Please Don’t Tell Jews How to be Jewish

Image: Annoyed woman with steam coming out of her ears. (Pixabay)

Lately I’ve noticed an uptick of comments and questions from gentiles that come in the general format:

“Why aren’t you Jews conforming to my ideas of how to be Jewish? Doesn’t that make you a bad Jew?”

Usually they are folks who seem to have read the King James Version of the Bible, and nothing else, and they are bothered that the real live Jews around them aren’t acting like Biblical Jews. Alternatively, they’ve picked up some of the antisemitic tropes about Jews, and they want to know why we don’t act in accordance with those tropes. Or — a third, friendlier possibility — they’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof or Yentl and want to generalize from those Hollywood musicals.

Biblical Judaism is not Rabbinic Judaism. Since the Romans destroyed our Temple in the year 70, Judaism has gone through some massive changes. We don’t sacrifice animals (no Temple!) and the Kohanim, or priests, do not make their living running the sacrificial cult any more. Our clergy are rabbis, who are primarily teachers, and cantors, who are experts on worship. If you want to know more than that, I recommend a good book or a Basic Judaism class.

Antisemitism is a bunch of bad information with a hateful agenda. A lot of it is lies, a lot of it is misinformation or twisted information, and it’s hateful. Again, if you want to learn about us, read a good book or take a class. If you want to learn a little about antisemitism, here’s an article.

Fiddler and Yentl are fantasy. So is most of what Hollywood releases on every subject, for that matter! Watching The King and I is entertaining, but it is not a good way to learn the history of Thailand. It gives you a fantasy about a snapshot in time – a particular monarch and his court in the 1860’s, through the lens of 1956 Hollywood. Most movies that include Jewish information – and there are a lot of them! – have some accurate info and some that is sadly inaccurate. If that interests you, check out my website Rabbi At the Movies, where I try to sort the real from the fantasy and the accurate from inaccurate.

Jews in the 21st century are a wildly assorted lot. Some are religious, some not. Some are traditionally observant, some not. Some are educated, some aren’t. Some are Zionists, some aren’t. Some are capitalists, some aren’t. Some are good with money, and some aren’t. Some are smart, some aren’t.

I love a good question, and I love to teach. Bring me genuine curiosity, and I’ll sit and chat all day. But: lecture me on how to be a Jew, when you clearly know nothing about it, and I will get pretty cranky, pretty fast.

Shavua tov, y’all. Have a good week.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

9 thoughts on “Please Don’t Tell Jews How to be Jewish”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Rabbi. I wonder how these folks would feel if their own identity as Christians – making the assumption that many of these critics are Christian – were invalidated? ‘Oh, you’re not a True Christian™ because you don’t go to church, you work on Sundays, you associate with ______, etc., etc.’ It is exhausting and exasperating, to say the least.

  2. I deeply appreciate your willingness to help those of us curious to learn how to not offend our Jewish friends. Asking myself if I’m aligned with any faith was secondary to that need to respect other’s boundaries.

    I can never know if some of my ancestors may have been forcibly converted; or how to square that circle. Your writing helps to process and untangle those difficult spiritual knots. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Colleen! Sincere questions are always welcome. Jews have learned to be very wary of the *projections* of others, even when they are phrased as questions.

  3. New reader from Georgia here. Thank you Rabbi.

    As Rabbi Kusher wrote in L’Chaim (1993): Liturgy unites while theology divides. Not to play echo chamber, but your point about modern Judaism possessing many assortments is great.

    I’ve never been a fan of the “you-ouught-to-live-this-way-crowd.”

  4. These days, swimming against the tide of toxic political waters and the moral miasma above them makes me more than irritable, too. One question, which is rhetorical: what makes so many people think they have the ‘right’ to tell others how they should live? Or what they should believe? Or condemn those who are LGBTQ? Or whether they should have abortions or (name a trending issue)? They behave as though they own the hotline to G-d. Grrr… For goodness sakes, LIVE AND LET LIVE! Doesn’t matter which Bible one reads; even Jesus knew that!

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