What does it mean to be a serious Jew?

From Pixabay: group team balloons question mark

How would your life be different, in day-to-day terms, if you were not Jewish?

Michael Weiss writes – I see Jewish Twitter is talking about intermarriage, assimilation, and gatekeeping today. A useful reminder, from Rabbi Harold Kushner: “There are only two kinds of Jews: serious Jews and non-serious Jews.”

You can find both kinds (serious & non-serious) among Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, atheist, intermarried, patrilineal, matrilineal, halakhically observant/non-. The crucial question (in my opinion) that separates serious Jews from non-serious Jews is this: “How would your life be different, in day-to-day terms, if you were not Jewish?”

Serious Jews can answer that question, because their lives are filled with Jewishness. For some, Judaism dictates what, when and where they eat, what kind of clothes they wear, etc.

For others, Judaism informs the books and websites they read, the activities they participate in, the charities they give to. Note carefully that I am not assuming “serious” = “religious”. Some of the most serious Jews I know are atheists.

You can study Jewish texts on the reg without sharing in their ideological presuppositions. You can participate in Jewish practices without believing that God commanded them. There are plenty of ways that Jewishness can fill a person’s life and I am not here to police that.

But on the other side of the story there are plenty of people who could not honestly answer the question “How would your life be different, in day-to-day terms, if you were not Jewish?”

Some of these not-serious Jews *feel* very Jewish! Their Jewish cultural identity is extremely important to them. But an impartial observer would be unable to distinguish anything different about how they live their lives from that of the Christian hegemony they live in.

Here is my spiciest Jewish take: I don’t care whether you are matrilineal or patrilineal, atheist or not, what kind of shul or temple you don’t go to. If your life is not distinctively Jewish in some way that matters on a daily basis…

…then your kids will probably not grow up thinking that being Jewish and having Jewish kids matters. And why should they, if there’s no real difference?

Actually, *here* is my spiciest Jewish take: If you don’t live your life in any kind of discernibly Jewish way, but the thought of your kids intermarrying really upsets you, you might be just a low-key bigot.

And again, to emphasize: I am not talking only about religious observance here. Kashrut, Shabbat, etc. are obviously one way of filling your life with Jewishness, but I don’t think they are the only way.

But I will hold fast to my assertion that “feeling Jewish” without *doing* Jewish is basically nostalgia for what you remember your parents and grandparents doing when you were a kid. And I’m sorry to break it to you but those memories ain’t inheritable.

You may have warm memories of going to Bubby and Zayde’s for Shabbos dinner when you were five, and those memories mean a lot to you. But if you don’t do something to give your kids those memories then it won’t mean anything to them.

You may remember that time you went with your parents every day to your aunt and uncle’s house when your aunt was sitting shiva, and it might mean a lot to you. But if you don’t give your own kids the chance to form those memories, they won’t care.

That’s one of the reasons anti-convert sentiment is so nuts. Geirim are actively choosing to change the way they live their lives. They are taking a life that did not previously have a Jewish character, who don’t have memories of growing up Jewish, and are trying to change that.

They are *more* likely to live as serious Jews than someone like me, who was born with the privilege of being Jewish by default. They are salmon, swimming against the current, trying to get to the source.

I guess the only thing I want to add is that, since I don’t want this thread to be misinterpreted, I don’t think anyone else has the right to answer the question “Are you a serious Jew?” *for* you. You have to answer it for yourself. And you HAVE to answer it for yourself.

Oh, look, 18 tweets! Good place to end. L’chaim, and go read Kushner’s “TO LIFE”, the book that contains the quote that inspired these thoughts.

About the author – Math & Math Education, occasional Torah talk. Son of an immigrant refugee. He/Him/His. Now on Mastodon at @profmweiss@mathstodon.xyz


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