I subscribe to a daily Google alert for the word "Judaism," which delivers some interesting (in the broadest meaning of the word) articles to my emailbox. This morning's batch included a critique of a recent Washington Post interview with Zeke Emmanuel, Obama bioethics advisor, brother of Rahm and Ari, and self-described atheist and follower of kashrut. The Post story focuses on the difference, in Judaism, between belief and practice. I won't link to or quote from the other article, which fits squarely into the Fox News mode and already has enough readers, I'm sure. I will say that it calls Dr. Emmanuel a hypocrite for keeping kosher and yet not believing in God, because the Old Testament says to be kosher and Jews follow the Old Testament. There you have it, end of story. (He then applies the same logic to the issues of abortion and gay marriage, and you can guess his conclusions.)
I mention all this in the context of today's Elul prompt, "Memory," because it reminded me of being 8 years old and asking my Hebrew School teacher what I was supposed to feed my goldfish during Passover. "Matzah meal," replied the rabbi, stroking his long, grey beard (he looked very much like Santa Claus). That night I informed my mother that we had to get some matzah meal for Goldie. I remember her looking very concerned as she answered, and kneeling down so we could speak eye-to-eye. "Oh, I'm so sorry, we can't do that," she said. "Goldie has to eat fish food or she'll die."
I burst into tears. Why did my rabbi want to kill my goldfish? I didn't want to be a bad Jew, and he had taught us that everyone, including pets, was supposed to eat kosher for Passover food during Passover or we'd be bad Jews. But wasn't killing even worse than that? My mother said something or other to calm me down, but I'd already concluded that the rabbi wasn't as smart as he seemed to be, since this made no sense. I also learned, at that moment, to follow no words blindly, not even God's, because "right" and "wrong" must be judged in context.
Which brings me to a question I've been asking myself during this month of Elul: have I done a good enough job this year of examining and, as necessary, challenging the rules?
I thank you, Rabbi Santa Claus, wherever you are, for inadvertently teaching me a lesson much bigger than the laws of kashrut.