Years ago, I worked as an extra in TV and films. One of the films where I can be found lurking in the background (and once dead center, during the opening scene) is called New York, I Love You. (Don’t look for it, it’s terrible, though I’m in a movie with Natalie Portman and you’re probably not.) Anyway, we shot in the early morning in Manhattan’s diamond district, after which we took a van to Williamsburg. The troupe was a combination of actual Orthodox Jews and actors dressed up like Orthodox Jews.
One of the girls (an actress dressed up like an Orthodox Jew) was an avid animal lover. She struck up a conversation with the man in front of me, an actual Orthodox Jew from some Hasidic sect (I know not which). He explained to her that Jews can’t own pets because we’re are not allowed to touch non-kosher animals. As a dog owner, I clearly disagree with this position. “This man does not represent me,” I chimed in.
“What do you mean?” he asked, clearly surprised that I could think otherwise.
“You said we’re not allowed to touch non-kosher animals. Didn’t Avraham saddle his donkey? Didn’t King David ride a horse? Did you never take your kids for a pony ride?”
“I have to think about this,” he said. And then he sat there, thinking about it.
Now, not touching non-kosher animals may well be his community’s standard and if so, that’s fine, but it’s a far cry from “Jews aren’t allowed to….” And yet, there’s a lot of this kind of overstatement going on. We all do it, usually unwittingly. I daresay it’s virtually impossible to make any kind of statement about Judaism and have it be universally applicable. Let’s start with something that may seem blatantly obvious to you and me. For example, “Jews don’t eat rice on Passover.” That’s a statement that huge swaths of the population take for granted as a no-brainer but it’s a completely ludicrous statement in other segments of the population. One community’s statement does not reflect the other’s practice.
This is largely about one’s exposure. My daughter once had a guest for Shabbos about whom I knew nothing. When we sat down to eat, I said, “So your family became religious through Chabad?” Amazed at my Sherlock-like powers of deduction, she asked how I knew. It was no great trick, really. While washing, I happened to notice that she poured the water over her hands three times rather than twice. She was quite surprised to learn that the prevalent practice was to wash twice because three times was the entirety of her experience.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this phenomenon as well. Years ago, creating educational content for the NCSY web site, I got “called out” on such fairly innocuous statements as “one should wash hands before eating a wet piece of fruit” and “the bracha after rice is borei nefashos.” Apparently, there are people whose practice is different from my own. And you know what? That’s okay.
There’s a saying that there are shivim panim laTorah – seventy different dimensions to the Torah (Bemidbar Rabbah 13). There’s not just one right way; it’s a spectrum. People are perfectly capable of making statements about Judaism that may be correct for group A but incorrect for group B. We don’t have pets. We don’t eat rice on Pesach. We wash our hands three times for bread. These statements can be right or wrong depending on to whom they’re applied. The danger is when we forget that Judaism isn’t “my way or the highway.” There are others who act differently and they can be just as correct.
I field a lot of questions and I try to keep this in mind. If someone asks me the bracha on Pringles, I’ll say, “Most people say shehakol; I happen to say ho’adoma.” There’s a reason I follow the opinion I do. I happen to think it’s a correct opinion but I also recognize that it’s a minority opinion. I’m not trying to convert an army of hashkafic clones.
But the danger cuts both ways. When it comes to shivim panim laTorah, I always point out that seventy may be a large number but it’s not infinite. Not everything conceivable is included in one of the Torah’s 70 dimensions. There are places where people eat without kosher supervision, advancing logical reasons why it couldn’t possibly be non-kosher given the menu. That assertion doesn’t make it so. There are “conversions” that are simply invalid. People are able to do things in every realm of Jewish life – from Sabbath and the synagogue to marriage and divorce – that are just wrong. Shivim panim laTorah isn’t carte blanche to do whatever one wants and slap a “new way of doing things” label on it. There may be many different valid opinions and many different accepted practices in Judaism but there is still a finite set of valid opinions and accepted practices.
Let’s remember that others may do things differently than we do and that’s okay – eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim (both opinions can represent halacha). But if someone says something we just can’t get behind, whether it’s “vegan restaurants don’t require supervision” or “‘real’ Jews don’t support Israel,” let’s not hesitate to let people know that “this man does not represent me.”