Cheerios and the future of Judaism in America

Cheerios and the future of Judaism in America

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to for details.

When we say that we aspire to live the talmudic life, that means two things.

First, it means that we question rigorously all those facts and influences around us. We especially separate our certainties from our doubts.

Guest column And second, it means that we live in constant touch and tension with our present world to which we can respond and sometimes over which we can exercise some control. A good talmudist does not pretend to have dominion over the unknown future.

OK, what do Cheerios have to do with the future of Judaism in America?

This past week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that the highly touted language from the Cheerios manufacturer about cholesterol-lowering properties of the breakfast cereal were “Unapproved drug claims.” The Cheerios labeling did not conform to the government’s approved claims associating fiber from whole grain oats with reduced risk of heart disease.

Because of our rigorous talmudic attitudes, we have known from the get-go that General Mills made improper claims about the heart-related benefits of its Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal.

We could see that the Cheerios TV ads and the “Heart Healthy” claims on their boxes were egregious misrepresentations because their reasoning was based on a talmudic compound doubt.

The first part of our doubt was whether it was legitimate to boast that there was any real science that validates the notion that eating Cheerios lowers a person’s cholesterol any more than eating the fiber-rich cardboard box that it comes in.

The second part of our doubt was about whether in fact lowering cholesterol has a direct health benefit for a person’s heart. True, on this latter claim there are many medical studies associating risk benefits with reduced cholesterol in the blood. But when you look closely at the results of those studies, you realize that they show, at best, a modest reduction in some statistical risks, not a therapeutic cure of any disease and not any palpable physical benefit to the heart itself.

Hence, these talmudic double doubts in our mind undermined the cereal maker’s unfounded claims of future health benefits from the first moment that we heard the assertions on television.

Yet under the former officials at the FDA, virtually any manufacturer could make any claims and no regulatory body would say a word to challenge them. We are glad the new FDA has chosen the high-visibility Cheerios case to start making clear that it will not tolerate the doubtful antics of 19th-century snake oil salesmen in the scientific world of 21st-century medicine.

All well and good, but what does this have to do with the future of Judaism in America?

Whether you are a cereal manufacturer or a purveyor of a certain brand of Judaism, you have a talmudic responsibility to make logical claims and to refrain from arbitrary predictions that obviously serve only your interests.

Case in point: In a Jerusalem Post interview this week, Rabbi Norman Lamm, who is Orthodox, has violated both of these precepts of the talmudic life.

Rabbi Lamm – the former president of Yeshiva University who holds the ceremonial position of chancellor – expressed an astonishing opinion in the newspaper interview. He said, “We will soon say Kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements.” In other words the faith groups – the organized religion – of 78 percent of affiliated American Jews – are doomed to die out.

Yes, you read correctly. He claimed that both movements are disappearing. But no, the facts don’t bear this out.

The rabbi made other generalizations that have no rigorous factual or analytical basis. He said, “The Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking.”

And taking a quick swipe at the acceptance of patrilineal descent in Reform congregations, the Orthodox leader further opined, and with a greater lack of couth, “The Reform movement may show a rise, because if you add goyim to Jews then you will do OK.”

The Post itself inserted into the interview these well-known facts about American Jews: “The National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 found that of the 46 percent of U.S. Jewish households belonging to a synagogue, 33 percent were affiliated with a Conservative synagogue, a 10 percent fall from the 1990 survey. In contrast, the Reform Movement was up from 35 percent to 38 percent and Orthodox Jews rose from 16 percent to 22 percent. Two percent were affiliated with the Reconstructionist Movement and 5 percent with ‘other types’ of synagogues.”

Not troubled by the real numbers, Rabbi Lamm self-servingly concluded, “Reform is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture, and the Conservatives are getting out of the picture.”

Let’s stop and see how the rabbi’s interview plays under our talmudic scrutiny.

In a talmudic court, your testimony is not valid if you are an interested party. Yet the rabbi has no difficulty mustering this conclusion: “The future of American Jewry is in the hands of haredim and the modern Orthodox.”

Ironically, as an aside, we have heard the haredim predict for decades that, along with the other American Jewish movements, the modern Orthodox are “getting out of the picture” in a hurry too.

Under scrutiny, the membership gains of Orthodoxy, losses of Conservatives, and gains of the Reform all are significant data worthy of study for what they tell us about the here and now and about the recent past. Nothing in the numbers justifies a prediction of a trend with impact on the future like the one advanced by Rabbi Lamm.

Don’t get me wrong. Unlike the ads of the makers of Cheerios, I don’t suggest that the claims of the purveyors of modern Orthodoxy need to be regulated by the FDA or any other external body.

We do expect that the leaders of any religion of depth and substance like modern Orthodox Judaism will regulate themselves to adhere to the core principles of their own culture.

That means we expect an Orthodox spokesman will be talmudic in his assertions and base them firmly on logic, on the facts, and will tell us about present realities.

We certainly don’t want anyone claiming that Cheerios is “Heart Healthy” and will make you live long into the future, when it actually is no better for your life now or in the future than any other cereal.