This last Shabbat a guest asked me: “What group do you belong to?”
I had to pause for a moment before answering.
I was raised as a Reform Jew.
Later on I became an Orthodox Rabbi.
In Israel I am referred to as dati (religious).
Now I realize that all of those labels were subtly deceiving.
When I said I was a Reform Jew, what I meant was: “I’m not a Conservative or Orthodox Jew.”
When I said I was an Orthodox Rabbi, what I meant was: “I am not Reform.”
When I said I was dati, what I meant was: “I am not hiloni” (secular).
The labels were not so much to define what I was, as to demarcate what I was not. They were not labels – they were walls. Walls of separation.
Now I realize that I really don’t want to fit into any particular category.
Once they were helpful for me because they helped me fit in. The labels constructed a social setting that made my life clear and stable. They helped me fit in – by putting others out.
But this is no longer helpful for me. Now the labels don’t create borders, they are more like the bars on a jail. They limit and lock me in.
I’ve had it with labels. I’ve had it with separation.
So I paused before answering my guest. What group do I belong to?
Suddenly, I remembered a moment that helped clarify things for me.
I once led a retreat for 15 guys. Some of them were incredibly successful, retired in their 30’s or CEO’s of large firms. Some of them were struggling or unemployed.
It is easy for adult men to define their self-worth by their careers and it became very clear that everyone had measured where they stood in relation to the rest of the group. A silent hierarchy had quickly been established.
For our first exercise I asked everyone to answer to 3 questions:
- What would you consider the finest achievements in your life?
- What are you struggling with and need to work on?
- What do you think you need to do to take a positive step in your life?
- Everyone wrote. Everyone shared. And a level playing field was created.
Everyone in the group had their victories, everyone had their challenges, and everyone had something to work on. We were all works-in-progress.
I would love to do this exercise for the Jewish People:
- What are your strengths as a Jew?
- What are you struggling with?
- What are the small steps that you need/want to take to improve?
No more labels. They only serve to divide and limit.
I finally answered my Shabbat guest: I am a Jew and I am a work-in-progress. I am a Jew who wants and needs to improve. We are all Jews-works-in-progress. And we all need to help each other take our small steps.
I’m not that naïve to think that my answer last Shabbat will magically provide unity for the Jewish people. But it was my small step.
Purim is almost here. Labels are like masks – they prevent us from fully connecting. When Esther decided to step up she said: “Go and gather all of the Jews.” When it comes to saving Am Yisrael, we don’t want just this type or that type.
Let’s drop the labels. Let’s take the bars off the jail cells. It’s time to be together, work together, and take our small steps together.