What makes a “good Jew?”
Is it the weekly observance of Shabbat without fail, or volunteering in a soup kitchen each Saturday afternoon? Is it being committed to giving your child a full Torah education at any cost, or is it making sure that your school district adequately distributes funds for all its schools? Is it learning the Gemara in a room all day, or is it going out into the world and making a difference with Torah values?
A good Jew does all of those things. But is it possible to be “a good Jew” more than someone else—to be more Jewish?
I grew up in New City, New York. It’s a town with a large and involved Reform and Conservative Jewish population. Public schools are off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and most of the non-Jewish kids have been to more bar and bat mitzvahs than Jewish kids who live outside of New York. (I have an Episcopalian friend who was appalled and confused when, in college, none of his friends knew what a Passover seder was, so he explained it to them, flawlessly.)
In New City, being Jewish just was. It was in the fabric of our being, and it meant that we went to Hebrew School and Youth Group and volunteered and gave tzedakah. It meant that the JCC-Y’s Mitzvah Maker’s program was just a natural extension of our benevolent Judaism. By planting trees and serving on our Temple Boards and wearing the diamond Star of David necklace our bubbes got us for our bat mitzvahs meant that we were Jewish, all the time!
And we did it right, unlike those Monsey Jews over there, we were sure, who dressed in funny outfits and thought that it made them more Jewish than us. And the same went for those New Square Jews over there, who we heard would get married religiously but not secularly, and then have 10 kids and claim welfare as a single mother even though the husband made $100k off the books, claiming their entire house as a tax write-off because they had a study room where some people sat and did nothing but learn Torah all day.
My friends and our parents often wondered aloud, How is their way of living more Jewish than the tzedakah we give and the volunteering we do? In fact, we lived by Rabbi Hillel’s maxim: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this.”
Maybe, though, we forgot that last part of the quote that says, “Go and study it!”
The Jews of nearby Monsey, New Square, and Wesley Hills, probably weren’t thinking about us nearly as much as we thought of them. When we’d interact at the local JCC, though, I’d get a lot of Orthodox eyes on me and explanations about how I wasn’t really Jewish because I was wearing jeans and a spaghetti strap tank top; about how I wasn’t a “good Jew” because I’d spend my Saturdays volunteering and giving back to my community instead of celebrating Shabbat; about how we weren’t really Jewish because we thought our lives revolved around our Judaism, but we had no idea.
Guess what? They were right. We really had no idea.
While we woke up in the morning and maybe thought about our Jewishness when we put on our Star of David necklace, they thought about their Jewishness when they got up and thanked God for returning their souls, then went to the bathroom and washed their hands and thanked God for the way our body works, and then thought about their Jewishness in the outfits that they picked out, and the order with which they put on their shoes. And as we opened our daily planners to check which youth group or board meeting was scheduled, they opened their siddurim, put on tefillin, and prayed. As we drove to work, so did they, but every time they ate a snack or their breakfast, they thanked God. (They also skipped the drive-thru, since remembering to be conscious of the food they put into their mouths as service to God is a routine part of their lives, and since kosher drive-thrus are few and far between.)
By the time we finished our after-school and post-work meetings, we’d woven being a Jew into our day for a few hours, maybe having it cross our minds 100 times in the day. By the time they finished theirs, they had done Jewish every hour, and it was infused in most of the words they spoke and details as mundane as the order they put on their shoes. We had no idea that what we had was a Jewish religion, culture, activities; they had a Jewish way of life.
But does any of this make either group a “better” Jew than the other? Not necessarily.
To Orthodox Jews, before you judge your Reform, Conservative, and even secular Jewish friends, acknowledge this: At the end of the day, even with less learning and a less structured daily conversation with Hashem, they are more Jewish than you. Why? Because without having delved deep into Torah and Gemara, they instinctively know they’re supposed to take care of and be the light unto the nations, rather than deprive them of their shine.
And to Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews, acknowledge this about our Orthodox bretheren: Even with a little less heart, and a selectiveness to their kindness, they are more Jewish than you, because they remember that God said to keep the Torah, and that it’s what makes us a nation.
And at the end of the day, even with disagreements and factions, we all are only “more Jewish” when we’re all together. Jews have always been a mixed multitude, and it takes all kinds to make up our nation. Ahavat shamayim (love of Heaven) and yirat shamayim (fear of Heaven) are equally important.
We’ve just gone through a month of our holiest days as Jews. Did you attend services? Did you mean the words in the machzor, or even use your own? Did you fast, in practice and in soul?
In the spirit of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, ask a “different” kind of Jew to forgive you for your thoughts of “less than” in the new year. Maybe even tell them something you admire about their Jewish practice. Learn to incorporate what you admire about their practice into yours for this new year. In the spirit of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, let us dwell together in happiness and joy.
Only then can we truly be more Jewish.
Shoshana Ne’ora Rishon, the daughter of a German Jewish mother and Black Catholic father, is a biracial advocate, interracial & inter-religious family adviser, and general race conversationalist. She blogs, speaks publicly, and runs classes for interracial families on socio-racial identity development. She (reluctantly) lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.