What does it take to be a good Jew?
Every answer I ever heard to that question was exhausting. In some circles, it involves the performance of as many of the 613 commandments as possible. Of course, that means knowing the 613 commandments, and nobody has an exact list.
In other circles, it means considering each of those 613 commandments and concluding which among them lead you to holiness and which do not. Also a lot of work.
Just having a sandwich seems like it requires a Ph.D. Kosher meat, bread prepared with a ritual set-aside, condiments with no dairy ingredients, blessings before and after, a waiting period before that ice cream cone that may be anywhere between one and six hours…never mind, I’ll have a carrot.
We have mostly given up asking this question because it sounds so judgmental from the get-go. But from pretty much the beginning of Jewish peoplehood (specifically, from the time in the wilderness) to today, our teachers and their students have wanted to know the essence of being a good Jew. Moses, who initiated the process of religious law, figured out that something concise was necessary. In the weekly reading from Deuteronomy (10:12), he tries to distill being a good Jew into five easy pieces: Fear God, walk in God’s ways, love God, serve God with fullness of intention, and keep the commandments.
Well, maybe the pieces aren’t so easy.
Micah (6:8) tried three: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Amos (5:4) and Habakkuk (2:4) tried one: Seek Me and live, and The righteous shall live by his faith. Lots of aspiration, very few metrics.
A few years ago, the estimable Rabbi David Wolpe challenged some of us to come up with a bumper sticker slogan to describe the what is means to be a good Conservative Jew. Our particular movement was founded on an intellectual foundation, emerging from the Wissenschaft des Judentums approach in 19th-century Germany. The phrase means “Jewish studies,” but it means using the critical methodologies applied to secular literature to understand the sacred writings of Judaism (except, at the time, the Bible). If you are dozing already, then you will understand why Rabbi Wolpe cracked up when I suggested the slogan read “I (heart) WISSENSCHAFT”
In the end, we are stuck. There are somewhat objective standards to being a good Jew, but just as they become obvious, they wind up in flux. While German Jews were experimenting with Wissenschaft, the Jews in small town America typically enforced Shabbat observance by denying burial to those who spent their lives working on Saturday. The fledgling Zionist movement was considered heresy by most of Orthodoxy and Reform, and later became the sine qua non of 20th century Jews. Marrying a Jew was the marker of being a good Jew until the critical mass of married Jews didn’t.
I know you are reading this column expecting me to have an answer to my question. I don’t. I don’t know what it takes to be a good Jew any more. I know plenty of religiously faithful Jews who are exquisite examples of the human family. I also know plenty who are ritually diligent and morally reprehensible, as well as plenty who are belligerently non-religious and ethical exemplars. I know believers who refuse to be observers, and observers who refuse to be believers. I am not sure I would commend any of them to the person seeking to know how to be a good Jew, though I likewise cannot accept that it is all simply a matter of personal taste.
I will choose instead the example of Rabbi Eleazer ben Dordia. You can look up his story in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 17a, near the bottom). Before he was a rabbi, which is to say one hour before he died, he was addicted to sex with prostitutes. In the midst of his last encounter, his partner of the moment, who must have known his reputation, used a crude metaphor to suggest that his life had the unpleasantness and impermanence of a cloud of methane. Eleazar looked at the natural world seeking an advocate for his rehabilitation among the beautiful and unmovable realms of sky, sea and earth. When he ran out of options, he came to this realization: This matter rests on me alone.
With that, he died of a broken heart. A heavenly voice proclaimed Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia to have been given his place in eternity. The lesson concludes that some people take a lifetime to earn a heavenly reward, and others take but an hour.
I am not recommending a life of abandon followed by a deathbed conversion. I am suggesting that whether you live a life guided by the tradition or come to an awareness of your shortcomings at the end of your days, being a good Jew begins when you take responsibility for the life you are living. Beyond that, I have only one piece of advice: The matter rests on you alone.