I used to work for a major Jewish organization, and part of my job was to answer questions that came in over the telephone. (Nowadays they use websites for that.) One of the strangest calls I ever received was from a woman who said:
“I’ve talked to three rabbis and I am very frustrated. You see, I was Jewish in a previous life. But these rabbis insist that I can’t be Jewish unless I convert! They don’t get it: I don’t need to convert!”
I could tell that she was 100% serious. She found it hugely insulting that those rabbis hadn’t taken her at her word. By the end of our conversation, she had decided that I was a horrible person too, because I would not point her to a rabbi who would agree with her that she was born Jewish.
She has stuck in my mind for fifteen years. What seemed perfectly reasonable to her was simply not going to fly with any rabbi I knew, then or now.
The reason is, no one gets to make up their own private Judaism. There are many different expressions of Judaism: Secular, Haredi, Reform, Modern Orthodox, Renewal, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, and a thousand different shades of each of those. What there isn’t is private Judaism. A person can say something like “I was born Jewish in a previous life so I’m Jewish” but that will not persuade other Jews that they should agree.
Granted, the Jewish world is full of disagreements: we thrive on them. One group says one thing, another disagrees. We’ve been doing that as far back as Jacob’s children, and on every subject imaginable.
Once a person is a congregation of one, though, it’s another matter. A Jew all alone, insisting that something is “the true way” is in a bad place. The Talmud tells a story about Rabbi Eliezer, a learned and holy rabbi, who ruled differently from all the other rabbis about an oven. He insisted that he was right and all of them were wrong. Then he called nature and God to witness, and both affirmed that the law always went his way. The rabbis retorted that they’d outvoted him, and that “After the majority must one incline.” (Exodus 23:2.) Then a Heavenly Voice laughed and said, “My children have defeated me!” Rabbi Eliezer is so upset by this, and by his isolation, that he brings disaster upon himself and upon the whole community. (Bava Metzia 59b)
It would have been better for the rabbis not to break Rabbi Eliezer’s heart. But it also would have been better had he not separated himself from the community. That separation – his insistence that he was right and all of them were wrong – was the impulse that set a tragedy in motion.
This is a teaching that is very uncomfortable for many of us American Jews, because we, like other Americans, are admirers of rugged individualism. In American mythology, there is nobility in being the lone voice whom everyone later realizes was right.
But that’s just not how Judaism works. We figure things out by comparing notes. We preserve minority opinions with care, but we are wary of lone opinions until and unless they stand the test of time. (Example:. Spinoza.)
Not every “private Judaism” question I get is as extreme as the “Jewish in a previous life” lady’s question. But it is always worth pondering, if a person asks rabbi after rabbi and gets “no” for an answer, if perhaps what they want isn’t Jewish at all.