How To Criticize Our Fellow Jews

It’s not often I find myself embarrassed by the Talmud, if solely because it just doesn’t come up that often. I don’t frequently find myself relating to Tannaitic discourses like one would an embarrassing parent who makes you blush madly in public when she busts out her best Lady Gaga impression when “Just Dance” comes on at the drugstore (a totally theoretical example). And yet, there are those moments when I am in a seminar about animals in Jewish theology (for you non-liberal arts folks, this is normal. Suspend disbelief), and we are exploring an unsavory sugya (unit) in the Talmud, about gentiles’ affinity for bestiality. And I am one of a mere few observant Jews in the room. I want to apologize for every awkward, offensive statement, and then politely excuse myself for the remainder of class.

But more often, my sheepish wincing is brought on less by Jewish texts than by my fellow Jews themselves. See, like in any family, our tribe has its fair share of awkwardness – uncomfortable faux pas at best, collective acts of shame at worst. For better and for worse, we are one people. And ultimately, the comforts of the constructed separations- mine, yours, theirs – toward which we gravitate, cannot shield us from the bind of that wordless oneness, and all its implications.

Which means that your voice matters. Because whatever a Jew thinks, feels, or does is, by its very nature, a Jewish thought, feeling, or action. Which is to say, you have a vote. Which also necessitates saying that there is a caveat; if a Jew makes a point of fleeing from the klal (collective), of speaking in the second or third-person about one’s own Am, I do not care to engage with such a voice. I know that sounds callous. I get pretty up-in-arms about My People.

Still, this is in no way an appeal in favor of an us-versus-them mob mentality within the Jewish world (need I highlight how that tends to fare?), or an attempt to persuade all Jews to think and practice as a monolith (LOL). That’s never been a Jewish reality, and most likely not even an ideal. And how boring that would be! What this is instead is an expression of frustration at Jews conveniently “getting going” when “the going gets tough”. 

With sincere apologies for any anxieties I might be provoking by bringing up Passover before Purim has even approached, I cannot help but consider the relevance of this passage from the Haggadah, from the section depicting four children and their respective questions about the Seder rituals:

“רשע מה הוא אומר?

‘מה העבודה הזאת לכם?’

לכם ולא לו.

“ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל כפר בעיקר

“The corrupt one, what does he say?

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‘What is this service of yours?’

‘of yours’ and not of his.

And since he exempted himself from the collective, he has denied the premise.”

My friend organizes a weekly partnership minyan on campus. She spends her few spare minutes during the week contemplating the nuances of Jewish pluralism and contending with her commitment to Halakha and her visceral passion for feminist inclusion. She struggles with the mekhitzah, with the liturgy, and with the patriarchal customs that shape traditional practice. But she stays. She stays fierce, she stays determined, but most importantly, she stays. She claims the space that is rightfully hers and pushes forward in earnest. She explains that, tensions and all, she remains affiliated with the Orthodox community because she believes in its core, and wants to be a force for constructive change, which one can only be to the extent that she is speaking from within the community. Steadfast, she is part of the we, the Amcha, the klal that must withstand the implications of any change to follow. She embeds herself in the covenant of fate that is ours, and so she stays.

And yet, this model is so preciously rare. Which is why I spent last week feeling so irked. It was Israeli Apartheid Week, and all I could bring myself to do was eat shakshuka and read Rabbi Froman and, somewhat uncharacteristically, yearn for messianic days.

Because I couldn’t walk to class without passing demonstrations and counter-demonstrations and the loudest non-conversations I have ever heard. I have loads of uncertainty, and pounds of passion, and the voice of my Jewishness cries out to me from the ground…this is not about politics, and it’s not about agreement. It’s about movements that use Jewish identity as a platform to talk about their fellow Jews instead of with them. It’s about the misguided idea that having a conversation with a person’s fellow holy brother or sister is off-limits, for fear of “normalizing” an opinion one deems toxic. It’s about assuming good intent about anyone besides one’s own People, or denying that People’s right to self-identify as such.

This is also equally about those who conveniently invoke the prohibition against the egregious religious felony of “chillul Hashem” (desecrating G-d’s name) to shirk their responsibility to protect children from abuse at the hands of their community members and leaders, and to avoid accountability for providing resources for recovery and justice for those already harmed. It’s about the way those same people somehow reserve using this inappropriate justification to vilify journalists, activists, and survivors themselves, while selectively “forgetting” to apply the same concept to shame the perpetrators.

Criticism- harsh, ugly, inconvenient, even- is vital to our collective survival. Without it, we are complacent, even sickly, our own internal viruses mutating uncontrollably. However, such judgment, in order to be constructive and valuable, must come from a place of sincere investment in the “us” of our Am. That means no convenient excuses to leave the family dinner table, and no self-aggrandizing, feigned appeals to religiosity as a means to avoid staring the vulnerable in the tearful, raging face.

I am convinced that Mashiach, in whatever form one conceptualizes that redemptive era, will come not because we’ll deserve it, but because we are becoming a messier hot mess by the minute, and redemption is simply our last hope. Because we have forgotten how to speak in the collective first-person, as anachnu (“us”, plural), or acheinu (“our brethren”). And We can do better.