Rabbi Patrick Aleph over at PunkTorah has a post titled “You Aren’t Jewish Enough,” in which he discusses responses to questions about someone’s legitimacy as a good-enough Jew. He concludes that “we are so obsessed with legitimacy and looking like we know what we are doing that is keeps us from doing amazing things in Jewish life.”
He’s right. But I wonder whether this problem isn’t somewhat inherent to any form of Judaism that ascribes some level of super-human (as in, above and outside of humanity, not Superman-like superhuman) divine inspiration to the dictates of the Torah (oral and/or written).
One problem we face is that these divine-command aligned readings of Jewish sources make each commandment a divine dictate. When your actions are divinely required, you can’t really measure up, since the divine is inevitably described as perfect and beyond comprehension. So you are always left knowing that whatever you’ve done–however much you’ve done and in whatever manner–you haven’t really done it right.
Rabbinic Judaism–and thus much of Judaism as we know it today as inheritor of the rabbinic legacy–is intended as a scaffold to provide some guidance and ease the concerns one might have to the question of whether the commandment was done right. But we’ve seen that, over time, the interpretations of the commandments tend to become more strict and more burdensome; the interpretations cease to be a scaffold that can comfort individuals who inevitably will fall short, and instead become just a greater part of the burden.
By continuing to propagate a divine-command centered mentality–and by focusing on the public facets of observance, an inevitable change in Jewish life after the move to America–we reap the seeds of individuals feeling illegitimately Jewish, and sow them in the next generation.
How to get past this? Patrick Aleph attempted to reach out to people and invite them to do something in their bailiwick. This can help–though it’s hard to tell from the article whether he knew what people were interested in and tried to get them to engage, or simply solicited a “whatever” kind of contribution; the latter would be less likely to get someone to agree to help than the former, but I don’t know what happened in this case. (I also wonder whether the difficulty in getting someone to volunteer might not come from the remote nature of how the OneShul community works–since it’s online, you don’t get the personal-level ask that, let’s face it, makes it hard to say no when it’s easier to say that in an email.)
If we want more people engaged–if we want to sow something better than what we have–we’ll need to start by changing the culture as it is now so that people do begin to feel legitimate, and so that those who follow will not be made to feel illegitimate. There will not be an immediate path to this–so Rabbi Aleph, keep trying, in a focused way–because there’s enough alienation that getting this done will be a long process.
Ultimately, it may take rewriting Judaism; it’s always hard to know how those processes will work. But perhaps we can cease with the insistence on matrilineal descent for full membership in the community, so that individuals aren’t simply frozen out. Perhaps, too, we can change the rhetoric of what it means to be actively Jewish, so that the feeling one carries with them is more important than in the past.
And perhaps we can construct a Judaism that features less scolding, so that those who are already coming in the doors aren’t chased out for feeling inadequate. I know of a version of Jewish life that can do this…