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Saturday, July 12, 2014

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Who is your bad Jew?

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Apparently many of us are from Amalek, the ancient nation dedicated to destroying the Jews. Anyone who wears a knitted kippah is an Amalekite, a leading Israeli haredi rabbi said earlier this summer. “Are these people even Jews,” he asked?

Truth be told, it’s not so shocking; nasty rhetoric is as old as Jewish history. But put the nastiness aside, and you will recognize that we do have a need to define what it means to be a good Jew and, at the same time, decide who is a bad Jew.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim explained that reacting to deviance is a way of drawing communal boundaries and defining what a community is about. And if we’re honest, we’ll admit that every group of Jews, including our very own, does exactly this: we decide who is a bad Jew.

Jewish identity, like any group identity, requires us to decide which heresies are unacceptable. Every Jew, from Reconstructionist to haredi, has a clear definition of who is a bad Jew, and there’s a laundry list of criteria, including intermarriage, hatred of Israel, lack of observance on one side, and intolerance, homophobia, and fundamentalism on the other side.

Our reaction to deviance can lead a major Orthodox rabbinic figure to be stringent on a minor matter of custom “lest it lead to Reform” and lead a well known Reform rabbi to call his movement’s re-embrace of mitzvot “right-wing… religiosity – even fundamentalism.”

Yes, it might sound funny, but without a clear idea of who is a bad Jew, we cannot truly define ourselves. If we are everything, then we are nothing.

But where we fail is when we turn the search for the bad Jew into the essence of who we are. Another sociologist, Kai Erikson, points out that when some communities feel threatened, they will seek out “bad” members to denounce. In doing so, the community is strengthened while it unites in anger at the threat, the deviant who wants to “ruin” the community. (One of Erikson’s examples is the Salem witch trials).

But for Jews, this course is ultimately self-destructive. Judaism has a mission and a message. When we spend our time denouncing others, we end up with a Judaism of negativity, a bitter mix of dogma, criticism and anger. People who don’t share our high standards of kashrut or political correctness will be excluded and insulted. Instead of being a united people and the proud inheritors of a 3,300-year-old tradition, we’ll end up being anti-intermarriage, anti-anti-Semitism, anti-fanaticism and anti-everyone else.

When a rabbi denounces slightly less Orthodox Jews as anti-Semites, it’s time to realize that internecine battles are destroying us. The head of the Volozhin Yeshiva, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Berlin, wrote that legitimate criticism can morph into self-destructive hunts for heresy and needless hatred.

If we fixate on denouncing heretics, we’ll end up turning everyone into a heretic. And in the process, we’ll forget our heritage and our community.

Each of us has a portrait of what we think a bad Jew looks like. The problem is, if all we do is fixate on this portrait, we ourselves are the only truly bad Jews.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

 

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