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Apr 25 2011

Enough with the “Bad Jew” Talk

By at 10:25 am

Eating bread during Passover doesn't make you a "bad Jew."

Passover is almost over.  Goodbye matzoh, goodbye gefilte fish, goodbye brisket.  And goodbye to the all the good-Jew/bad-Jew talk.  Hopefully.

It comes up a few times a year, mostly around the holidays. You know what I’m talking about—it’s the “oh, you’re keeping Passover, you’re such a good Jew!” and “I had a bagel yesterday for lunch, I’m a terrible Jew.”

Standards are different in every community, but amongst my relatively progressive, sort-of observant friends and fellow-congregants, it goes something like this: Good Jews belong to a synagogue, and go to temple for holidays and social action events, but it’s cool to spend Saturdays taking the kids to the farm or a soccer game or running a few errands. We don’t necessarily keep kosher, but if we’re not vegetarian, we definitely buy organic, grass-fed meat. Good Jews don’t have to send their kids to Jewish day school, but Hebrew school is a must.  We fast on Yom Kippur, but not on Tisha B’av, and we circumcise our kids, but spend most of the bris standing in the back of the room talking about how barbaric it is.  Most importantly, though, we’re sure to remind ourselves, and everyone else, of when we’re being bad Jews. Then we laugh and take another bite of the crab cake.

The bad Jew talk drives me nuts. I know it’s generally offered as a light-hearted joke, but the offhand comments betray a deeper truth—the guilt that we all carry, the genetic and cultural legacy of Jewish mothers (and fathers, to be honest). Parenthood is hard enough, even if you’re not trying to raise your children in a minority culture while also struggling with the schedules, foods, and standards of mainstream America.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the judgment (self-imposed or otherwise) behind the “bad Jew” comments tends to isolate those who aren’t “good Jews.” Once you’ve taken on the label, it’s hard to decide you don’t want it anymore, should the time ever come.  And even if that day never comes, even if you fully intend to spend every Yom Kippur for the rest of your life eating bacon cheeseburgers at the mall, I would still contend that you’re not a bad Jew.

I just don’t think there’s such a thing.

I do think there are people who do bad things (and I’m not talking about eating bread during Passover). I think there are Jews who don’t find meaning or fulfillment in the religious aspects of Judaism. I also think there are the aspirational amongst us—our engagement with Judaism isn’t quite where we want it to be, but life is busy and we’re working and raising kids, but every year, with each passing Shabbat and holiday, we do a little better, and come a little closer to becoming the Jew we want to be, the Jew we want our children to see. But I don’t think there are bad Jews.

So, as Pesach comes to an end, perhaps we can all free ourselves from the judgment behind the good/bad labels.  Really, we’re just a bunch of Jews making the best choices we can in a complicated, busy world.  That should be enough, right?

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