A Recipe for Alienation
A folktale tells of Jacob and Faige, a poor Jewish couple in 18th century Russia. One day, as Jacob earned a few kopeks delivering furniture to the manor of a wealthy nobleman, a servant entered and placed a freshly prepared cheese omelet on the nobleman’s table. Jacob fairly swooned as the aroma wafted over him.
Returning home, Jacob described the meal that had been only inches away from him and lamented that he could never enjoy such delicacies outside his imagination. Immediately, his wife rose to the occasion. “You want an omelet?” she said. “You’ll have an omelet!”
Into the kitchen went Faige to prepare Jacob’s omelet. Of course, she couldn’t afford butter, so she reused the chicken fat she had already reused several times before. Eggs were also beyond her means, so instead she made a thin batter out of barley flour. Cheese as well was an unattainable luxury, so she sprinkled some leftover mashed potato into the pan before folding over the “omelet” and serving it to her husband.
“Here is your omelet,” Faige declared, setting her creation on the table before Jacob, who took one bite and spat it out upon the floor. “I don’t understand these rich people,” he cried. “How can they eat such disgusting food?”
The moral of this little fable could not be more relevant today, as self-proclaimed peddlers of “Judaism” frequently serve up a feeble imitation concocted from a recipe of misinformation, political correctness, superficiality, and personal bias. Is it any wonder than so many Jews can find nothing of value in what they perceive to be their heritage?
In a recent Jewish Light article, Carnie Rose set a new standard for the hijacking of Jewish wisdom: “With great deference, respect and affection, Moses welcomes his father-in-law and invests himself fully in being present to Jethro, inquiring about his journey and his welfare. But what of [Moses’ wife] Tzipporah? And what of [his sons] Gershom and Eliezer? No tears; no embracing; no blessings. The silence is deafening — and heartrending. Moses is totally unmoved, emotionless, detached. He does not even acknowledge the presence of his own family. It is as if they are invisible — nonentities.”
Perhaps Rabbi Rose should have referred to the topic of his own essay. The Torah narrative focuses upon Jethro, the righteous gentile whose awe for the Jewish people and their divine mission compelled him to throw in his lot with them. It is with this in mind that Moses addresses his father-in-law, not to ask if he had had a pleasant journey but to make him feel welcome and accepted as a proselyte to the Jewish nation.
Did Moses greet his wife and children as well? In all likelihood he did, even if the Torah chose not to report it rather than distract us from the immediate subject of Jethro’s conversion. Or perhaps Moses waited to greet his wife in the privacy of their tent, adhering to the strict code of modesty that was practiced at the time (and, in some communities, still is to this day). Whatever the explanation, the Torah is not an almanac or a chronicle from which we can demand every detail for the satisfaction of our idle curiosity. The Torah is a blueprint for legal and moral conduct that provides only the information essential to its own purpose. We aren’t told what Moses was wearing, but we don’t assume he was naked.
Elsewhere, the Torah tells us that Moses did err in his assumptions about his brother, in his reluctance to shoulder the mantle of leadership, and in his impatience with the recalcitrant Jewish people. For Rabbi Rose to fabricate imaginary shortcomings is to indulge in the gratuitous slander of Jewish tradition’s greatest figure.
If that were not enough, Rabbi Rose goes on to make the baffling suggestion that, by recording how the Jewish people mourned Moses for 30 days, the Torah somehow implies that his own children failed to mourn him for twelve months. Even if Rabbi Rose was unaware that the custom of a twelve-month mourning period is rabbinic and was not observed until many generations later, by what wild flight of fancy does he draw any inference about Moses’ sons from the conduct of the nation as a whole?
Had Rabbi Rose contemplated a later episode in the Torah he might have found ample warning against this kind of misinformed criticism. In Numbers 12, Moses’ sister, Miriam, found her own reasons to fault her brother’s relationship with his wife. Rather than speaking out publicly, Miriam had the good judgment to confer privately with her other brother, Aaron, to determine how best to confront the issue.
But even this brought swift and terrible divine retribution. Because Miriam had presumed misconduct without full understanding of the circumstances, because she had spoken slander – albeit in the most discreet fashion and with the most noble intent – the Almighty struck her with tzara’as, the affliction reserved for those who utter malicious gossip, rendering her ritually unclean and forcing her to contemplate the indiscretion of her words as an outcast from her people for seven full days.
Like an ersatz omelet, Torah seen through the prism of distorted thinking leaves the foulest flavor in our mouths. One can only hope Rabbi Rose will give as much thought to the thoughtlessness of his words as the saintly Miriam surely gave to hers.