Earlier this year, a crisis erupted among American Orthodox Jewry, one that sent shock waves hurtling from coast to coast.
At the speed of broadband, word spread quickly from one community to another about the budding calamity, which threatened to cast a pall on Jewish life as we know it. Various organizations rushed to issue statements, the Internet was abuzz with rumors and parents from Staten Island to Seattle naturally went into a panic.
And just what, you might be wondering, lay at the heart of all this drama? Well, it had to do with raisins.
Yes, you read that correctly: raisins.
On January 27, New York's K'hal Adath Jeshurun, a prominent Orthodox congregation also known as KAJ, published a statement billed as an "important kashrus notice," which warned readers in grave and no uncertain terms that "due to bug infestation, no raisins of any brand... may be used at the present time, whether eaten plain or used in cooking or baking." The notice was then hoisted onto the Internet, setting off alarm bells for many Jews because of the Torah's prohibition (in chapter 11 of Leviticus) regarding the consumption of insects.
Obviously, the blanket nature of the ban imposed by KAJ was unnerving, and left many observant Jews wondering if they could still reach for their Raisin Bran in the morning.
But the chaos was short-lived. The tempest in a teacup, or shall we say the racket in a raisin box, quickly proved to be overblown.
As the predicament reached a fever pitch, the venerable Orthodox Union stepped into the fray and reassured the raisin-eating Jewish public "that raisins packed and stored under normal industry conditions do not pose a halachic infestation concern and may be consumed without further checking on the part of the consumer."
The Vaad Harabanim of Queens, an esteemed rabbinical body, also calmed the waters when it declared that the problem of infestation concerned raisins being sold by three specific companies and was not an across-the-board problem.
Now don't get me wrong. I am all in favor of the meticulous observance of Jewish law, which dictates how I live my life from the moment I awaken until I go to sleep. And the Torah's ban on eating bugs or insects is in fact quite serious, with the Talmud in Tractate Makkot (16b) noting that it can involve numerous prohibitions.
But this entire incident says a lot about the present state of American Orthodoxy, where a welcome trend toward greater observance nonetheless often leads people to lose sight of some larger and no less compelling issues of paramount importance.
IT IS TRULY wonderful that Orthodox Jews in America are sincerely concerned about upholding the intricacies of Jewish law. Maintaining the integrity of Halacha and preserving the rites and practices of our ancestors is what Judaism is all about. But what I fail to understand is the selectivity which many American Orthodox Jews seem to apply in this regard.
On matters great and small, from Sabbath observance to raisin infestations, it is common practice for religious Jews to ask their local rabbi a question seeking halachic guidance on how to proceed. This is done to ensure that the demands of Jewish law are being met.
But I have yet to meet an observant Jew in New York, London or Paris who has bothered to ask their rabbi a similar question about whether or not they should live in the Diaspora or make aliya. If a person is committed to living according to Halacha, how is it possible not to ask one's rabbi a question of such paramount importance? This "oversight" is especially difficult to grasp given the significance which Jewish sources attach to living in Israel.
The Sifrei on Deuteronomy, for example, states unequivocally that "dwelling in the Land of Israel is the equivalent of all the mitzvot in the Torah." And the Talmud in Tractate Ketubot declares that "he who lives in the Land of Israel is akin to one who has a God, while he who lives outside the Land is similar to one who has no God."
Centuries later, Nachmanides, the great medieval commentator, ruled unambiguously that the commandment to live in Israel is incumbent upon every Jew, and applies even if the land is under foreign control. The Pitchei Teshuva, in his 19th century commentary on the Shulhan Aruch, notes that all the earlier and later authorities agree with Nachmanides that there is a positive Torah commandment to live in Israel.
Israel is described in the Bible (Deuteronomy 11:12) as the land "which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year." And, as the Ohr Hachaim noted in the 18th century, "There is no joy other than in residing in the Land of Israel."
In light of all this, one can not help but wonder: Why isn't there large-scale Orthodox aliya? Sure, Orthodox Jews are said to make up the bulk of new immigrants arriving here each year from the West. But the numbers remain small - just a few thousand annually - and most religious Jews in the Diaspora seem content to remain where they are.
This situation brings to mind the words spoken by Joshua to the people of Israel more than 3,000 years ago, when he asked, "How long will you be remiss in coming to possess the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given to you?" (Joshua 18:3).
Indeed, it has never been easier to move to Israel, now that we have been blessed with the existence of our own sovereign and independent Jewish state.
I don't mean to stand in judgment of anyone's personal decisions. But I do mean to suggest that Orthodox Jews in the West at least need to start asking themselves, and their rabbis, the question. After all, if they seek halachic guidance about what they put in their mouths, isn't it time they also ask about where they put their lives and bodies as well?