By Rabbi Erin Boxt
While studying with a conversion student this week, I was asked, “What makes someone a good Jew?”
The question was asked because recently this student had been told by someone: “I am Jewish, but I am not a good Jew.” So my student asked me how that can be determined.
Think about the question for a second. You can probably answer similar questions pretty easily, such as “What makes someone a good baseball player?” or “What makes someone a good guitar player?”
Defining one’s ability to be a good Jew is totally different. After all, how do we decide? Who has the right (on Earth) to make that decision?
OK, OK, so I hear my more traditionally leaning colleagues and friends saying: “That’s easy. Do they follow the commandments? Do they keep Shabbat?”
Well, I do not believe the answer to be that easy. If we were living in biblical times, it would be easy to define ourselves as good or not good Jews. We would follow the Law as it is laid out in the Bible. No one knew any different. You either did or you didn’t, period. Being Jewish was a matter of biology—if your mother was Jewish, you were Jewish. PERIOD.
If we were living in Talmudic times, defining ourselves as good Jews would imply a much more developed answer, as we would be applying not just the Written Torah to our lives, but also the Oral Torah (the Mishnah, Talmud, etc.).
We would need to observe a larger amount of laws, but, once again, being Jewish was biological—if your mother was Jewish, you were Jewish. Even if you were a bad Jew, you were still a Jew.
Now we fast-forward to modern times. We have many more Jewish books to consider. We have many more laws, commentaries, etc., that can help us determine whether we are good Jews or not.
But wait—really? What about liberal Judaism, which views the Torah as a living document, constantly in an evolving state?
It is not as if we are changing or ignoring the laws. Rather, we are learning the laws, considering them, and then, using our contemporary minds, deciding for ourselves (yes, as individuals) what constitutes being Jewish.
Now, I am not suggesting that our Sacred Texts should be ignored or forgotten. Not at all. After all, these texts have taken us to today and have allowed us to thrive even in the most dreadful of times.
Today, when someone tells me he or she is a bad Jew, I reply, “Who is a good Jew?” God chose the Jews not to be better than other peoples. Rather, we are expected to live our lives by the biblical directive “V’ahavtah L’reiacha Kamocha”: Love your neighbor as yourself.
This may be hard for some of us to swallow. After all, we are the People of the Book. Yes, THE Book, the Torah. And being the People of the Book requires us to live our lives as an example.
So do not worry if someone accuses you of being a bad Jew. You are the one who has to look in the mirror and appreciate who you are. Just be the best Jew you know how to be.