When Judaism makes you less Jewish
You're Jewish. But are you THAT kind of Jewish?
By Rabbi Patrick Beaulier
Let’s start with a confession…
I’m a bit obsessed with the TheTorah.com.
Once upon a time I lived in Toco Hills, the Orthodox neighborhood in Atlanta, GA. Of my many interesting run ins at the kosher Kroger grocery story was scholar Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber. He was the one who introduced me to the way that academic biblical scholarship was being democratized, especially in a way that helped prevent the negation of traditional Judaism in the face of growing knowledge about the Bible and its origins. In other words: you don’t have to leave Orthodoxy in order to take Biblical criticism seriously.
I met TheTorah.com at a great time in my life. In the early days of the PunkTorah network, I was a little religiously unsure of myself. I had the blessing of converting to Judaism with Reconstructionist Rabbi Joshua Lesser (then of Congregation Bet Haverim). Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was an influence on me: while I began my spiritual journey in Reform settings, particularly Classical Reform, I lived with the reality that Jews were more than a religion. We were something else. And to Kaplan, the term evolving, religious civilization seemed to work. It works for me as well. Not perfectly, but good enough.
There was just one problem: I take faith seriously.
Yes - I could believe that the Torah was a product of human imagination. Not a fairy tale, and not the perfect word of God, but something else entirely. Like a kind of graduate school group project between God and a particular human family, with some people doing more of the work, and others screwing it up, and some people trying to overachieve and others slacking off. As Rabbi Les Bronstein at Temple Bet Am says, the torah is a “response to the sacred”. I like that.
But let’s be honest. For many Jews, these conversations are just not part of the equation. As a friend of mine put it, “my coworkers will sometimes ask me what it was like growing up Jewish. My answer: it was just the same as anyone else’s life.” For my friend, Jewish identity, spirituality, torah, etc. etc. was simply not relevant. As Rabbi Sherwin Wine said in this video about his growing up, “God wasn’t relevant. Hitler was relevant.”
That’s OK for him. I can see growing up how that makes sense. But what about us? What if our desire for a Jewish religion is a bigger part of the identity than culture?
What about the believers? The answer is obvious: be Orthodox.
But we know it’s not that simple. What if you live outside a Jewish community? What if the structure of the Orthodox world does not work for you? What if you’re like me — reading about biblical criticism and saying that you just can’t take the fences around the torah seriously, at least not the fences-around-the-fences? You get into a situation like radio personality Dennis Prager who said that Orthodox Jews were his spiritual brothers, but it’s just not a place he could find himself. (He says it’s because of yom tov sheini — which is interesting).
While this is all a cool mental exercise, it does make communal life tricky. I recall a Shabbat potluck where we asked people, in observance of kosher dietary practices, to please bring a vegetarian dish. They brought (non-kosher) chicken soup, and then stuck one of my ladles in their pot. OK — fine, I can see where you’re coming from.
We’ve seen rabbi drive to shul.
He has tattoos.
He hangs out at LGBTQ+ Pride festivals.
So certainly he doesn’t care about chicken soup.
Except, at least in that moment, he did.
I recall years later someone who had been a congregant of mine saying, “we did not realize you were that religious when we hired you.” I was the rabbi in that scenario. Think that one through for a minute.
There are these places and times that are very Jewish — a synagogue, a b’nai mitzvah, a wedding, a funeral, a holiday — and you express yourself Jewishly because that’s what Jews do in Jewish spaces. And then you have a moment of self consciousness where you realize you’re the only one doing the Jewish part of the Jewish thing. It’s almost like a collective voice is saying “quit all that Judaism, you’re disrupting the Jewishness.”
Another story. I was sitting in a van on the way to the airport with a few strangers. The van driver wanted to make conversation with me (my family will tell you that this drives them nuts — everywhere I go, people want to talk to me — and I don’t know why, but I go along with it.) He asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a rabbi. Somehow this turned around on another passenger who happened to be Jewish as well. I made an offhand comment like, “oh, you should come over for Shabbos” to which he replied…
I’m not THAT kind of Jewish.
This circles back to this odd position. Very spiritually centered, but on the outskirts. Very observant in some ways, but not in others. My former home at the Conservative congregation Ahavath Achim in Atlanta, GA calls this transgressive traditional. My wife calls it Frum Reform. I sometimes like the word practicing — in the sense that I am practicing being Jewish, but would never lay claim to perfecting it.
Over the years I have learned that many, many, many of us fit into this category. We are THAT kind of Jewish. The kind that’s practicing and never perfecting. The kind that wants to know what the boundaries are, and uphold them (sometimes, or at least until we learn more about them and realize they are not boundaries but meaningless obstacles.) We’re the kind of people, the kind of Jewish people, who take Judaism seriously, and take being Jewish seriously, but take it so seriously that it feels like there is nothing for us at all. The kind of people who are so Jewish that they sometimes don’t feel Jewish at all.
But are you THAT kind of Jewish?
The kind of Jewish that Rabbi Patrick is?
Let’s talk more about it. Post below!