Some years ago – before I was Jewish and, in fact, before I even told anyone I was considering converting – I had a conversation with an Orthodox friend of mine in which we were talking about Jewish beliefs and practices. His views on many subjects were surprisingly liberal. For example, he doesn’t believe that the Torah is the literal word of God and he was describing his debates with Orthodox women he dated who firmly believed it is. (I suppose I should note that he is Modern Orthodox.)
I jokingly observed, “With views like those, you would make an excellent Reform Jew!”
He flatly dismissed this, saying, “No way. Reform Jews don’t know anything about Judaism.”
I think about this conversation a lot. While there are a great many very learned Reform Jews, I suspect that, on the whole, Orthodox Jews know more about Jewish history, have spent more time studying Torah and Talmud, and have a greater degree of fluency in Hebrew than Reform Jews, on the whole.
So, I think it’s not just the belief that adherence to the commandments- shabbat, kashrut, taharat ha mishpacha – is absolutely necessary to be a Jew that is a factor in the divide between Orthodox and progressive Judaism. It’s not only the conviction that matrilineal descent or an Orthodox conversion are the only ways to “make” “legitimate” Jews.
It’s also the view among many Orthodox Jews – even ones as relatively open-minded as my friend – that Reform Jews don’t know anything about Judaism and, worse, that we don’t care to learn.
I’m not sure why this matters, but I observe that it does.
I grew up Catholic and was dragged to church every Sunday. But, there were the Catholics who only showed up to church for major life cycle events. (Sound familiar?) In Christianity, these are baptism, First Communion, confession, Confirmation, marriage, and funerals. During the course of any year, they only attend mass on Christmas and, possibly, Easter. (Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, anyone?)
But, I’ve never heard Catholics who show up faithfully to mass every Sunday accuse life cycle Catholics of not being legitimate Catholics.
Catholics who grow up going to Catholic schools generally know more about Catholicism than ones who take after-school religious classes.
But, I’ve rarely heard of a Catholic educated in a Catholic school who considers public school Catholics not to be legitimate Catholics and, these days, it’s certainly not a “thing” that separates different classes of Catholics.
In comparing the two religious traditions I’ve experienced, I wonder why Jews are so much quicker to play the you’re-not-a-real-Jew card. I’m not convinced that it’s only due to theological differences or mistrust between the denominations. I suspect that there is a fundamental difference between Christianity and Judaism in the importance of intention.
To be a Christian, you just need to find your belief in God and in the divinity of Jesus meaningful to you. In Jewish parlance, this is kavannah (except for the Jesus part, of course). If you accept Jesus as your savior and participate in the ritual of baptism, that’s it. You’re in. You may be inspired to study the bible, prayerbook, and Jesus’ teachings as a result of your enthusiasm for your faith. For Jews, this is keva (except for the part about Jesus’ teachings, of course). However, there is no continual implicit testing of a Christian’s status as a Christian. Do you really believe that Jesus died for your sins? Do you really really believe it? How ’bout now? Now?
In Christianity, it’s enough that you FEEL what you feel as a Christian. Judaism is different, though, because of it’s emphasis on study. The expectation in Judaism is that you know WHY you believe what you do. FEELING is not enough.
Which leads to the question: Does knowing more about Judaism signal a greater commitment to Judaism? Does knowing less mean a Jew is less committed to Judaism and his Jewishness?
I’m not convinced that a Jew who is fluent in Hebrew and can quote Maimonides but, say, gossips and speaks lashon hara is a “better Jew” than another who may have to rely on transliterations to participate in services but who walks out of shul committed to living Jewish values and ethics. The latter Jew may not know exactly what the Talmud has to say about lashon hara, but she knows that you just don’t treat people that way.
Christians are fond of saying that no one knows what’s in your heart except for you and God. God knows your intentions, God is the ultimate judge. I do miss that about Christianity. Because Jews seem terribly judgmental about other Jews, particularly about the externals. Did I just see him eating a ham sandwich? Sinner! I can’t believe that girl is wearing a long skirt and long-sleeved shirt when it’s 90 degrees! She’s so oppressed and she doesn’t even know it!
I’m not sure that these things matter or that anyone can judge what’s in anyone else’s head and heart. I’m pretty sure that it’s more important to be a good person than it is to be a good Jew, though, ideally for Jews these things coincide. And, ideally, we’d all be keen to learn more about our religion, to examine why we commit to the mitzvot we do rather than just doing them because everyone else is or we were admonished to by the ancient rabbis. To know why we believe what we believe and to have the courage to challenge those beliefs.
May all Jews be inspired to live Jewish values and ethics and to study and grow as Jews. And to avoid judging others.
In righteousness shall you judge your fellow. Leviticus (19:15)