We Asked 25 Rabbis: What Is One Thing Jews Need To Stop Doing?
As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “What is one thing Jews should stop doing?” Here are their responses:
Jill Jacobs , Conservative, T’ruah: The Jewish community should stop panicking about our own survival and focus on how to create a vibrant and meaningful Judaism for the present and future. This means that instead of obsessing about intermarriage, we invest in creating communities of meaning, that bring Judaism to life, that support their members, and that contribute positively to the world around us. Instead of responding to every criticism of Israel by insisting on Israel’s infallibility, and by casting Israel as the victim, we should invest in building a state that lives up to its human rights obligations and that makes us proud. We are the proud inheritors of a rich Jewish tradition that helps us express joy, mourn losses, live ethical lives, and contribute to the societies in which we live. Celebrating and strengthening these traditions — rather than obsessing over perceived threats to our survival — will help us survive and thrive today and in the future.
Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School: Jews need to be less afraid, less defensive. I say this as a self-critique: As my wife Rachel knows, I get very defensive when someone shows me where I made a mistake. But she also knows that the louder I get in defending my actions, the more I know that I’m wrong. We must be willing to listen to opinions and ideas that scare us to think about them and wrestle with them. The great Tiferet Yisrael commentary on the Mishna says that we will never learn if we fear to face the “other.”
Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation: Kvetching! Why is it that the story of a waiter asking the couple after serving them their meal, “Was everything ok?” is often associated with Jews? We have been that way right from the beginning! According to the Midrash, as the Jews experienced the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, they walked through it complaining that the seabed was muddy! As Gilda Radner put it: “There’s always something!” We are the most blessed generation in the last 2000 years of Jewish history. Instead of complaining, let’s start expressing some gratitude.
Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC: I like to compare Judaism to a sealed box you’ve inherited that’s been passed down for many generations. You’ve been told it’s really important to pass this down, but no one told you what’s inside. You’re curious, but you’re worried you’ll find out it’s empty, rendering all this passing down retroactively pointless. So you decide: better to just keep passing it down and leave open the possibility that it’s not empty. This needs to stop. A sealed box is useless. So open it. See if you find anything you like. If so, that will be a lot easier to pass down.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice: When Judaism is confined only to the strictures of the synagogue, it is dead. When Judaism is made spiritually relevant to daily life through activism and good deeds, it thrives. And so can we! Jews need to stop treating Judaism as a religion only of the past. Jewish thought is more than nostalgia and memory. We need to allow the mitzvot to become relevant to our lives now! Jewish learning and morality can be deeply transformative on both spiritual and ethical levels. Each of these elements allows us to renew our inner worlds, our families, our communities, our society, and all of creation.
Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla: I wish our people would stop trying to take Christmas away from America’s Christians. We should stop behaving as if being wished a “Merry Christmas” is a personal insult or a denial of our Jewishness. I believe in the Sendrow Doctrine: a Jew’s displeasure at being wished Merry Christmas is in inverse proportion to the richness of that person’s Jewish life. If you have a rich Jewish life, it won’t bother you much if someone wishes you Merry Christmas. But if the only thing Jewish in your life is that you’re not Christian, then Merry Christmas is the only Jewish part of your life. Enrich your Jewish life; let Christians enjoy their holy day.
Ayelet Cohen, Conservative, New Israel Fund, NY: Rabbi Richard Levy offers an alternative Al Cheyt (confessional litany) for Yom Kippur: for forgiving in Jews what we condemn in others; for forgiving in others what we condemn in Jews. Sadly, this is also increasingly true when the “others” are Jews outside of our particular camp. One particularly dangerous way in which this manifests is the refusal to see truths that don’t fit into our narrative because they are too painful or too destabilizing. It’s easier to condemn Israeli human rights organizations than to acknowledge the damage the occupation of Palestinians is doing to Israeli society. It’s easier to abandon Israel than to try to repair it.
Ari Sytner, Orthodox, Author of “The Kidney Donor’s Journey”: It is time that we stop pretending that other Jews are the competition or the enemy. Particularly in a Millennial environment, this type of public divisiveness will completely turn away the next generation of Jews from wanting to associate with us or the Judaism of our parents. Throughout our forty-year journey in the desert, the Jewish people marched as one, albeit in a formation of 12 unique tribes, demonstrating the value of Jewish unity while celebrating individual uniqueness. As a people of diversity, we must always march forward as one nation, loving our sisters and brothers — even when we disagree with the perspectives they hold. The threats we face, both internally and existentially, are reminders that we must not exhaust ourselves by castigating our fellow Jews, but rather invest our efforts in being tolerant of one another, thus strengthening the entire fabric of the Jewish people.
Nina H. Mandel, Reconstructionist, Congregation Beth El-Sunbury, PA: Jews should stop labeling themselves “A Bad Jew” based on their synagogue attendance or if they “had” a bat mitzvah. Bad Jews use their Jewish status or identity to harm or oppress others. Being a good Jew means trying to infuse the teachings, traditions, values, and history of the Jewish people into your everyday life. There is no one way to embody your Jewishness and there is always the possibility to learn more. The dialogic nature of the Talmud affirms this, even more strongly than the old joke about two Jews and one opinion.
Denise Eger, Reform, Former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis: Jews should stop picking on each other. We have to love each other more, even in our differences. Enough with “My Judaism is better than your Judaism.” Let’s just accept one another and, in doing so, we will strengthen our community. When we fight amongst ourselves, it frays our souls and divides us from within. I believe we can be respectful and different in how we practice and observe — or for secular Jews, not observe — but we must stop being unkind and hurtful to each other. And most importantly, learn to love one another.
Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities: Living from fear. Anxiety over everything from interfaith marriage, synagogue doldrums and growing secularism to Jewish antipathy towards Israel, BDS and low day school attendance has us making communal decisions and ranking priorities from fear rather than hope, from anger rather than love. We have to quell the panic. While we can’t see the future, we must trust that it will unfold into the next great iteration of Jewish life. Let’s stop wringing our hands and use them to plant and nourish the seeds of the future. We should probably also stop making a fuss on airplanes, judging each other endlessly, and improve EL AL customer service.
Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents: Kvetch. Why must everyone complain all the time? And what kind of a question is this? What am I supposed to be, some sort of Kurt Vonnegut, coming up with a “Wear sunscreen” line in Yiddish? (Yeah, I know he never said it. Who made you so smart?) More seriously, we should heed the sage advice of a 20th century giant, R. Chaim Shmulevitz, the head of the Mir Yeshiva. Each year, he spoke before Neilah on Yom Kippur, and asked the audience to pray for three things: the soldiers of the IDF, the Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain who were not able to pray, and for Jews not to bring misery to other Jews. We need to stop harming each other.
Adam Chalom, Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism: Stop calling each other (and ourselves) “bad Jews.” 75% of American Jews do not obey kashrut or Shabbat, and over 90% are proud of being Jewish (Pew 2013). Are 75% of us really “bad Jews”? And what does it mean to define yourself as a “bad Jew”? Being Jewish is what you DO NOT do, it’s where you fail! Being Jewish is who you are, but the opposite of how you live. Judaism is not limited to religious beliefs that many doubt, or prayers most do not say, or dietary laws which 75% ignore. EVERYONE chooses what is Jewishly meaningful — we may read less Talmud and more Jewish poetry, others read Talmud and not Amichai or Marcia Falk. Consider bagels: some say blueberry bagels are not “authentic,” but it’s useless to argue which bagel is the best, the original, the only bagel for all Jews. The more varieties of bagels, or Judaism, the more people can enjoy them and find the one that best fits.
Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”: Jews should stop being ashamed of their identity. Jews should stop being reluctant to proudly and publicly and visibly affirm Jewish identity.
Scott Perlo, Conservative, Sixth & I Congregation: Denigrating Judaism. Sometimes it seems like a large part of contemporary Jewish identity is contempt for the practice of Judaism. I sense that many people see Jewish services, rituals, and ideas as silly or absurd (by sense, I mean that Jews just tell me these things outright). Yet I see, in the very same people who tell me it’s all nonsense, an incredible hunger and a deep thirst — not for bread, nor for water, but for meaning. And if someone is searching for meaning, how does a kind of casual dismissal of the Tradition serve that person? It is not that every word of Torah should be swallowed blindly, but perhaps curiosity should precede contempt.
Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim: We should stop the political naivete and denial and recognize that our true friends and allies today are mostly no longer on the Left, but on the Right. The Left, the Progressives, are hostile to Israel and represent a true and present danger to authentic American freedom that has enabled Jews to flourish. Their behavior on campuses, in government, on Main Street, in the media, in political correctness, is a culture of hypocrisy, intolerance and anti-Semitism. The old paradigm and the old labels are now meaningless. New alliances must be forged with those who possess moral clarity and genuine love of the Jewish people and Israel. No longer can we continue to be the ‘useful idiots’ of the Left. Some of the finest human beings I have ever met are those on the Right.
Joe Kolakowski, Orthodox, Koblentz-Richmonder Rov: Turning away potential converts with such fervor. Neither the Talmud nor the Codes ever codified any law mandating that a potential convert must be discouraged three times (an idea loosely based on the Book of Ruth), yet this has somehow crept into the collective consciousness. The fact is that the Talmud and the Codes both say that we should not discourage a potential convert too much, but rather we should encourage conversion when we see someone is sincere. However, due to draconian measures, mostly from Centrist Orthodox (not Haredi, as is often claimed) Rabbinical organizations, these laws have been ignored and violated, causing much pain to people who just want to come close to God and His Torah.
Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Co-Founder of Base Hillel: The chutzpah we have to declare whose Jewish beliefs are beyond the pale strikes me as distinctively non-Jewish. To be sure, one can be a heretic, apostate, agnostic or atheist but they’re still Jewish. One can make choices that remove or distance themselves and their families from Jewish tradition and Jewish communities, but they are still a Jew. The Jew who believes that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah and the Jew who believes the Torah was written by a human pen are Jews. The Jew who eats only the most stringent of kosher certifications and the Jew who converts to Christianity is still a Jew. Jews should stop caring about who is in and who is out and reemphasize the idea that every Jew is connected, arevin zeh la zeh, and is part of an unbreakable family bond.
Adam Jacobs, Orthodox, Aish Center: Historian Paul Johnson once wrote of anti-Semitism that “In my view as a historian, it is so peculiar that it deserves to be placed in a quite different category.” This peculiarity holds true of the Jewish People as a whole and across the board. Though we are actively engaged in world affairs, when it comes to our core mission of teaching humanity about the One God and about Godly behavior, we will always be “a nation that dwells alone.” As such, one (among many) things that Jews should stop doing is behaving as if we are just another “normal” group among the nations. Rather, we should actively, joyously and proudly re-accept our historical mandate to be a “light unto the nations” and all that that entails.
Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”: Jews should end our internal triumphalism, the denominational attitude that says any one branch of Judaism is doing it “right” and therefore everyone else is doing it “wrong.” That’s as unhelpful as inter-religious triumphalism. I’d love to see us instead celebrating the diversities inherent in the spectrum of clal Yisrael, the whole Jewish community. Some of my favorite Jewish experiences have come from davening and learning with rabbis of other denominations, and being able to cherish my own flavor of Judaism even as I also open myself to appreciating what’s sweet about theirs.
Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of TorahMusings.com: Tradition teaches that first you stop doing bad and then start doing good. However, in today’s world, many people cannot follow that order precisely. Every Jew should start by accepting on themselves two observances — one between them and God and one between them and another Jew. Take them seriously. Treat those observances like the sacred opportunities these mitzvot are. These will help us grow in awareness of our responsibilities to God, to other people and to ourselves. Mitzvot are a light burden when we enjoy them and see how they transform us. The more good we do, the more we will choose to avoid doing bad.
Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim: Supporting racism.
Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders: Jews should stop denigrating one another. It pains me deeply when one faction of the Jewish community lashes out against another. We have deep divisions in opinion about Israel, egalitarianism, LGBTQ rights, intermarriage, and US domestic policies. For centuries Judaism has survived knowing there are differing opinions on significant matters. Just look at all of the arguments between the rabbis in the Talmud. Yet today many of these disagreements are tearing our communities apart. I believe that one of the core values of Judaism is a pluralist outlook, allowing for differing beliefs and opinions. It’s time to embrace this outlook again and stop the name calling that happens on both sides.
Michael P. Sternfield, Reform, Temple Beth El: We must stop pretending that Jewish life in the U.S. is pretty much the same as it has been, and all that is needed are new methods and gimmicks to attract the next generation to synagogues and Jewish institutions. There has been a sea change in the attitudes of young Jews who do not feel the desire or the obligation to join or participate. The Shoah and the State of Israel are no longer compelling factors. The evidence is abundant, but institutional Judaism has not demonstrated the willingness to confront what is undeniable. There is not much time left: one generation at the most.
Uri Pilichowski, Orthodox, Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah: Jews must immediately stop speaking ill of each other. As a people we need more unity, not division. There will always be more that unites any two Jews than divides them. We need to stop the infighting.