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Am I A Bad Jew?

Since my interviews last year, I have consistently maintained that if there is something odd or confusing encountered in any of the changes to our services that have come up while I have led services, that I would much prefer that the questions be asked directly to me than spoken about in frustration where I am unable to aid in the dialogue. If something comes up, I encourage you to email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with the heading “Ask the Rabbi” and I will happily answer them in order in this space. This week, the question was “Am I a bad Jew?”

   OK, full disclosure, this question wasn’t really asked, at least not in this way. This formulation is more of a response to a variety of conversations over the last weeks regarding specific halakhic (Jewish legal) customs, rulings and interpretations. Although seldom said directly, this pattern of thought comes in response to one of several prompts: being told by someone that self-identifies or presents as “more observant” (there is so much behind that, that it is worth an entire conversation if not an entire adult education series) that we are doing something wrong/don’t know what we are doing, not following through some Jewish ritual set by family parents (e.g. synagogue attendance or home ritual such as candle lighting), or personal disappointment for not following through with a goal set after a moment of strength/weakness where we said, for example, “This year I will read the weekly parashah without fail!” Of course, there is also the “I am a bad Jew” response after getting caught enjoying a ham sandwich.

   So, the easy answer is, “no,” but not necessarily for obvious reasons. More than anything, I wish to help us all enter into a different type of dialogue when we have such unspoken thoughts. This does not mean I am saying, “Go and find as many ways possible to contravene Jewish tradition,” or even, “Let’s see what happens when we eat a bacon double cheeseburger with prawns, bugs, and oyster sauce.” I believe strongly in the mitzvot as a pathway to societal and communal cohesion in addition to personal spiritual growth. I just believe that a certain type of flagellant reaction to Jewish law ensures that no mitzvot are fulfilled, rather than encouraging more exploration of Jewish tradition and sacred obligations.

   The underlying assumption of the “I am a bad Jew” trope is that halakhah and/or tradition is binary: Either I am following/fulfilling or I am not. That is the first thought-trap that needs to be let go. Judaism of today is based on rabbinical Judaism—the Judaism of the Talmud. In Reform we often focus more intensely on Torah, which from a legal standpoint is the foundational constitution of Temple Judaism, something that ceased to exist when the Romans destroyed the second Temple in 70 CE. The Talmud and subsequent documents in dialogue with the Talmud were an attempt reset our legal basis to the reality of a diaspora community without temple, king, priests or prophets. Yet the Talmud itself is not a code of Jewish law, rather it is a sometimes-fantastical record of dialogues about legal issues between hundreds of rabbis over the course of centuries. For every legal question that is posed, roughly half are left with discussion but no definitive legal answer. Half. That begs the question as to whether rabbinical Judaism is actually about a functioning legal system or if it is about the presentation of a dialogic process.

   The second thought trap, intrinsically intertwined with the first, is that there is a definitive single right way of fulfilling a mitzvah. This is also a much larger discussion, but in a nutshell, the result of the dialogic nature of the Talmud was that it did not serve the practical purpose of providing an easily accessible legal reference. In the centuries after the compilation of Talmudic documents, numerous attempts were made to re-organize Talmudic jurisprudence into a “look-up” codex. Of course to do this, you need to choose among the options presented in the discussions with no definitive answer, removing the underlying dialogic structure and replacing it with the perception that there is a definitive answer. The most authoritative of these attempts, the 16th century Shulkhan Aruch, took definitive rulings from three earlier authoritative sources (in addition to an added gloss from an Ashkenazi source to point out different interpretations from Sephardic ones) to create a one-stop-shop pre-internet halakhic look-up. And it is incredibly useful! If I get a question about how much honey I can put in challah before it is mezoines (no longer “bread”) I know that the answer with be somewhere in Yoreh De’ah, the section dealing with issues of kashrut (in addition to conversion, mourning, and family purity.) I don’t always want to take the time to study the entire process by which Jewish tradition evolved to come up with that ruling, I just want a quick answer. The problem arises when I then tell someone else that uses a different ruling (Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews have differing answers to the question of sweet challah) that they are wrong. That single statement and the chutzpah that any of us feel that we can easily make such a statement in an offhand manner based on personal tradition, experience, “how I learned it,” or “that’s just how it is done here,” is exactly what begins the thought process that leads up to “I am a bad Jew” and often continues to the process of disenfranchisement. “Well, if I can’t do anything right, why bother even trying.”

   The beautiful irony of this is how early Jews recognized the danger of codex thinking versus dialogic thinking. The Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel), a contemporary of Joseph Caro and Moshe Isserles (the authors of the Shulkhan Aruch and the accompanying Ashkenazic gloss respectively) wrote:

  To decide halakhic questions from the codes without knowing the source of the ruling was not the intent of these authors. Had they known that their works would lead to the abandonment of Talmud, they would not have written them. It is better for one to decide on the basis of the Talmud even though he might err, for a scholar must depend solely on his understanding. As such, he is beloved of God, and preferable to the one who rules from a code but does not know the reason for the ruling; such a one walks like a blind person.”

   This is, in my most non-humble opinion, the single most important quote in halakhic studies that is seldom taught. It flies in the face of every single time any of us have ever felt justified passing on a received position or opinion of Jewish law to another with the intentionality of weaponizing our interpretation. “I am right and you are wrong.” Jewish law is simply too complicated to be distilled into a sound-byte, and doing so obfuscates if not destroys the entire underlying ethic and aesthetic of Judaism: to be in dialogue and to never stop learning.

  

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