“I’m a cultural Jew.”
People generally say it after they find out I’m a rabbi. I know exactly what’s going on when they say it: they suspect that I will judge them a Bad Jew, because they aren’t “religious.” And either they are cringing at the prospect of judgment or they are angry at the prospect of judgment. Either way, it’s a barrier.
I wish I could convince them that I know enough about Jewish history and Jewish scripture to withhold my judgment. Whatever the ideal of “a good Jew” one may have in mind, history offers a wild diversity of Jewish role models. Secular Jews have been active in many of the great social justice movements of our time. They have been influential philosophers, artists, scientists, musicians, lawyers, actors, writers, and economists. Their Jewish cultural identity has informed their lives and work.
Some secular Jewish role models:
- Queen Esther
- David Ben Gurion
- Baruch Spinoza
- Albert Einstein
- Isaac Asimov
- Shaul Tchernichovsky
- David Ricardo
- Amos Oz
I am much more interested in what you are doing about being Jewish, than that it happens in a way approved by some particular corner of the tribe. There are many ways to be Jewish. Let’s celebrate them all.
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