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The Halacha Of NIST

When my parents come to visit us, we normally go out to eat. But if we eat at home, they arrive with a big tray of kosher ribs. 

And we eat off of paper plates.

Some people are offended by the religious laws of others. And certainly I could understand if you said, 

“But those are your parents! Doesn’t it bother and humiliate you that they won’t even eat in your house?”

The answer is no – of course not, not at all. There isn’t an underlying message there, about “lack of respect” or being “not good enough.” The bottom line is that we have a relationship, and it is independent of the laws of kosher food. 

I respect their commitment, and they respect me enough not to proselytize.

Personal offense about halachic observance is a topic that comes up all the time. I remember many years ago I told a woman that my family was partially Hasidic. 

“Hasidic,” she fairly spat. “Hasidic men are so disrespectful of women.”

I wondered aloud what made her feel so strongly about it. Had she worked for Hasidic men in the past? Did she have them in her family?

“Every time I go to New York,” she said, “I wind up in a store where the cashier is a Hasidic man. And they will never put my change in my hand!”

The woman was referring here to the halacha governing physical contact between men and women. While opinions legitimately differ, this man was following the version that is more strict. He doesn’t touch a woman unless he is his wife.

I explained this to her.

Had it been one year ago instead of ten, I might have added that the Muslim man who runs the dry cleaners place we use will only take cash. And when he gives me change on a $20, he puts the quarters on top of the $10, the $5, and the $1 bills. He doesn’t hand me the money directly.

That’s called keeping your religion. I respect it.

Sometimes people take things a bit too far. We all know that. And their idea of what “religion” justifies is astonishing.

Other times people think they are observing Jewish law when in fact they are uneducated, or maybe they’re obsessive-compulsive. All of us know people like that.

But if someone is genuinely observant of halacha, in a way that can be justified in the context of the mesorah (tradition), then their dedication to it is not an offense to you.

Of course it is easy to say all of this when you’re writing from a bubble. In real life, arguments over observance can and do promote an unbelievable amount of hatred. Forget about Orthodox, Conservative, Reform — I’m talking about arguments between observant Jew and observant Jew.

How can you take it another way? If you feel that someone has wronged you by their insistence that you are not “good enough,” how can you remove the offensiveness?

I go back to my time as an employee at NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. 

NIST was established by the Federal government to promote a clear and consistent system of “weights and measures.” Without any uniformity of standards, a number of things become impossible, among them trade and technology. If there is no coin worth a standard dollar, then how can I buy or sell anything? Hydrogen and oxygen? They’re elements of both life-sustaining water, and bombs.

The Halacha is God’s original science. 

True, there is one fundamental difference: Science operates regardless of how we feel about it. Halacha is fundamentally wrapped in a layer of interpretation by and for people: Humans make judgments about what it is, what it means, its application in a social context, and even further must be observant people themselves in order for their views to be credible.

But once you get past all of that (and it is a lot to get past), the idea of Halacha is that God runs the world according to certain “natural laws.” Those laws are specified in the Torah. I’m not supposed to add to it, I’m not supposed to take away from it, I’m not supposed to twist it around to make myself feel better, and I’m not supposed to bend it to appease you.

Now again, in real life, do we conform to all of this? Of course not.

I would even go so far as to say that entire systems of false Halacha have been established just to make people feel better.

But we should not take offense when somebody else observes their religion. Even if it makes us feel bad inside. 

Even if they’re judging us as they do it!

To be able to rise above yourself, and to observe your feelings without letting them compromise your judgment, is the mark of a wise human being. 


All opinions my own. Public Domain Photo via Pixabay.

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