Why do people lie to their dentists? It's your teeth, not the dentist's. The dentist only stands to gain if you don't floss. Yet we find ourselves denying or confessing as if the dentist were some kind of religious figure.
As a rabbi, I find that people think I'm some kind of a dentist: "Rabbi, I haven't been to my synagogue since the High Holidays. I really meant to go, but you know how it is...." They're not even members of my congregation; yet when they see me, they feel they must justify or confess their lack of observance.
Often people will say to me at a Bar Mitzvah or at a chance meeting at a park, "Rabbi, I'm a bad Jew." I hardly know this person, and already a confession? I never had a good response to this; after all, I’m a rabbi, not a dentist--I don't do confessions. So I would just smile and wait for the conversation to turn to a different subject.
But after hearing this so many times, I began to realize that here is a plague afflicting many Jews—“low Jewish self-esteem.”
People are proud of their careers, their homes, cars, even their kids. But they have low Jewish self-esteem. On the surface, this may seem like a good thing: they're being honest and maybe even a little remorseful.
But, something didn't smell right. I began to sense that this statement was counter-productive. When a person says, "I'm a bad Jew," what they're really saying is, "I know what a Jew is supposed to be but I am a failure in that department, and I've kind of made peace with it. There is some guilt involved, especially when I meet a rabbi (especially one with a beard), which I assuage by stating that I am a bad Jew--this is the way I am and I cannot change, so I'm absolved (but I’m still not completely happy with the situation, which is why I’m bringing it up)."
But just as low self-esteem is bad for your health, low Jewish self-esteem is bad for your Jewish health. This will sound strange coming from an ultra-Orthodox, bearded rabbi, but here goes:
You're not a bad Jew. You're a pretty good Jew. You go to work every weekday to support your family. You're honest with your clients. You're good to your friends and family. You honor your parents. You give charity. These don't just make you a good person, they make you a good Jew. Because being a good person is fundamental to being a good Jew--to bring G‑d and G‑dly notions such as justice, righteousness and kindness, into the world. Being a good Jew does not just mean going to the synagogue. Yes, a Jew has to go to the synagogue, but most of Judaism takes place outside it--how we behave outside the synagogue. And most of the people that tell me they’re bad Jews are pretty good people outside the synagogue (and inside, too—when they show up!).
I think it's healthier for us to view ourselves as G‑d views us: as good Jews.
I’m not condoning or recommending minimalist Judaism, or Judaism “lite.” So don’t go running happily to throw out your prayer shawl and cancel your tickets for the High Holiday services. Because, while you may already be a good Jew, where is it written that a good Jew can’t become a better Jew?
And becoming a better Jew doesn't mean moving to Brooklyn. It means wherever you are, the person who you are now, takes a single step. Sign up for a class on Judaism, light a candle before Shababt, give charity, give your child a Jewish education. One mitzvah leads to another.
Celebrate your identity. Celebrate your history. Find out what it's like to not have to say, "Rabbi, I'm a bad Jew."
Rabbi Yossi Marcus is director of Chabad on the North Peninsula, where he lives with his wife and six kids. He may be reached via email email@example.com
As far as the pomegranate is concerned, let's make that your homework to find out what that has to do with the article : ) ...