Judah Kerbel

Kiddush Hashem and Jewish American Heritage Month

In one of the famous stories depicting the interactions between Hillel and a potential convert (Shabbat 31a), the latter makes a condition that he will only convert if he can learn the entire Torah on one foot. While Shammai justifiably dismisses this as an absurd request, Hillel gets creative and says “That which would be despicable to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary, now go and learn.” Hillel’s response is obviously based on the verse we read in last week’s parasha, v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha (Vayikra 19:18).

But if I were to offer another verse that expresses one of the most important principles of the Torah, it would be one from this week’s parasha, Emor. “V’lo techalelu et sheim kodshi, v’nikdashti b’toch B’nei Yisrael, ani Hashem mekadischem.” “You must not desecrate My holy name, rather I should be sanctified among the Children of Israel; I am Hashem who sanctifies you” (Vayikra 22:32). The verse informs us that on the one hand, we may not perform any actions that would cause God’s name and the Torah to be desecrated and disparaged; on the other hand, we should perform actions that actively make God and the Torah beloved and respected by others.

Keeping the mitzvot in the Torah inherently is in itself a sanctification of God’s name, while publicly violating a mitzvah is a desecration of God’s name. But as is commonly known, it goes beyond that. The actions of observant Jews and their interactions with other people can either cause people to say that the Torah teaches people to be respectable, refined people or to say that the Torah is associated with people who are unkind and unrefined.

There have been posters and stickers popping up in various places around our community with an image of a rabbi and the statement that the Messiah is here. It is illegal for individuals to put up said posters on public property, which is already a violation of dina d’malchuta dina; we are halachically required to follow the laws of our locale. But more than that, when people do this in the name of religion, it inevitably is a chilul Hashem because it is perceived as vandalism. If one were to object to this only when Jews do this, that would be antisemitism, but inasmuch as this would be problematic for anyone to do, it is wrong and causes others to see religious Jews as those who disturb the public and flout laws.

In a different recent episode, the Knesset had a tremendous opportunity in being addressed by the United States Speaker of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy. According to someone who was present, however, some of the religious, kippah-wearing members of Knesset acted inappropriately during the speech. Some conspicuously walked in late and greeted other people on their way in; one was learning Torah during the speech. I do not know if the Speaker saw any of this happening, but when a high-ranking non-Jewish representative of a strong ally comes to speak, one has to be extra careful in ensuring that proper respect is shown. It is not a demonstration of proper character to arrive late and be disruptive or to be actively ignoring such a guest in the name of learning Torah.

I once heard that someone asked Rabbi Mordechai Willig if one were to curse like a sailor in the office, would it be better to not wear a kippah there? Rabbi Willig’s response inevitably was that it would be better to speak appropriately and wear the kippah.

With that said, the month of May is Jewish American Heritage Month. It is important to display our pride in being Jewish and in being religious Jews. It just needs to be done with tact. America has afforded us religious liberties that are nearly unprecedented in history. We are able to build beautiful synagogues, construct eruvin with the cooperation of most jurisdictions, avoid alternate side parking issues on holidays, and have our interests represented in the highest echelons of government is a tremendous gift. While Jews used to have a hard time finding jobs that would respect Shabbos and wearing a kippah was a liability in finding a job as well, it has become increasingly easier to display one’s religiosity in public and earn respect. Former Senator Joseph Lieberman has plenty of stories of celebrating Shabbos with Vice President Al Gore as well as being accompanied home by security guards, walking by foot on a pouring Friday night, so that he could get home from the Capitol without violating Shabbos. His religious integrity has been highly respected by his colleagues. Likewise, the Chief Rabbi of England is attending the coronation of the new king, and while there was a time in which Jews were barred from attending, King Charles has ensured that the Chief Rabbi will be served kosher food and is offering hospitality in his home so that the rabbi can walk to the event. When a person displays honorable character and does so while also displaying their religiosity, it causes others to respect our tradition.

While there is an important responsibility to weigh our actions in a fashion that does not reflect poorly on our heritage, preventing chilul Hashem does not mean avoiding displays of pride in our religion. On the contrary, we have a mandate to show our religious commitment through our steadfast devotion to mitzvot and the interpersonal values that accompany that, in which case we have a tremendous opportunity to sanctify Hashem’s name. This is the first principle that any Torah Jew should learn.

About the Author
Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center and a development associate for the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He received his rabbinic ordination from RIETS and an MA in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.
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