We humans

What makes a “good” Jew?

Jun 16, 2014 /

In his TED talk, the avuncular Kwame Anthony Appiah points to an atheist Rabbi for the perfect example of how you don’t need faith to have religion. There is, he says, “no ‘thing’ called religion.” The range of things we call “religion” is so broad that many of them have very little in common.

Appiah’s ideas deliver an identity crisis. They might make you question how you’ve spent your life contrasting your own religion and beliefs, or lack thereof, to others’.

As an occasionally practicing, atheistic Jew, I’m familiar with identity crises. I’ve spent countless conversations with friends comparing our unique ways of being Jewish. I can attest that there is no one thing called “being Jewish.” Despite that, we were all raised to be “good” Jews. That’s our mandate from birth. But if there is no such “thing” as a Jew, what makes a “good Jew?”

Ask around and I can guarantee no two Jews will give the exact same answer. So let’s consider a case study: My friend; let’s call him Seth. Is he a good Jew? What would his mother say?

Is he a good Jew? Well. He’s such a nice boy.

He’s descended from a famous scholar. His grandparents escaped a famous ghetto. His father fought in the Six Day War.

He went to summer camp.

He has plans to become a writer. He’s very funny. But first he wants try the doctor thing. A family friend made a connection to this woman, who got him his current job. He doesn’t give back to the community yet, but he schmoozes well. And he says that if he becomes successful, he will do something nice.

He doesn’t want too much success. He considers what non-Jews must think.

He knows Jewish law. He knows how to lead a minyan and how to shake a lulav and how to schecht a goat. He’s read Rashi and Rambam and Spinoza. He even knows some Kabbalah. He doesn’t do most of it. He believes in none of it. 

He isn’t a perfect Jew. He talks about his imperfections often. He is very Jewish.

When he’s with a lot of good Jews, he seems uncomfortable. When he’s with a lot of bad Jews, he seems very uncomfortable. When he’s with a lot of non-Jews, he seems very Jewish.

Sometimes he thinks he has too many obligations to too many forefathers. He’s been to Israel, but he won’t move there. He’s yet to “multiply.” Apart from that, he’s good to his mother. He ought to be: his mother’s good to him. He’s such a nice boy.

Mothers are always right. It was good to consult her.

[ted id=2011]