Dear Mensch: Not long ago, a young couple with two children joined the Orthodox shul where my husband and I belong with our children. In the time they have been members, this couple have been active in the community and present at many events, including a number of Shabbat lunches and dinners at the rabbi’s home. Recently, as I was walking home from Shabbat services with my husband and children, I noticed this family a half block away getting into their car and driving off. I could tell they were trying not to be seen because the husband looked around before unlocking the car and hurried the children in very quickly. Since that time, I feel uncomfortable observing Shabbos with this family and prefer not to sit with them at Kiddush. Furthermore, I know they have hosted the children of other community members in their home and I wonder where else they might be cutting corners, such as in regards to kashrut. I believe I should inform the rabbi that this family drives on Shabbos, but my husband says to do so amounts to lashon hara. Is this a serious matter or am I overreacting? — Liya
Dear Liya: Mensch can certainly appreciate your predicament. Being part of a community entails maintaining a level of trust and shared values. You are having trouble on both counts. However, there are some significant unknowns, which make a recommended course of action difficult.
How frum is your community? These days, and certainly in the Bay Area, Orthodox shuls welcome an increasingly diverse membership, and isn’t that ultimately a good thing? Also, what is the outlook of your rabbi? Some are better at handling nuanced situations than others. And this is a nuanced situation. This family has chosen to join and participate in your community and, therefore, deserve to be treated with respect and given the benefit of the doubt.
Indeed, in the Talmud, we are encouraged to judge one another favorably. According to Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld at Torah.org, “For better or worse, we are constantly judging our peers based on their words and behavior, and often our verdicts are as harsh and condemning as those of the most unyielding of judges. We are thus told to give others the benefit of the doubt, sometimes to bend over to see the good in our fellow where it is anything but readily evident. Perhaps he went into the McDonald’s to use the phone or bathroom. He acted that way because he had a rough day at work, or he is just not as sensitive about a certain issue as I.”
You do not know the circumstances behind the episode you witnessed. It is generally accepted that sickness allows an observant Jew some flexibility on Shabbos. Perhaps a member of this family was ill or suffering an injury that made walking difficult. Maybe they needed to drive to the hospital to see a sick or dying relative. This may have been a one-time exception. Assume best intentions.
As well you might apply the same principle to your worries about this family’s entertaining and whether they are being forthright in their practice of kashrut. Whatever the standards to which this family is keeping a kosher home (and we know standards can vary even among the observant), you should assume they would not be dishonest about that fact or knowingly cause someone else to be in violation of your community’s standard.
Having said that, there is a real possibility this family is new to Orthodoxy (or Orthodoxy is new to them) and that joining your community is a step toward deepening their level of Jewish life and observance. Maybe they do not entirely understand the rules associated with Orthodox observance or the standards to which your community observes them. In which case, you can invite them to your table on Shabbat and other chagim to draw them closer and demonstrate how it’s done.
Your husband is wise to discourage lashon hara (evil tongue), so Mensch suggests you go to your rabbi and let him know you saw a member of the congregation driving from shul on Shabbat without naming names. Hopefully, he can help guide you, and all members of the community, on a path of righteousness … or at least best practices.