It started with a fairly basic question: “What happens if you eat something that isn’t kosher?”
Which may sound incredibly simple and you’d think it’s the sort of question people are asked all the time. But this was the first I’d ever heard it, and it was about to become the preamble to a doozy of an encounter. I’ve fielded “Do you believe in hell,” danced around the definition of Judaism, and been subject to a broken record of common phrases and preconceptions that wind up within the first ten questions the average non-Orthodox individual feels comfortable asking me. Never had I been asked so directly and so practically such a basic tenet of Jewish thought. Certainly not while contending with a patient chart containing no discernible evidence of having ever approached the English language despite being written by, of all things, an actual Englishwoman.
Which is why I stared stupidly at my Colombian temporary ten-week-boss for a full thirty seconds of silence while trying to sift two illegible anti-hypertensives and a mood stabilizer out of the cogent response I knew was lurking somewhere in the back of my head.
“I mean, do you go to hell?” she clarified helpfully.
“That depends,” I started, since almost all things religious depend in some way and it gave me a few more safe milliseconds in which to think, “on what my intentions were and what else I did in my life.”
“So if you eat pork once without knowing it, you don’t go to hell?”
My boss took a deep breath, as if she was greatly relieved. “I’m so glad to know! I’ve been feeling horribly guilty ever since my wedding.”
Of course I was not about to let that rest unquestioned, despite the infinitely alluring call of a stubbornly indiscernible patient chart. Besides, this was the boss herself I was wasting time with and I had no patients waiting for me. Gradually, I teased out the full story:
“I have this friend Ron. Who’s Jewish and sort of religious, but not religious like you.” She waved a hand at my wardrobe choice for the day, continuing with “he doesn’t keep kosher, but he won’t eat pork. When I made the menu for my wedding, I chose a pork dish. And I knew that he wouldn’t eat anything at my wedding if he knew there was pork in it, and I felt so bad about that so I put him on the vegan table and told the chef to give him the vegan menu. Well, the chef tells me the day before my wedding that the vegan menu also has a little bit of pork in it, but you can’t taste it. And I knew that if I told Ron, he would go hungry at my wedding so I told the waiter to tell the whole table that the food had no pork in it if they were asked. Ever since then I’ve been feeling terribly guilty that Ron might go to hell because of me for something that’s my fault.”
The first thing I couldn’t help thinking about were those urban legends about trusted domestic help putting butter in peoples’ chicken and similarly trusted daycare assistance feeding people’s toddlers ham sandwiches at the corner deli and then lying about it for years. Then there was also the “darn, I had just worked myself into something that did not quite involve so much wariness and now this.” Then I think I became even more disgusted that she’d feed a table full of vegans pork, lie about it, and then feeling more guilty about endangering her “sort of” religious Jewish friends’ afterlife.
So I flubbed a platitude as a response and went back to my chart decoding, but I was shaken and the boss could tell. Needless to say, dietary trust is one area in which no absolute point of view is ever always right.