What does it mean to be a “Bad Jew?”
Ask this to a Jewish community and you’ll get lots of answers –– more likely as confessions than accusations.
In any Jewish community, I’ve found people have leaped at the opportunity to blame themselves: they will tell you, over and over, that they’re “Bad Jews”: that they’ve been eating cake on Passover, playing Candy Crush during Yom Kippur, or even sneaking Santa Claus into their family Hanukkah.
What’s interesting is that if these “Bad Jews” knew about each other, they’d smile, nod and forgive each other––they know firsthand how complex life and religion can be. But when these self-described “Bad Jews” think about themselves, all that nuance goes out the window.
It’s a bittersweet irony: so many wonderful, thoughtful and intellectually Jews are better at accepting the differences of others than they are at accepting the contradictions in themselves.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a Professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union Ccollege, urges Jews to, “Claim whatever you like of Jewish tradition as your own; it is, by nature, already yours. Never say, ‘I don’t know enough, I came to it too late, I wasn’t raised with it in my bones.’ Say instead, ‘I know enough to know it’s mine, I came to it in time to own it now, I can make it part of me in my own way, in my own time.’”
Rabbi Yossi Marcus, the director of Chabad on the North Peninsula, refers to the phenomenon as “low Jewish self-esteem.”
That resonates with me. I’ve seen too many wonderful Jewish people somehow decide that they were “Bad Jews.” They worry that they may somehow be outside the umbrella of Judaism––as though, across all 5780 years of Jewish history and counting, they are somehow so different, so wrong, as not to count. What saddens me more and should concern anyone who cares about a vibrant Jewish future, is that feeling like a Bad Jew can start as an emotion but can morph into an action. The footsteps of so called “Bad Jews” can be heard as they leave virtually every Jewish institution because they feel they don’t count.
They’re wrong. They count. They belong. In fact, many of them are finding resonance in JewBelong, an organization I co-founded.
Judaism is a living religion. It has survived by living: by living beyond the destruction of the temple, beyond the boundaries of time and space, through persecution and plagues. And Judaism has survived not merely for but through us.
You, as you are, are the past, present and future of Judaism –– coming along with all of us into this new Jewish year.
That’s why JewBelong is producing “Sins, Stars and Shofars” as a Virtual Rosh Hashanah Experience on September 18th, 7:30pm EST –– and available to watch the entire High Holiday season as a fundraiser for GlobalJews.org, which focuses on Jews of Color and racial equality in the Jewish community.
With this event, we’re highlighting Jewish and non-Jewish voices from all walks of life, backgrounds and beliefs to celebrate the new year. We’re producing online rituals alongside JewBelong’s Rosh Hashanah booklet with the “script” for Sins, Stars and Shofars so all viewers will be able to follow along.
So please, come to the table knowing you’re as invited as you are already. Know that your questions –– spoken or silent –– are the backbone from which the religion grows.
That’s the Judaism I know. And that’s the Judaism I hope you can know, too.
Archie Gottesman is the cofounder of JewBelong.com.