We have been talking about the Missing Jewish Middle, how many Jews are born into Jewish life, boys getting brisses, girls getting Hebrew names, likely both getting Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and that these individuals will take steps to see that they are buried as Jews: “I was born a Jew and I’ll di a Jew!” This is an oft-heard mantra. But what about living as a Jew!? What about the middle, between birth and death? What about the Missing Jewish Middle? Why do Jews fail to engage with covenantal Jewish life?
One of the biggest disincentives to Jews embracing Jewish life is their experience with “The Mitzvah Police.” The Mitzvah Police are individuals or groups that swoop down on people whom they judge to be guilty of the following “sins:”
- Breaking a mitzvah
- Not doing the required mitzvah/mitzvot for a particular occasion.
- Not doing the mitzvah/mitzvot in the “right” way, which of course is the way they themselves do it.
I have seen the Mitzvah Police at work in my own synagogue. Shaming a woman who comes in with a dress deemed inappropriate for the occasion, sharply correcting someone who carelessly places a siddur, a prayer book, on the floor (which Jews do not do). The Mitzvah Police mean well, but meaning well means nothing if one does not treat people with kindness and respect. And that is the crux of what is wrong about the Mitzvah Police: in their zeal for doing the right thing at the right time in the right way they routinely embarrass those whom they catch in an infraction, often feeling righteous and faithful for having done so. And this is a great sin.
Indeed, in Jewish life, the greatest social sin one can commit is halvanat panim, literally “whitening of the face,” taken to mean “embarrassing someone in public.” One of the biggest no-no’s I convey to people whom influence is this: “In your zeal for halachic correctness never embarrass someone.” Never.
A famous story about the saintly Rabbi Akiva Eiger illustrates this Jewish passion to avoid embarrassing someone in public.
Rabbi Eiger would always have many people to eat at his home on Shabbat and holidays.
During one Passover Seder, while Rabbi Akiva and his guests were seated at the table and speaking of the exodus from Egypt, the hand of one of guests accidentally hit a glass of wine. The glass tipped over and the wine spilled on the clean white tablecloth. In order that his guest not be embarrassed, Rabbi Akiva rattled the table to make the glass in front of him spill over. He then said, “I have the feeling that this table is wobbly.”
So what is the lesson here? Simple. If you are going to be fanatical about a mitzvah, be fanatical about the mitzvah to not embarrass someone. Why? Because you don’t want to prevent someone from turning to or returning to Jewish life because you were wearing your Mitzvah Police uniform that day.