6 Common Misconceptions about Judaism

Read these 6 common myths about Judaism, and why they're not true.

Myth #1

If you have a tattoo, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a Jew repeat this line, I would be a very rich man! I have researched this claim, and there is absolutely no source for it in Jewish law. The Torah certainly prohibits getting a tattoo (see Leviticus 19:28), but this has absolutely no bearing on burial, and a Jew with a tattoo may be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I am not sure of the origin of this oft-repeated myth, but it could be a distortion of the Jewish law that says that we don’t bury a ‘wicked’ person next to a ‘righteous’ person (see the Code of Jewish Law in Yoreh Deah 362:5 where this law is discussed). Of course, if we used this rule to restrict anyone who has ever gotten a tattoo, then we could never bury anyone who is not perfectly righteous in a Jewish cemetery!

[I always like to joke that while a Jew with a tattoo may be buried in a Jewish cemetery, “Tattoo” himself – otherwise known as Herve Villechaize, the little guy who played Mr. Roarke’s assistant in the early 1980’s TV Series Fantasy Island – would certainly not be buried in a Jewish cemetery as he wasn’t Jewish!]

Myth #2

Religious couples are not allowed to use birth control.

It sure seems that way when you look at the size of their families, in some religious communities averaging 9-10 kids! (We have seven of our own, kein ayin hara). Yet has it ever dawned on you that maybe they actually want to have large families?! As Rabbi Shmuley Boteach likes to respond when people (rudely) ask him why he has so many kids (he has nine): “When I find something else that gives me lots of pleasure, I’ll have a lot of that too!”

Truth be told, the actual biblical obligation of Pru u’Rvu (“Be fruitful and multiply”) as commanded in the Torah in Genesis 1:28 and 9:7, is fulfilled by having just two children - a boy and a girl. The rabbis later taught, based on certain Scriptural verses, that beyond the biblical requirement, there is a continuous mitzvah for a couple to have more children if they mentally and physically can.

However, to say that a religious couple is not allowed to use birth control would be a “myth-conception”. The use of certain methods of birth control is definitely permitted by most Rabbinical authorities – but it is proscribed and limited by many factors including: the couples’ obligation to have children, and the prohibition against “wasting seed”. When Orthodox Jewish couples contemplate the use of contraceptives, they generally consult a rabbi who evaluates the need for the intervention and which method is preferable from a Halachic point of view.

Myth #3

The Torah forbids eating pork because, when untreated, it can cause trichinosis.

Many Jews still believe the Jewish Dietary Laws to be primitive health regulations. This theory is supported by the fact that eating only kosher food offers many health benefits. Some are obvious: rodents and insects are notorious as disease-carriers, and a discovered carcass is likely to be rotting and unsanitary. Some benefits have only come to light recently: the parasitic disease trichinosis has been linked to untreated pork. Based on this theory, some late-19th Century Jewish Reformers suggested that now that we know how to treat pork, the Torah law prohibiting it is no longer applicable.

Of course, the real reasons for keeping kosher as commanded in the Torah go way beyond health measures. As Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin brilliantly wrote in their (original) book Eight Questions People Ask about Judaism:

"The assumption that Kashrus [the Jewish Dietary Laws] is a health measure raises an interesting question. How do the people who believe that the prohibition of eating pigs saved Jews from death by trichinosis account for the Jews anticipating the negative effects of eating pig thousands of years before physicians knew about it? They must concede that either the Bible was written by G-d or by veritable supermen who made medical discoveries thousands of years before anyone else. In either case, persons holding such beliefs should adopt a more respectful attitude towards the laws of Kashrus, insofar as they might be based on other medical knowledge that the modern world does not yet know. We, of course, do not look to Kashrus as a source of medical benefits but as laws leading to moral sensitivity and holiness."

Myth #4

Judaism is either all or nothing.

All those commandments to keep? You've got to be kidding.

Many people think that if they can't take on the whole Jewish kit'n'kaboodle, then there's no point in getting started.

But is that really true? Is traditional Judaism an all-or-nothing proposition?

Imagine stumbling across a gold mine. Would you turn down the gold because you know you won't find ALL the gold mines in the world? That one mine alone will make you rich for life!

Every mitzvah is a gold mine. Even if we do just part of a mitzvah, our lives are enriched forever.

Judaism is a process, a journey, where every step counts.

It's NOT all or nothing.

Whatever we're able to do right now is great!

Just Jew it. One step at a time.

Myth #5

Some Jews are better than others.

Ever meet a Jew who looks down at everyone less religious than him? He can be condescending, judgmental, and turn others off to Judaism.
But, according to the Torah, can we know who is a "good Jew"?

If a terrorist would order the greatest rabbi on earth to kill a thief or else be killed, the rabbi is forbidden to murder, even in order to save his life. Why? Isn't the rabbi's life more precious in God's eyes than the life of some criminal?

The Talmud says: "Nobody knows whose blood is redder." No one can judge the worth of another person because no one knows where another person is situated on the ladder of life ― where he began and how many rungs he has climbed. Perhaps the thief, given his life's circumstances, is making greater, more difficult life choices than the finest rabbi.
The best policy is for all of us to stop judging each other and respect each other instead.

Myth #6

Jews have horns.

In the Middle Ages, a widespread misunderstanding about a verse from the Torah resulted in false stereotypes and even murder across the medieval world. The myth came about through a Latin mistranslation of Exodus 34:35, which says, "And the children of Israel saw Moses’ face, that his skin became karan, and Moses put the veil back upon his face, until he went in to speak with God."

The Hebrew term karan, which means “radiance,” was mistranslated by St. Jerome as keren, which means “horn” in Hebrew. Yikes! The translation ended up reading that Moses was horned, which worked its way into many pieces of art by artists like Michelangelo and Donatello. The statue that Michelangelo created is actually in a relief in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives today.

The outcome of this misunderstanding was artistic portrayals of Jews as devil-like creatures with horns evolving into horns and tales. These images were even used by the Nazis in their campaigns during the Holocaust to portray Jews as an inferior race.