A Jewish guy walks into a restaurant and orders a bacon cheeseburger. Three rabbis walk into a bar and discuss if this makes him a bad Jew. The first scenario is hypothetical; the second took place on the evening of Aug. 18 at the 18th Street Lounge in downtown Washington.
Washington Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Aaron Miller, Gather the Jews Community Rabbi Aaron Potek and Rabbi Sarah Tasman, director of InterfaithFamily/DC, sat down with moderator Sara Shalva, director of Jewish innovation at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center for a spirited discussion about what makes a bad Jew.
EntryPointDC, the DCJCC’s young adults group, put together the program.
“A bad Jew is someone who checks out of the Jewish story,” said Miller, adding that doing so doesn’t make one a bad person. “They don’t see themselves as a part of the Jewish story or are distant from…the thousands of years of narrative that has built up to this conversation.”
To Tasman, a bad Jew is someone who hurts other Jews in the name of Judaism, using the example of the physical and verbal attacks on the Women of the Wall, a group advocating for greater access for women at the Kotel, by some in Israel’s Orthodox Jewish community.
“They can’t be a good Jew … if their behavior is ethically problematic for me,” said Tasman.
Judgement can cut both ways, Potek pointed out, reminding that non-Orthodox Jews sometimes judge the Orthodox, too.
“I’m not afraid of having a conversation with someone else where I say, ‘I don’t like your Judaism. I don’t connect to it. I have a hard time connecting to it. I don’t get it.’ And I want them to say the same thing to me. That’s the Jewish project,” said Potek.
Tasman said her issue is with “official” messaging about what kind of Judaism is acceptable, such as how the Reform movement is branded in Israel.
Israel’s Religious Services Minister David Azoulay, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, recently remarked that Reform Jews cannot be considered Jewish because Reform Jews stopped “following the religion of Israel.”
His comments drew a sharp rebuke from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who said in statement that Azoulay’s views of Reform Judaism were “ignorant and myopic.”
But what about Jewish people who take their badness as a badge of honor?
Let someone be a bad Jew if that is how he or she self-identifies, suggested Potek. But perhaps being a bad Jew isn’t such a bad thing if it is part of a spiritual quest.
“If you have reached this level where you understand what Judaism is, you are doing everything perfectly — I don’t know anyone like that. Teach me,” Potek said. “I would much rather be a bad Jew than a good Jew, meaning I would much rather have this sense of I have something that I’m striving to be and I’m not there yet.”