Judaism from the Inside Out

When I was growing up in southern Brooklyn in the 70s and 80s, everyone I knew was Black, Jewish or Italian.

I wasn’t even aware of Protestants until I was in high school and I was utterly flummoxed by the idea that Catholics and Protestants fought wars against each other. After all, they were — as everyone I knew would have put it — goyim. What did they have to fight about?

When I was a kid, Jewish Ed Koch was the mayor of New York, Italian Mario Cuomo was governor and I was acutely aware of the tribe to which I belonged. My family never went to synagogue, my nominal bar mitzvah was an afterthought and I have very fond memories of my grandmother making me cheeseburgers before taking me to the movies on Saturday afternoons.

Nevertheless, I was entirely clear that I was Jewish.

I was born in 1975 and I represent the tail end of what Mark Oppenheimer calls the “three generations of Jews who in the United States who had the luxury of being cultural Jews, in a very thick way, despite not being religious at all.”

However, my children, ages 5 and 9, are growing up in a very different world. That strong sense of secular, ethnic Judaism is fading fast.

Of course it is. My kids are four generations removed from the immigrant experience. They don’t have any relatives who weren’t born in America or have a native language other than English. In our family, we observe Shabbat and go to shul and travel frequently to Israel, but in many ways, my kids have more in common with their gentile relatives, neighbors and friends here in Beacon, NY than they do with Jewish kids in Buenos Aires or London or Jerusalem.

And yet, despite the lack of a truly common Jewish language or Jewish culture, the pull of national Jewish identity can be incredibly strong.

I remember the very first time I arrived in Israel’s Ben Gurion airport and saw the little white boxes with red Jewish stars on them. I nearly wept when I realized they were first aid kits – it had never even occurred to me that the medical red cross was a cross, until I saw my tribe represented on a box of band-aids.

It wasn’t that the contents of the boxes were different – Red Jewish Star first aid kits have the same band aids and bacitracin as Red Cross first aid kits – but it was so incredibly inspiring and affirming to see my Jewish tribe represented.

Seeing that box with the Jewish star, I felt as if I wasn’t an interloper, but that I truly belonged.

Of course, that was an illusion.

I was in Israel, but I was certainly not of Israel. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know the culture, and as an 18 year old Jew born in America, not Israel, I got to have an exciting year abroad, not an exciting year in the army.

The illusion of belonging was, however, an easy illusion have, and it was an illusion that the entire superstructure of American Judaism encouraged me to have. I experienced – in my own mind – the warm embrace of belonging without the effort of spiritual practice, Shabat stillness or learning Hebrew. I could belong by just showing up.

Of course, I’m not the first one to make the mistake of focusing on the label, not the content, of Judaism.

In the book of Yonah, God orders Yonah to give prophesy against the city of Nineveh. Yonah famously refuses and tries to flee from God across the ocean.

A huge storm rises up around his ship, but once Yonah is thrown overboard, the sea calms down. Yonah takes refuge in the belly of a whale, and while there, he grudgingly relents and promises to go to Nineveh.

Once there, Yonah prophesies that “in 40 days the city shall be overthrown.” The people of Nineveh believe him and spend the next 40 days fasting and praying. They successfully mend their ways and save themselves.

Yonah is seriously annoyed by their salvation, and the book ends with Yonah complaining that God didn’t destroy the city of Nineveh and all its inhabitants. Seems like an odd complaint.

To make sense of this, it might be helpful to realize that the book of Yonah is not the first place where the prophet Yonah appears. He makes his debut is way back in the Second Book of Kings.

Without getting lost in ancient Israelite history, Yonah was the court prophet of Yerovam ben Yoash, the king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Yerovam wasn’t pious, didn’t care for the poor, and generally “did what was displeasing to the Lord.”

Not really a great guy, but Yerovam did successfully withstand his enemies for 41 years, and he enlarged the territory of Israel. Not only that, but Yerovam knew that nothing unites a people like a common enemy and he used his enemies to unite the Northern Kingdom for the first time in centuries. He truly made Israel great again.

And Yonah ben Amittai was his prophet, his mouthpiece, his conduit to God.

Once God calls Yonah for the mission to Nineveh, he makes it clear that he really doesn’t want the job – three times he asks God to kill him rather than send him on the mission.

Of course he doesn’t – nobody wants to be a prophet. It’s a lousy job. Realistically, your best case scenario is that you’re ignored and the worst case scenario is that you’re killed.

Yonah, however, isn’t afraid he’s going to be a prophetic failure, ineffective in getting people to change their sinful ways; he was afraid of being a prophetic success who did get the people to change their ways. He says it explicitly – “I didn’t want to be a prophet because I knew I would be successful and you wouldn’t destroy Nineveh.”

What’s wrong with Nineveh? Why is Jonah upset that they won’t be destroyed?

As Professor Micah Goodman of the Hartman Institute has pointed out, Nineveh, where God is trying to send Jonah, is the capital of the sworn enemy of Israel. And more than anything else Yerovam or Yonah know about Judaism, they know who their enemies are.

Remember, Yerovam ben Yoash is the unethical but powerful King of Israel who the prophet Amos, a contemporary of Yona, is railing against when he says “you trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course!” Yerovam is the king of Jewish power, not Jewish values.

God is deliberately telling Yonah, the prophet of Jewish nationalism, that he needs to go and be the prophet of Torah, of Jewish values and help his enemy do teshuva and get right with God.

Yonah doesn’t want the mission to Nineveh because in order to be a loyal servant of the God of Israel, he believes he has to betray the people Israel.

But God picked Yona to make a point – Judaism defined against enemies is not at all the same thing as Judaism defined as the practice of Torah.

It’s easy to confuse Torah and Judaism, just as it’s easy to confuse the Jewish star on the outside of the box with the Band-Aids on the inside of the box. But they aren’t the same thing, and in fact, they can actually be in conflict.

It’s not that we endure no threats – dangers were real in the 8th century BCE and they are real now. However, we should not let them define us. Yonah, and the kingdom he represented, was so focused on the enemies of Judaism that God needed to remind him of what Judaism was about in the first place.

Of course, it’s possible to focus on our borders even when there’s no apparent enemy.

In 2014, a Korean-American Christian student named Eun Bae rushed Ohio State University’s chapter of AEPi, a historically Jewish fraternity and a major Jewish organization. The chapter’s 110 young men — all of them Jewish — admitted him.

When the national AEPi organization heard that the Ohio chapter had admitted a non-Jew, it told the Ohio chapter that it could lose its standing as an official AEPi Chapter unless it revoked Bae’s membership.

There are no reports of Bae serving ham sandwiches on Yom Kippor or anything like that. It seems the problem wasn’t what Bae did, but who he was – a gentile.

The national office of AEPi did what many of us do – define our Judaism by what we are not because it can be a lot easier to define what we are not, than to define what we are.

Perhaps the practices of Shabbat chafe at us.

Perhaps davening and meditation bore us.

Perhaps Torah study is meaningless to us.

Perhaps it is easier to see where spiritual traditions fail us than it is to figure out how to make them work.

But at a certain point in our rebellion against Judaism, we malnourish our souls and become Jews with no inheritance other than not being Gentiles.

Back in 1984, the longtime executive director of AEPi, George Toll, wrote “the Jewish fraternity is a tool for our survival… Jewish fraternity men date Jewish girls and Jewish fraternity women…. Intermarriage [is] rare. Even though the programs of the Jewish fraternities have little Jewish content… Jewish fraternity men… do not assimilate in the same proportion as men who join gentile fraternities. They are not as apt to intermarry.”

Is that all our Judaism comes down to? Being an “us” who doesn’t marry “them”?

Without the framework of ethnicity and race, it can be hard for many of us to articulate how we do understand ourselves as Jews, not merely as “non-gentiles.”

Are we Shabbas observers? Hebrew speakers? Seekers? Davveners? What is it that we are, other than what we are not?

My little community in Beacon, NY is made up of people of all types and backgrounds and I am so grateful for them. If it wasn’t for people who were born as Gentiles – some of whom have chosen to formally convert to Judaism, some of whom have not – my synagogue would not function. We’d never make a minyan. We’d never learn Torah. We’d never serve a meal, for ourselves or for the hungry in our community. If we focused on the ethnos and not the ethos of Judaism, we’d shut down in less than a week.

There are some who say the most important question in Jewish life is knowing where our boundaries are, knowing who is in and who is out. Can you be Jewish if you are married to the wrong person? Can you be Jewish if you have the wrong politics on Israel or Palestine? If you think the wrong thing about Black Lives Matter?

Large though those questions may loom in Jewish communal consciousness, they are of no real significance.

The real question for American Judaism is whether Torah, the content of Judaism, can mean anything to us.

In 2009, the oldest and largest Jewish school in Great Britain was mandated by the government to address this very question. The court ruled that Jewish schools are guilty of racial discrimination if they reject children on the grounds of their parentage; instead, at least for the purposes of admission to the school, Judaism must be defined by ongoing personal acts of faith, rather than birth or conversion. So, the school developed a form which assigned points based on three things:

  • shul attendance,
  • formal Jewish education for children and
  • volunteering

How many American Jews would qualify for admission to a Jewish school in England by this reckoning of doing, rather than being, Jewish?

If not those three (shul attendance, formal Jewish education for children and volunteering), what should on the list? When I posted this question on facebook, my scholarly and rabbinic community had an easier time listing what they wouldn’t include than what they would.

One member of my synagogue community pointed out that the web of connections which make up Judaism are too varied to comprise a single list. Rather, there needed to be a multiplicity of options, because beyond what the specific choices were, the very existence of choice was an essential part of Judaism.

The question remains though – what practices or beliefs should populate our menu of choices?

Here are five, though in deference to my congregant, perhaps we need to choose only three of five.

  1. Tefilah: regular spiritual practice
  2. Tzedakah: giving of one’s own resources to meet the material needs of others.
  3. Teshuva: regular reflection on oneself and one’s relationships
  4. Shabbat: a weekly practice of rest and gathering
  5. Talmud Torah: regular engaging the mind in order to support the soul.

Perhaps you disagree with this list. Perhaps you think something else needs to be included or something needs to be removed. Fair enough. Post your list and thoughts, and we can discuss.

The important thing is that our souls need more nourishment than simply being Jewish can provide. Identity is thin porridge. Our souls need the nourishment that only comes from doing spiritual work, Jewish or otherwise.

God sent Yona to Nineveh, but the rabbis of the Talmud sent Yona to us, on Yom Kippor, to remind us that Judaism isn’t about the label of Judaism, but the content. The point of being Jewish isn’t Judaism – it isn’t our national identity, it isn’t our land, our culture, our corned beef sandwiches, our enthusiasm for the three Jews playing professional sports at any given moment.

The point, as we pray when we welcome a new child to the covenant is live a life of תורה חופה ומעשים טובים – of Torah, of love and of kindness.

I’m a rabbi, but truth be told, I’m not sure I am Jewish. Every day though, I aspire to practice Judaism, to bring devotion to my efforts to live a life of Torah, love and kindness. On my best days, I don’t fail too badly.

Our job is to meet the challenge laid out by Jewish identity and, regardless of our blood lines or parentage, live holy lives, worthy of being called Jewish.

This is adapted from a 2016 Yom Kippor drasha given at Beacon Hebrew Alliance.

About the Author
Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek has been recognized by the Jewish Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America, by Hudson Valley Magazine as a Person to Watch and by Newsweek as "a rabbi to watch." He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Fellow of the Schusterman Foundation. ​ Rabbi Brent is a member of the faculty at Pardes North America and has been the rabbi at Beacon Hebrew Alliance since 2010; prior to that, he served as the Rabbi in Residence at American Jewish World Service and was the Marshall T. Meyer Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. Rabbi Brent holds rabbinic ordination and a master's degree in philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was the first recipient of the Neubauer Fellowship. Prior to entering the rabbinate, he attended Wesleyan University and worked as a daily journalist in Durham, NC. He lives in Beacon with his wife Alison, a professor of environmental chemistry at Vassar College, and their two children.