Parashat Shemini 5784 – Am I a Bad Jew

By: Alan Bach

Traditional Jews observe the dietary laws derived mostly from today’s Parsha, Shemini. Thousands of years before the 19th century saying, “You are what you eat” came into being, Judaism recognized the essential significance of food in the Jewish and human experience. Originally, without explaining why we should eat some but not all types of food, the Torah laid down a lengthy list of culinary do’s and don’ts, the textural foundation of kashrut. Subsequently, the laws of kashrut were expanded by the rabbis to include food preparation in general and, especially on the Shabbat, the full separation of milk and meat products, methods of slaughter, and a whole range of food regulations during Passover. The dietary laws constitute a way of sanctifying the act of eating. 

However, in this, as well as other matters of the Jewish religious law and custom, the degree and manner of observance differs among contemporary Jews.  As mentioned, the Torah does not give specific reasons for most of the laws of kashrut. However, a number of explanations have been offered, including maintaining ritual purity, teaching impulse control, encouraging obedience to God, improving health, reducing cruelty to animals and preserving the distinctness of the Jewish community. Many modern Jews think that the laws of kashrut are simply primitive health regulations that have become obsolete with modern methods of food preparation and storage.

The short answer as to why Jews observe these laws is because the Torah says so. For the Torah observant, traditional Jew, there is no need for any other reason. Some have suggested that the laws of kashrut fall into the category of chukkim, laws for which there is no reason.

Keeping kosher isn’t meaningful for everyone when it means following seemingly arbitrary rules. Keeping kosher is about our relationship with the sustenance God gives us. Just like our body is a gift, food is a gift.

According to a national Jewish population survey, 24% of self-identified Conservative Jews keep Kosher at home. 17% of all American Jews report they keep kosher in their homes. Part of that 17% keep kosher at home but eat nonkosher food out of the home to one degree or another. Some will eat food in a restaurant or nonkosher home, as long as the meal is either vegetarian or uses only kosher meat and no dairy products. Some will eat nonkosher meat in restaurants, but only if the comes from a kosher animal and is not served with dairy products. Some will go all out and eat bacon cheeseburgers out of the home while keeping strictly kosher in their home. Even within the home, standards of kashrut that people employ vary. Some are very strict; others are more lenient in what they accept as reliable certifications. This flexible practice emerged in the 1920’s amongst Jews assimilating into American society, who sought connection with their heritage without fully observing dietary laws.

 Rabbi and humorist Jack Moline noted,” Everyone who keeps kosher will tell you that his version is the only correct version. Everyone else is either a fanatic or a heretic.”

All of this all of this brings up questions I have to ask myself. Since I don’t keep kosher, does that mean I am a bad Jew? Does it mean I am not religious?  Should I tally up how many of the 613 commandments I observe to determine if I am religious?  What is the difference between being religious and being observant? Religious refers to beliefs and values, whereas observant involves ritual practices and carrying out daily mitzvot. Though many religious Jews are also observant, there are also many who are not. One author who I read feels that religion is your relationship with God and observance is your relationship with other people. There is no modern Hebrew term for someone who is religious but not observant. In Jewish life today, there are many who fall in this category and are often referred to as. “Cultural Jews.”  The complexity and totality of what it means to be Jewish can’t be condensed into a litmus test of what you eat.

To assess myself, I asked: what are the characteristics of a good Jew. Rabbi Stewart Weiss suggests a top 10 of qualities that define a “good Jew.” First, is Humility. “A person wrapped up in himself makes for a very small package.” Next, is Chessed which combines the features of compassion, kindness and charity. Then there is Justice, Truth, Modesty, Scholarship, Courage, Faith, Optimism, and Israel.

I decided to ask Chat GPT the same question. It’s answer: “A good Jew can mean different things to different people, as Judaism is a diverse religion with various interpretations and practices. However, there are some common principles and values that Jews consider important for leading a meaningful and fulfilling Jewish life. Here are some aspects often associated with being a “good Jew.”  Observance of mitzvot, Study and education, Prayer and spiritual practice, Community engagement, Ethical behavior, Tikkun Olam, Connection to Jewish identity and heritage, personal growth and reflection.”

In thinking what is the “right” way to be Jewish, I accept that there are many valid Jewish backgrounds and lifestyles. You are a good Jew if you are a good person.

Most Jewish people I know are religious in that they hold values and beliefs that are derived from the Jewish tradition and nurtured by our own culture. Our task is to encourage them to set up a discipline of religious practices that are compatible with their personal views, thus ensuring the continuity of our tradition and culture.

 It is essential to recognize that there is diversity within the Jewish community, and individuals may prioritize different aspects of Jewish practice and belief. At the end of the day, religiosity is a personal experience, and while guidelines may help, they can guarantee no outcome. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so, too, is how religious one is.

One person might feel extremely close to God and believe religion inspires his or her life, but never attend religious services. Another person may attend religious services regularly, and yet feel distant from God or not prioritize religion over other dimensions of life. Not everyone would agree which of these two individuals is “more religious”.

When we let go of the self-conscious idea of being a “good” or “bad”, Jew and accept ourselves for who we are, we are better able to truly connect with our faith. This open outlook welcomes all kinds of Jews, removing the boundaries that history has created in helping our diverse and multifaceted community create a more beautiful Judaism.

So, what are we to make about all of this? Although I may not be the most observant Jew, I definitely have a personal relationship with God in my life and, therefore, I feel I am religious.  I believe in God just as much as many of those who might be described as “more religious” than I am. In keeping with our commitment to Judaism, we should choose practices that elevate our spirits and move us to ethical action. We should not criticize our fellow Jews, who also study and make decisions, even if their choices and practices are very different from our own. And, above all, we should renew our commitment to making the world a better place, whatever we do or do not eat.

To paraphrase a couple commercial sayings “Jew it your way” or “Just Jew It.”

Teachings, Words From Our Members|