This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.
I like statistics. I especially like statistics about what people are doing or not doing. And I LOVE statistics about what the American Jewish community is doing or not doing. I just wish they would show the numbers backwards. Most questions are from the traditional Jewish perspective: do you light Shabbat candles? Do you keep kosher? Did you fast on Yom Kippur? Did you light Hanukkah candles? And the traditional Jewish establishment is scandalized by the “shocking” results – only 23% always or usually light Shabbat candles, only 22% keep kosher at home (and who knows what they eat out), while 53% fasted for at least part of Yom Kippur and 70% lit Hanukkah candles. The American Jewish reality is that the majority practice is to be a cultural Jew, or even a part-time Jew – Hanukkah is just a few nights a year, and you can do it on your own at home. Yom Kippur fasting is a personal choice. But Shabbat is every week, kosher is every day, and they limit your ability to connect with your neighbors, to enjoy the wider world of American life, to have the personal freedom to do what you want when you want. What if the statistics were presented backwards: only 30% of Jews DID NOT light Hanukkah candles; over ¾ of American Jews do not keep kosher. And Yom Kippur fasting is a coin toss – as many do not fast as do. Presenting the statistics that way might make us, the majority living as cultural Jews, feel like the norm. But that would also mean leaving behind a venerable Jewish tradition – the concept of “Bad Jew.”
This High Holidays, we are exploring the need to strike certain phrases from our vocabulary. On Rosh Hashana, we asserted the value of pursuing truth against the dangerous concept of “post-truth.” And we explored how “Judaism says” is less accurate and meaningful than “MY Judaism says” – “My Judaism says” means we celebrate what WE find meaningful in our tradition, without assuming that all of Judaism agrees with us. What would happen if we left behind the idea of there being “bad Jews?” After all, “bad Jew” is not just an accusation that other people throw at us; it is a label we sometimes use on ourselves.
There is a long Jewish history of the “bad Jew” accusation. In the Torah, Korah the Levite challenges Moses by asking why only priests get to contact god when “all the community is holy” – Korah and his followers are then swallowed by an earthquake. We saw in our Torah reading what Pinchas did to a REALLY bad Jew, impaling him and his Midianite lover with a spear. In the books of the prophets, Israelite kings are condemned for worshipping many gods and for oppressing the poor – the famous passage in Isaiah 58 traditionally read on Yom Kippur asks, “is THIS the fast I have chosen, to afflict your souls, or rather to do justice and end oppression?” In other words, “you’re doing it wrong!” When Ezra the priest returned from Babylonian Exile, he commanded all Hebrews who had stayed in the land and married local women to send away their wives and children – an intermarriage ethnic cleansing, but also a mass accusation of having been “bad Jews.” The Maccabees fought the Greeks, but the Maccabees also fought Jews who liked Greek culture and sought a middle ground. Medieval Rabbis establishing the authority of the Talmud broke with those who wanted to only follow the Bible’s laws and called themselves Karaites. Maimonides’ rational philosophy was burned by some Jews, and Jewish mystical texts were forbidden by others. In the 19th century, Jewish mystics called Hasidim battled Jewish legalists called Mitnagdim, and they both battled Jewish enlighteners, the Maskilim. There was name calling, rejection, family splits, even excommunication in all directions.
So when we learn in our days that the Israeli chief rabbinate keeps a blacklist of Diaspora rabbis whose conversions are not recognized (alas, I did not make the list, something to aspire to), or the Israeli government backtracks on a compromise to create an egalitarian prayer space near the Western Wall because mixed-gender Judaism isn’t “authentic” enough for Orthodox political parties, we should not be surprised. The accusation of “Bad Jews” is a deeply rooted Jewish tradition. There’s a reason we laugh at this story: The Yeshiva University rowing team has lost every crew meet, so they send their captain to watch the Harvard and Yale crew teams compete. He returns and says “Guys, we have it all wrong. We need EIGHT people rowing and ONE person yelling.”
Am I a “bad Jew”? I have a PhD in Near Eastern Studies, concentrating in Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies. I have worked as a Jewish professional my entire career, including 16 years as a rabbi. I am competent in Hebrew and Yiddish, I have traveled to Israel 8 times, and I have read more Jewish history books than anyone really should. I have been actively involved in synagogues my entire life, I married a Jewish woman and we had Jewish children who are being raised Jewish, and by the time I retire I will have been attending Sunday School for 65 years. My last name is pronounced “Shalom.” But to some Jewish people, I’m a “bad Jew.” In high school, I went out for dinner with some friends to Denny’s (yes, Yom Kippur is the season of confession), and there I ordered a club sandwich complete with bacon. A friend asked me, “aren’t you thinking of becoming a rabbi?” I said, “my dietary laws are easy: bacon tastes good, pork chops taste good.”
In college, I was asked, if I was planning to be a rabbi, why didn’t I go to Shabbat dinners at Hillel. That term, I was taking multiple classes in Religious Studies, including Hebrew 5 days a week, I worked for the Judaica Curator at the Yale University Library, and I was taking weekend seminars with the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in their Madrikh/Leader program. But that didn’t match the metric of “good Jew” – kosher Shabbat dinner at Hillel, that’s what counted.
I hear this from couples I marry, especially if they are marrying someone who is not Jewish – they’ll confess to me: “I’m not really a good Jew, I haven’t been to synagogue in a long time…” I always ask them – do you celebrate Hanukkah? “Of course!” Do you enjoy Passover? “Every year!” Do you like Jewish food, whatever that means for you? “Sure!” Well, those count too! Think about what it means to define yourself as a “bad Jew” – it means that being Jewish is what you DO NOT do, it’s where you fail! Being Jewish is who you are, but it’s the opposite of how you live. Part of the revolution of Humanistic Judaism is to say that Judaism is NOT limited to religious beliefs which many Jews do not believe, or prayers most Jews do not recite, or dietary laws most Jews ignore. OUR Judaism is built on the Jewish connections we DO celebrate: holidays and life cycle ceremonies and cultural literacy and family heritage and food and language and history and all the rest. When our movement of Humanistic Judaism began, there were many discussions of what to call ourselves. We knew that we were not “Judaism minus” – something traditional-ish that was allergic to certain topics and words. We settled on “Humanistic” because it was a positive statement of what we believed in: human potential, human power, human responsibility, human needs, human happiness. We wanted to be stronger than “Reform Reform”, or “very reform” –– calling yourself “very reform” means you are admitting you are not even good at being a Reform Jew!
What does it take to be called a “bad Jew”? It could be what you believe or don’t believe. It could be what you eat. It could be who you married. It could be how you chose to raise your children. “Bad Jews” don’t give to the right charitable causes, support the right side of controversial issues, or vote their self-interest correctly. Bad Jews think about themselves as individuals, they explore their values in the wider human context, rather than being Jews first and foremost and always. My teacher Sherwin Wine once pointed out that the collectivist approach asks, “What have you done for Judaism today;” the modern individualist has the chutzpah to ask, “What has Judaism done for ME?” There IS an irony when one Jew accuses another of being a “self-hating Jew” – the person MAKING the accusation obviously does not like certain Jews, and says so! This issue of calling someone a “bad Jew” is entirely separate from calling someone a bad person, or saying they are doing bad things. But telling someone they are bad at being who they are is something different entirely.
It seems like the wider world has also gotten into the business of defining good Jews and bad Jews. Bibi Netanyahu’s son posted a meme on Facebook criticizing left-wing Jews and George Soros, and he was applauded by David Duke! The idea that white supremacists could support Israel seems laughable, but they see a model for their goal of ethnic purity in the Israeli far-right. An impeccable scholar from UCLA was appointed head of the Center for Jewish History, and a slander campaign was started immediately to demand his withdrawal for having the audacity to believe in two states for two peoples and to support organizations that do the same. For these people, you become a bad Jew by being “anti-Israel;” and “anti-what-I-want-for Israel” means “anti-Israel.” The accusation of being a “bad Jew” also appears on the other end of the political spectrum. Remember the Chicago Dyke March that banned marching with a rainbow Jewish star flag because it was too similar to the Israeli flag? For that organization there are also good Jews (those who are clearly anti-zionist) and bad Jews (everyone to the right of the good ones, including plenty of people who consider themselves progressive, particularly on LGBTQ issues). The metric for “bad Jew” can be belief, or marriage partner, or what community you join IF you even join one, or your take on Israel. Or all of the above, the more you want to call others “bad Jews.”
Of course, WE are among the worst of the “bad Jews” – we refuse to feel guilty about our choices, we encourage others to join us – and we’re even growing our own! The origin of the Greek word “heresy” is the term “haresia,” which means “choice”. Early secular Jews sometimes described what they did as yahadut khofsheet – free Judaism – and individual choice is a very important part of our approach. The truth is that EVERYONE makes choices from what can be Jewishly meaningful – we read less Talmud and more modern Jewish poetry and prose, while others read Torah and Talmud and somehow never get to Yehuda Amichai and Marcia Falk. Old is not necessarily better than new if the yardstick is what resonates with us, today. If we accept the idea of Jewish flavors we described on Rosh Hashana, it’s not worth arguing over which flavor of ice cream or which flavor of Judaism is the best flavor, or the original flavor, or the ONLY flavor for all Jews. Imagine how boring a world with only one flavor would be!
And let’s be honest, this is how much of the Jewish world, particularly ordinary every day Jews, live their Jewish lives. I would estimate that 70% of the Jewish world is living Jewish pluralism. I am on the Chicago Board of Rabbis, whose members range from secular humanistic to liberal religious to Modern Orthodox. We focus on similar questions from a shared cultural background, even if we do not agree on the answers. Belief and practice in more liberal Judaisms accept that we have partial human knowledge, and therefore our philosophy allows different people, even different communities to live their Judaism differently. In real life we on the Chicago Board of Rabbis and you in your everyday lives relating to friends, neighbors and relatives, we live together and eat together, and we learn together and from each other. My colleagues refer weddings to me, and I to them, and we recognize each other as rabbis. 70% live pluralism, where variety is the spice of Jewish life. They may say the words “bad Jew”, but most ordinary Jews would attend your child’s Humanistic Bar Mitzvah, go to your grandchild’s wedding no matter whom they were marrying, or attend your memorial service even if you chose cremation.
However, 30% of the Jewish world is living not pluralism but plurality – where they know there are other options, but the other options are unacceptable. There is a second Rabbinic association in Chicago, the Chicago Rabbinical Council, which is only Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. A few Modern Orthodox rabbis go to both groups, but the reason there is are two groups is because many Orthodox rabbis will not accept women rabbis, Reform rabbis, and certainly not heretical Humanistic rabbis! Their belief and practice of The Torah is from heaven, from Moses on Sinai, an eternal covenant universally binding, means they cannot accept our flavors of Judaism as valid, or learn from us, or easily marry us. To them, our flavor of Judaism is trayfe, forbidden, not a Jewish flavor they can accept.
We share the same history, whether or not we agree on what happened or what it means. We share the same literature, whether or not we agree on who wrote it and when or what it means. We share the same family story, whether we recognize it or not. It is not only a question of who Hitler would have persecuted and killed; it is a matter of how you see your family tree. Are there many branches, grafts and cross-pollinations from other sources, bearing fruit in all directions? Or is your tree one trunk with a straight line, and errant branches must be pruned away?
Just as with our other forbidden phrases, we need to work on ourselves first. If we want to eliminate the epithet “bad Jews,” there are 3 steps to take. First, we need to not use it on ourselves, which means improving our Jewish self-esteem. Second, we need to challenge others who use it, pointing out that everyone chooses and you can’t argue about taste. And third, we need to eliminate it from OUR OWN vocabulary. How often do WE smirk at the “Jewish hypocrisy” of others who keep kosher in the home but not out, or at pious Jews arrested for Medicaid fraud? Yes, I do remember my side comment earlier about whether the 22% who keep kosher at home do the same eating out – did you hear that as expanding the social science understanding of the survey, or did you hear that as a dig, as secular Jewish revenge, as a clever way of calling THEM “bad Jews”? One of the oldest retorts in the book is “I know you are but what am I?” If someone calls us “bad Jews,” the answer is not to point out their Jewish faults; it is to change the conversation. Here’s how I do Jewish, what do you find meaningful in our shared culture and history?
I want to conclude with the last two stanzas of Yehuda Amichai’s beautiful poem “The Jews”. The poem speaks of Jewish diversity, and change, and continuity, and disagreement, and to quote my Israeli colleague Rabbi Sivan Maas, Jewish unity without Jewish uniformity.
Some time ago, I met a beautiful woman
Whose grandfather performed my circumcision
Long before she was born. I told her,
You don’t know me and I don’t know you
But we are the Jewish people,
Your dead grandfather and I the circumcised and you the beautiful granddaughter
With golden hair: we are the Jewish people.
And what about God? Once we sang
“There is no God like ours,” now we sing, “There is no God of ours”
But we sing. We still sing.