17 Sivan 5774
I read a fair number of blogs. Some of them are written by gerim, some baalei teshuva, some born-Jews. And all of them identify as Jewish, or at least Jew-ish.
Identity is a problem for many Jews – gerim and by-birth alike. Gerim struggle with being legitimately Jewish, being Jewish “enough,” fitting into a community and a practice that they did not grow up with, and other issues of being a newcomer in a new world. The baal teshuva (Jew by birth who was secular and is now becoming a religious Jew) faces similar issues to gerim in many ways. Jews by birth have their own problems, including (perhaps) being born into a Jewish culture that has narrow definitions of observance and struggling to fit inside those definitions.
Essentially, most Jews are striving for a static, unchanging, dependable picture of what it means to be a “good Jew” – a standard that, once met, fixes these problems.
But what does it really mean to be a Jew? (And yes, we’re back to that again, because it’s a perennial question for gerim, baalei teshuva, and even for born-Jews.) In this post, I’m going to draw together a few posts I’ve read in the last few days, to kind of synthesize this idea that it might be a good idea to know, as a Jew, what the basis of your Judaism – your Yiddishkeit – is, as well as a suggestion for how to feel “more Jewish” in the future.
YaelUniversity recently worried in her blog about not being “Jewish enough.” It felt, to me, like she was buying into the “if-I’m-not-Orthodox-I’m-not-doing-it-right” default, which is a sad thing for anyone to feel. Here’s what I told her:
I don’t think you’re a bad convert. I think you’re a Jew, who is struggling with G-d and with Judaism as so many of us (both gerim and JBB) do. But I also wanted to ask you what your underlying concept of Judaism is, because that can often be a guide to what practices are meaningful for you. For me, it can be summed up in about three quotes and Scripture verses:
Hillel: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”
Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; to do justice, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with your G-d.” (That’s verse 6:8 of Micah.)
Hillel again: “Judge not your friend till you stand in his place.”
As you can see, the thing that draws me to Judaism as a Jew by choice is the ethics. If you are practicing Jewish ethics, aren’t you practicing Judaism? And as far as passing on a sense of Jewish identity to your kids, well – holidays. Shabbat observance (as well as you can). Learning Hebrew, when and as you can. Hebrew school. And so forth.
Don’t knock the stories, either! Story is how community is passed on. By all means, tell your little ones the stories. Let them identify with the characters. As they get older, start asking them about the stories – how would they have done things differently if they had been Jacob, or Sarah, or Rachel? Ask them questions and tie them back to the stories. Tie them to Jewish ethics. Let them ask questions! It will give them the rich history of our people to draw upon as they become Jewish adults.
Identity develops from practice, and Judaism is all about practice. Right now, I take intense joy in saying the brachot over meals, saying the Sh’ma morning and night, finding reasons to say the shehecheyanu. I find a deep sense of identity in music – both the music sung at shul and the music of Jewish and Israeli pop artists. I find a deep sense of identity in meditating on the name I have chosen and will one day bear, and what it means, and why I chose it, and what that means for my own Jewish practice. I wear a Mogen David and a kippah. I eat mindfully. I think before I speak. I study Torah as often as I can.
I find that Micah, more than anything, is guiding me. I am working on doing justice, showing mercy, and walking humbly with G-d.
I find echoes of the idea of a “good Jew” identity as a static, unchanging thing in a recent blog post by Pop Chassid:
“[W]e want, we so badly want, to believe that the growth stops at some point, that we can turn around to say to everyone, “Okay, this is who I am.”
“The truth is, I am sure this applies to people who have grown up religious just as much as it happens to people who have taken it on later in life. This desire to say, “I am this thing.”
“We want, in other words, to slip back into our old ways, to embrace our desire to freeze the world.”
I think Pop Chassid has this right. We don’t want change. We want stability. To us, an identity has to be unchanging to be stable or correct.
But isn’t it the actions – the practice – that really make the Jew? Isn’t it what we do that we’re judged on? And before we get into an argument about who’s more “observant,” I’ll just share this little story I found (and shared on Pop Chassid’s blog as part of a comment):
I am reminded of a story about a Chassidic Rabbi whose students tried to stump him with this whole “orthodox” thing – although they didn’t use that word. The story goes that they came to him, positing the idea that the 613 mitzvot are like the rungs on a ladder reaching to heaven. One man keeps more of the mitzvot than another, and so is higher up on the ladder. And so, Rabbi, they ask: “Who in the eyes of G-d is higher?”
The rabbi considered the question, and then said “I cannot answer you. You have not given me enough information, because you have not told me which of the men is moving upward.”
Perhaps it would make more sense to look at our Yiddishkeit as something that evolves and is created daily, through our practice, rather than an unchanging, static thing where we can rest on our laurels and not have to work at it anymore (on the one hand), or a standard of perfection that we can never live up to (on the other).
Another blogger I follow, Ayalon Eliach, is in rabbinical school, and wrote recently about why he has chosen to be a rabbi. In some frustration, I think, he said:
“I am heavily influenced by Victor Frankl, who believed that people may enhance the quality of their lives by focusing on finding “meaning.” Personally, I find meaning when I engage with others over questions about our role in this world; when I take part in movements to better this planet; and when I reflect on my interconnectedness with the universe. And while we all find meaning in different ways, feeling that we are a part of something greater than ourselves seems to be a common denominator. […]
“Unfortunately, most forms of Jewish expression today have failed to offer that response. Instead, they have fetishized dogma, the minutia of praxis, or hollow ritual. I believe the time has come to offer new approaches that focus on connectedness, spirituality, and reinvigorated tradition. I want to draw on my personal experiences to help create these alternatives.”
I responded to that post, saying that what I’m seeing in many sources both expected and unexpected is a push to change Judaism in order to make it thrive, not just survive. Inspired by him and by Pop Chassid, I said that the questions need to change from “Are you a good Jew?” to “Is being a Jew/practicing Judaism helping you to be a better person/change the world/make a difference?” Until we do that, Judaism will continue to seem like an outdated tradition.
So I ask my wider audience:
1. What is the basis of your Yiddishkeit?
2. In your own opinion, are you sitting in a static place on the ladder? Or are you trying to continually move upward?
3. What are you doing to move upward today?
As I said above, the basis of my Yiddishkeit is the ethics. And I am trying to continually move upward on the ladder. For me, I realized on Wednesday last week that I had memorized all the brachot for before-meals, as well as the shehecheyanu and the short version of the Sh’ma. I’m now working on memorizing the brachot for after the meal. I’m also working my way through the book on how to read Hebrew that my rabbi loaned me. That’s how I’m working to move upward this week.
I’ll be interested in your answers, if you wish to share them.