Let’s do a test: What has horns and runs Hollywood? OMG, I hope you didn’t just think of Jews!! But if you did, I can’t blame you, I guess. I did too – and I’m a rabbi! The myths and stereotypes that follow Jews around are pretty legendary, and most everyone has heard of them. I mean, Michelangelo’s statue of Moses actually has horns!! And as for running Hollywood, well, I mean, there are lots of Jews in Hollywood, but that’s because we’re super-duper talented, okay? Not because there’s some kabbalistic media conspiracy! Geez…
Thankfully, most of these kinds of myths are widely dismissed as ridiculous tall tales, fueled throughout history by anti-semitism. But there is another category of Jewish “urban legends” that are still in need some myth-busting. Now, these are much less harmful. Not vicious stereotypes meant to demonize Jews, just some random misconceptions about Jewish religious practice that most everyone seems to believe – including most Jews themselves!
I worked as a rabbi on a college campus for four years, and there were certain myths I heard again and again. Either students would ask, “Is this really true???”, or more often, just assume it was. So, to clear the record once and for all, I thought I’d compile a list of the Top Five Things You Probably Think about Judaism that are TOTALLY NOT TRUE.
Ready? Let’s knock them down, one by one:
1. If you have a tattoo, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery: FALSE.
It is true that tattoos are traditionally forbidden by Jewish law, because of a verse in Leviticus that says, “You cannot… carve any marks onto yourself” (although even here there is some debate in early Jewish sources about whether any tattoo would be forbidden, or just ones with idolatrous names in them). But it certainly doesn’t follow that those who have them cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Now, cemeteries are run by people, and I’m not saying no cemetery manager in history ever came up with weird restrictions about who was in and who was out, but if they did, it wasn’t based on Jewish law. I mean, seriously – if any time someone did something wrong they couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery, no one would ever be buried in them again.
2. Food is kosher because the rabbi blessed it. FALSE.
Food is either kosher or not kosher because of what it is, not because someone with special powers makes it kosher. Like, pork is not kosher, chicken is. There are some rules about how the food has to be prepared. Animals have to be slaughtered in a certain way, you can’t mix meat products with dairy products and you can’t cook food on pots and pans that have been used to cook non-kosher food, etc. So in order to get kosher certification, often a rabbi is brought in to oversee the process and make sure all of the rules are followed. But he’s more of a monitor than a magician. He can’t make any special blessings to “kosher up” the food. I wish he could, because then I’d bless myself a bacon-double cheeseburger and chow down!
3. Hannukah is the biggest Jewish holiday. FALSE.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. Hannukah’s cool. I love Hannukah. It might even be my favorite. But it’s nowhere near as important a time in the Jewish calendar as Rosh Hashana. Or Passover. Or even, for that matter, the next major holiday this year – Shavuot – which most people have never heard of (I certainly never did when I was growing up). But all of those holidays are mentioned in the Torah, which means they are thought of as having been commanded by God, whereas Hannukah is a later holiday put together by the rabbis to commemorate a military victory over the Syrian Greeks and a miracle of oil that burned longer than they thought it would. Pretty rad, for sure, but it’s no Yom Kippur, when all our sins are forgiven. So why does everyone make such a big deal of Hannukah? Well, short answer: it’s pretty close to this other holiday where Santa gives cool gifts to all the good little boys and girls, and hey, no fair – Jews want cool gifts too!