Bad Jews – A History of American Jewish Infighting
Emily Tamkin, a Jewish writer from the UK who writes about American Jewry, has recently published a book titled Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities. The book’s publisher, Hurst, describes it as “A lively, thoughtful history of America’s Jews, exploring their complex relationships with national culture, identity, and politics—and each other.”
The book caused a bit of a stir among Jewish publications. JTA, for example, wrote that Tamkin “takes a different tack, tracing the history of American Jewry through the ways Jews on one side of social upheaval seek to discredit the very Jewishness of those on the other side.” The book itself focuses on what is happening in America, since “American Jewish history,” writes Tamkin, “is full of discussions and debates and hand-wringing over who is Jewish, and how to be Jewish, and what it means to be Jewish.”
When a student of mine told me about the book, he asked for my opinion on these questions, stating that they “haunt” virtually every Jewish person. He also noted that when Tamkin asked people, “What comes to mind when you hear ‘Bad Jew’?” the most common answer she got was “When I think of a ‘Bad Jew,’ I think of myself.” Since, as Tamkin writes, “The issue of what it means, or doesn’t, to be a Good Jew or a Bad Jew is particularly fraught at this moment in US history,” the student asked for my take on the topic.
So, first, we need to realize where the word Yehudi (Jewish) comes from. There is the known answer, that Yehudi comes from Yohuda (Judah), the name of the tribe that lived in the land of Israel during the Second Temple. However, there is another meaning to the word: Yehudi also comes from the word Yechudi, meaning united. This makes perfect sense if you remember that we were pronounced a nation only after we committed to love each other “as one man with one heart” at the foot of Mt. Sinai, yet, for the most part, this explanation did not receive the notoriety it deserves.
If you look at being Jewish through the spectacle of Jewish unity, as I do, then being a good Jew means first and foremost that you want to unite with all the Jews, that this is what really matters to you, your prime value. If Jewishness is about unity, then a Jew is a person who knows, feels, understands, and even spreads the idea that the most important thing is to be connected in ties of love with all the Jews, regardless of denomination, customs, political views, or any other issue that currently divides and splinters the Jewish people.
The author wrote that one of the answers she got to the question about the meaning of being a bad Jew was “someone whose conception of Judaism doesn’t have applications to the wider world.” I understand where this answer comes from. It is with good reason Jews gave the correction of the world such a pivotal place in their identity. We even gave that mission its own Hebrew term, Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for “Correction of the World”).
However, we must know what it means to correct the world, to be responsible for it, or even to care about the world. Tikkun Olam are not simply words; they imply a very specific task, and until we accomplish it, we will not be “good Jews.”
At the “inauguration” of our people, we were commanded to unite “as one man with one heart,” as RASHI interprets. Immediately after, we were declared a nation and were tasked with being “a light to the nations.”
In other words, our unity and our obligation to the world are indivisible. We cannot be a light to the nations if we are not united. At the same time, we cannot unite unless we do it in order to be a light to the nations.
When our ancestors united for the first time, under the guidance of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they were not a biologically related group. They were an eclectic crowd that was taken by the idea that all the people should unite, and we should not succumb to our ego. This is why Abraham advocated kindness and mercy, to teach people how to rise above their self-absorption and care for one another.
Abraham was a maverick, a pioneer, a trailblazer, but thanks to him, these noble ideas are now universal. As a nation that formed out of disparate tribes and clans, it was our duty to be the living proof of Abraham’s paradigm. This is why we became a nation only after we united, and not a moment prior.
Since our inception, we have known that unity is our “secret weapon.” However, we never understood why, what was the secret of the strength in our unity. The secret is not that unity itself makes us undefeatable, but that our unity dissolves the world’s hatred toward us and turns it into respect and awe. It gives the world the example of unity that it needs so that all of humanity can unite, as well.
Not only we received a message when we were at the foot of Mt. Sinai. At that moment, the nations of the world received the knowledge that we received the calling. Since then, they have been waiting for us to live up to it. This is why they support us when we are united, and scold us when we are divided.
Being a good Jew or a bad Jew, therefore, is not a judgment we pass on each other or on ourselves. It is determined by our commitment to the world, which we fulfill through our efforts to unite among ourselves and serve as an example that if we—the most divided nation, whose members often abhor one another—can unite, then the whole world can, as well.