To alleviate your suspense, I’ll begin at the end and answer the question posed in the title: It’s not for me to decide.
What makes a Jew, anyway?
I meant what I said in the very first piece I ever wrote for Hevria: My “Jewish” is not a religion.
Judaism—for me—is not a religion. It’s not about a religious experience or religious sector of my identity.
Judaism is central. It is core. It is what my ancestors lived and died for. It is as intrinsic to my being as my humanness or femaleness. More so. It is as intrinsic to my being as my need to breathe.
It is not a religion. It is not about a choice of “where to go worship,” it is not about which building I enter weekend mornings.
I would rather run through open fields until I fall to my knees, breathless, then rise again.
I don’t fit in the mold or jive with traditional contemporary Western religious constructs.
But that’s me. You get to decide what works for you.
I was raised by two highly conscious, deep-thinking parents who do not blindly follow anything, let alone religious paradigms. Thank G!d.
Neither religion nor tradition were part of my upbringing. When I would ask my mother why we didn’t go to “temple,” she would, like a true Jew, answer my question with another question: Why be a part of anything where the women are forced to sit in separate section, where menstruation is considered “unclean?”
Valid questions, valid concerns. Emblematic of an ancient tradition shoehorned into a contemporary, Christian, Western model.
Why are we Jewish? Why am I Jewish? Why is anyone Jewish at all?
I don’t like institutions. Religious institutions very much included.
Everyone should do what works for them. It’s not for me to decide where one should go to “be…” well, whatever they are.
I am a wild woman. I can barely stand being wedged into any of this culture at all. I don’t fit in right, the rules don’t suit me. And I’m glad. I am lonely and afraid, but I’m awake.
Once we are awakened into consciousness, we can’t go back to sleep about it.
In the early 1800s, Jews were living as exiled others, truly strangers, throughout Europe. And Reform Judaism came into play with good intentions. To help Jews fit into the culture, to stop being so “other.” To integrate with the dominant culture. To survive. To avoid wholesale extermination.
“See, we’re not so strange, not so other, not so different…”
“I’m not a strange Jew living in Germany, I’m a German just like all other Germans…who happens to be Jewish instead of, say, Christian.”
It was a matter of survival.
You can see how well this plan worked.
Do you know how much the world hates us? Do you know how many people want to wipe us off the planet? This is old news. But it is not just old news. This is happening today. This is worsening today. This is discussed and enacted behind our collective back and in our collective face. In even the most progressive of places.
It is a raucous journey to be human. It really is. A true blink-of-an-eye rollercoaster ride. There are so many contradictions. There is so much hate to contend with. There is so much historical pain in our DNA. All of us. All humans.
And there is outrageous love. And breathtaking beauty. It is all heartbreaking and achingly sweet and tenuous at best.
We do the best we can, I really believe that.
I believe we all do.
For me, the answer is always to lean into love.
I believe in objective truths and I believe in right and wrong.
But I choose kindness as my first expression as I step into my life every day.
And most days in this dualistic, polarized world are a struggle for me.
But I’ll take it. Given the options, I’m glad I don’t fit in. I’m glad I keep my eyes open. I’m glad institutions make my skin crawl, that being in church—or anyplace that feels like a western, Christian, colonized knockoff—doesn’t feel right to me.
I’m glad I have this rebellious DNA that refuses to go to sleep and simply play along with a sustained illusion.
I’m glad I am constitutionally incapable of following blindly, of playing by the rules for the sake of good behavior, even though it makes my life incredibly hard and incredibly lonely.
All this to lead back to the beginning, which was—and is—the end. I want to clearly state some truths I hold to be self-evident:
Light shines for everyone. EVERYONE.
Elevating any group of people based on any external markers or identifiers over any other group is out of alignment.
In every group of people—however you want to round them up and categorize them—there are good people and bad people. I stand with the good people.
Sexual orientation makes no difference to me.
Gender identity makes no difference to me.
Where you come from makes no difference to me.
It’s not for me to decide who is or isn’t Jewish.
I am on the side of love, of peace, of inclusiveness, of unity.
I roll with the mystics who use their power for increasing light.
I roll with the good fairies.
I hold space for those who need to know they are not alone.
I happen to be a Jew.
Love is my navigation system.
Hate is my enemy.
There’s a lot more to say, but for now, I am complete.
And now…your EMOJI DVAR TORAH! Special Heschel edition:
The road to the sacred leads through the secular. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel