just because God commanded it is to demonstrate that we will accept what he says even if we don’t know the reason. And that, too, makes us holy.

These five misconceptions hardly begin to summarize the many misconceptions about Jews and Judaism. At least they represent a good start and hopefully in the future I can add some more to the list. After all, the world does acknowledge we are the people of the book – and we surely should share the truth about ourselves and our faith.

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