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Points of View
One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor
My Point of View, January, 2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

There are times when I recognize the gap that has opened between my professed "halakhic lifestyle" and the commitments that those far to my right accept. One such example arrived in my email inbox last month, just in time for Chanukkah.

The same people who brought me the very clever shabbat lamp (a rotating shade obscures or reveals a compact fluorescent bulb) are now promoting their "shabbes toothbrush." Apparently, it is prohibited to use a regular toothbrush on Shabbat for four reasons: you are squeezing water out of the closely-packed nylon bristles; you are spreading an ointment; you are causing your gums to bleed because of the sharp bristles; you are performing uvda d'chol (an everyday activity) by using the same toothbrush you employ Sunday through Friday. The shabbes toothbrush is made of rubber nubs separated widely enough to prevent water from seeming absorbed, and it is accompanied by toothwash, a concentrated liquid that replaces toothpaste. Its inventors/marketers claim that the set solves these problems that have prevented serious Jews from brushing their teeth on Shabbat and yom tov during the entire modern history of oral hygiene. Even so, you should only use them if NOT brushing your teeth on Shabbat is a personal misery. Consider it a shortcoming in my Seminary education or an indication of how lax I have become in my own piety that this was all news to me.

Before you get down on me for the cynical language in the preceding paragraph, consider an experience I had the same week as the advertisement arrived.

I was attending an interfaith meeting where I heard an eloquent presentation on the ethics of human rights. To illustrate her call for cooperation on moral matters, the presenter used female genital mutilation used as an example of when a universal ethic trumps a local religious practice. Afterward, I was discussing it with two Protestant colleagues. I said, "I agree entirely about female genital mutilation; on the other hand, male genital mutilation is a sacred obligation for me." The laughter was uncomfortable for all of us.

The point: we should not overlook how absurd our observances sound to people who live outside the context of our assumptions about life and Torah. The same eye-rolling that we perform over special toothbrushes on Shabbat and microscopic bugs in lettuce and "glatt kosher milk" (which is halakhically impossible, by the way) is being performed by good and educated people over lulav and tzitzit and three stars. We should not be so smug about our observances (and even our values) just because we have developed rationalizations that speak to our convictions.

In that spirit, I recommend a wonderful book called The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. A completely secular Jew attempts to live by his (Karaitic-style) reading of the Bible and its requirements. It is warm, respectful, irreverent and ultimately a very important perspective for us: we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the pious practices of others nor ignore our own.

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