For the past three years some of my fellow Jews have been telling me that I’m not a very good Jew because I happened to vote for the presidential candidate of a major American political party. Putting aside the possible naivete in my beliefs that we live in a good country filled with mostly decent people, regardless of their political ideologies, and that it’s virtually impossible for a truly monstrous person to get through the years-long vetting process of getting nominated, let alone elected, I’m a bit perplexed. The last time I looked, not one of the 613 commandments (yeah, there are way more than the big ten) that God gave the Jews in the Torah obligates me to vote for a particular person or party.
Even more perplexing is the fact that the Jews telling me that I’m not a good Jew hold mutually contradicting beliefs about Jewish identity and for the most part are nearly complete ignoramuses about Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish history.
I suppose if I’m critiquing others I should lay out my bona fides when it comes to my own relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people (two related but different concepts that I’ll address later). The term I prefer to use to describe myself is “unorthodox Jew.” I’m descended from a long line of people who think they can argue with the Supreme Being, and win the argument. The synagogue I don’t go to, when I don’t go, is an orthodox shul. When I do go to services I have my choice of a half dozen minyanim within a five minute walk, but I typically pray at the nearby kollel, a post-ordination seminary that I can see from my house. There have been times in my life when I’ve been Sabbath observant, Shomer fuckin’ Shabbas as Walter Sobchak would say, and times when I haven’t been so. It’s not that I don’t believe the mitzvot, the commandments, are binding. My position is similar to career criminals who say “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Let’s just say the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Who among us always lives up to our highest values?
Anyhow, I have orthodox Jewish grandchildren so I can honestly say that whatever my failings are as a Jew and as a person I’ve done my part in the chain of our heritage. Speaking of which, what does President Trump have that many of his Jewish critics don’t have? Jewish grandchildren. Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Try the veal, it’s kosher l’mehadrin.
I went to a Hebrew day school for K-9 and while going to a public high school I simultaneously attended a local community run Jewish college. As an adult I’ve been affiliated with a number of Jewish institutions. I have been a professional staff member of Jews for Judaism, a non-profit Jewish outreach organization. Outside of my Jewish education and affiliations, I majored in Studies in Religion at the University of Michigan, where my thesis advisor was David Noel Freedman, general editor of the Anchor Bible. Dr. Freedman and a couple other of my professors were students of William Foxwell Allbright, the great biblical archeologist.
All three of my children went to orthodox Jewish parochial schools for their K-12 educations and my son attended the South Bend Yeshiva for high school. One of my daughters works professionally in Jewish education.
I’m fluent in Hebrew, have a passing knowledge of Aramaic, and if my study partner goes slowly enough, I can learn a little Talmud, but I’m far from a Jewish scholar. I do, however, include a number of great Torah scholars among my friends and acquaintances, so if I have a question, I know who to ask, and they’ll likely tell me where on what page of what volume the answer can be found.
Thus, while I’m no talmid chacham, I’m also not a complete ignoramus when it comes to Judaism. Oh, and I also produce custom embroidered Judaica.
The thing is, though, the Jews telling me that I’m a bad Jew don’t know enough about Judaism to be able to tell me just how bad of a Jew that I am. If they had any formal Jewish education, it likely was some kind of very part-time afternoon or Sunday school (at most 2 or 3 hours a week) that probably ended soon after their bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. According to surveys, that describes the formal Jewish education of 75% of American Jews. Very few Jews outside the orthodox community engage in any kind of adult Jewish education (and many who do, use orthodox resources like Partners in Torah). When the hours are added up, they’ve spent about as much time engaged in learning about their Jewish heritage as the elementary school classroom hours spent by a 7 year old in the middle of second grade. Consequently, they have a rather juvenile perspective on one of the world’s great religions and a foundational culture to western civilization. If I gave them a simple quiz on Judaism, Jewish culture, or Jewish history that my 7 year old grandson (who attends an orthodox parochial school) could probably pass, they’d fail, while indignantly questioning who am I to evaluate their own Judaism (ignoring the fact that they’ve done the same to me by saying that if I support Trump I’m a bad Jew).
They are rarely religiously observant, and I’m not just saying they aren’t orthodox. They typically aren’t very observant of Jewish law and ritual as taught by their own Reform and Conservative denominations. They might attend synagogue or temple services twice or three times a year, and they’ll pontificate about Judaism (yeah, I know) to those who go three times a day. They’ll talk about their childhood congregational rabbi as a big influence, or mention some platitude they learned in Hebrew school, usually as validation of their current political beliefs, but they end up sounding like a Jewish Oswald Bates or Norm Crosby with their mispronunciations and malaprops. While there are politically liberal orthodox Jews, among them friends and relatives of mine, they typically know enough about Judaism to not judge me as a Jew based on my secular politics. The same cannot be said about heterodox and unaffiliated Jews.
They’re the kind of Jews who say they are dedicated to “Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world, but they’d never affirm (or actually know) the full context of that ancient phrase, tikkun olam b’malchut shaddai, the repair of the world under the kingdom of God, nor the Aleinu prayer from which it comes, because it’s all about praising and submitting to the Lord.
I realize that for many of them, what little exposure they’ve had to “Judaism” has come from politically left wing Reform and Conservative rabbis so it’s understandable that they think Judaism is some kind of cross between the Declaration of the Rights of Man and whatever the Democratic party platform is this year. When you question their politics, they take it as an attack on their deepest held religious beliefs, which is what their politics are.
They insist that they are proud to be Jews, eager to attack Jew hatred as long as it isn’t coming from the political left, yet I’m not sure exactly how they define themselves to be Jews. They disavow most Jewish religious beliefs and practices, and regard orthodox Jews, particularly chareidim and chassidim, to be troglodytic embarrassments. They’ll mock sheitels and shtreimels, while praising the “bravery”, cultural loyalty, and modesty of Muslims wearing niqabs and hijabs. “Jewess” is verboten*, while “Muslima” is almost an honorific.
While they reject the Jewish religion for the most part, at the same time they also seem to reject the notion of Jewish nationhood. When the New York Times recently mischaracterized President Trump’s executive order extending Civil Rights Act Title VI protections to Jewish students on college campuses as redefining Jews as a nationality (Trump was actually giving EO imprimatur to policies of previous chief executives including Barack Obama), leftist Jews were in high dudgeon, loudly insisting that Trump was literally acting like Hitler, defining Jews as their own nationality, not Americans. Notwithstanding what appears to be the NYT’s deliberately erroneous spin on the president’s order, the simple fact is that Judaism indeed teaches that the Jews are a nation, a people. The New Concordance by Even-Shoshan on my shelf has seven fine-text pages of citations of the Hebrew word Ahm, nation, in the Hebrew bible, many, perhaps most of them references to the Hebrews.
While Judaism says that a child of a Jewish mother is a Jew, regardless of their religious beliefs or actions, I’m not sure how these leftist Jews define themselves as Jews. I may consider them to be Jews, not quite good Jews actually, but Jews nonetheless, but how do they consider themselves to be members of the tribe? They don’t follow the Jewish religion and they reject Jewish nationality, so what makes them Jewish? Bagels on Sunday morning with the New York Times? Chinese and a movie on Christmas?
They’ll characterize President Trump kibbitzing and schmoozing Jewish real estate tycoons laughing at his barbs, as “anti-semitic”, while ignoring verifiable Jew haters like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib because they see them as being on their own political team.
They’re the kind of Jews who join If Not Now, a Soros funded pressure group of irreligious leftist Jews just a couple of degrees of separation removed from the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m writing this on the third day of Chanukah, Jewish festival of lights. The other day, Tlaib sent the Detroit chapter of If Not Now a video with Chanukah greetings wherein she complained about the Jewish occupation of Palestine. Complaining about the Jewish “occupation” of “Falastin” while supposedly celebrating Chanukah gives a new definition to the word chutzpah. Tlaib ostensibly honoring Chanukah while decrying Jewish “occupation” of the Holy Land puts the moron in oxymoronic. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much intellectual rigor from Congresswoman Tlaib. After all, when two black religious nuts in Jersey City recently killed a cop and then shot up a kosher grocery store, killing two Chassidic Jews and a Hispanic employee of the store, Tlaib tweeted blame on “white supremacy”.
The incontrovertible historical fact is that Chanukah celebrates the Hasmoneans (aka Macabees) throwing off Seleucid Hellenic hegemony and reasserting Jewish political sovereignty and religious rights in Judea, Samaria (the so-called “West Bank”) and the rest of the land of Israel centuries before the Romans exiled the Jews and renamed the region Palaestina, after the long-disappeared Philistines.
As with their Tikkun Olam fellow travelers, If Not Now appropriates a term from traditional Judaism, in this case a well known aphorism of the great rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14). Leftist Jews tend to ignore the “if I am not for myself” part, just as much as they ignore or reject the 99% of Hillel’s teachings that disagree with their religious and cultural views. They certainly don’t give much credence to Hillel wanting them to be shomer Shabbas and keep a kosher diet.
On second thought, though, perhaps it was appropriate for Tlaib to send such Chanukah greetings to If Not Now. As much as the Macabees fought a war against the Seleucids, that conflict was also a civil war with Hellenist Jews, Jews who had abandoned traditional Jewish practices, aping Greek culture, seeking affirmation and approval from the hegemonic Seleucids, in some cases even trying to reverse their circumcisions. How’s that for craven? The leftist Jews of If Not Now have likewise abandoned traditional Jewish practices and beliefs in their quest for affirmation and approval from the intersectional left. Had they been around in the time of the Macabees, they would have called Judah and his brothers religious fanatics and nationalist xenophobes just as surely as they call me a bad Jew for voting for Donald Trump.
*When a young Jewish woman told me that the word Jewess was “sexist”, I asked her, “What about dominatrix?” She replied, “Well, that’s a job title,” to which I said, “So feminine suffixes from French are sexist but feminine Latin is okay because it doesn’t sound like “princess”?”