One of the great challenges of text communication is the lack of inflection, emphasis and nuance. An innocuous WhatsApp message or status update could convey all kinds of unexpected overtones to the reader. Consider the following phrase: “Are you ready?” In text, that appears as a simple fact-finding query. At home, when you’re about to leave for a night out, it is likely hissed through clenched teeth.
When I saw someone ask “What kind of Jew are you?” online, I thought it was an interesting and potentially thought-provoking question. So, I shared it on my social media accounts, curious to see what responses it would provoke. I got a bunch of the usuals: “A proud one”, “A religious Jew”, “a Jew who each day tries to improve”. A friend shared the cute (and honest) “I’m Jew-ish” response. There were also some unexpected responses, like “A tribal Jew” (is that a good thing?) and “a simple Jew” (to be sure, it’s far from simple to be a simple Jew). A fellow from my Shul wanted to know if it was already Pesach time, because I was asking questions and forming categories of Jews (funnily enough, nobody had suggested “wise” and “wicked” in their answers).
The question also vexed some people. They heard an accusatory tone in the question, something like “what kind of Jew are you, anyway?” They shot back with “the kind of Jew who would never ask that kind of question” and “a holy Jew, like all the other kinds.” One Twitter follower said he had never known they “they” come in shapes, sizes and colours. Well, “they” do, but that’s subject for a different discussion.
I had expected this question to provoke introspection, not contention. After all, it is just before Rosh Hashanah, when we should utilize every thought-provoking opportunity to reflect.
Over a few days, the conversation progressed, on Facebook, Twitter and my weekly radio show. I had started out thinking this question was merely a good conversation-starter. It quickly proved to be a more potent question than I had imagined; one with a great pre-Rosh Hashanah message.
Yes, every one of us is 100% valuable in G-d’s eyes. Remember, He insisted that Moses of the Bible and Yankel the desert straggler would each count for exactly the same half-shekel in the wilderness-census. Before Jews even become a nation, G-d had insisted that Moses tell Pharaoh that no Jew would remain behind, because every one of them was equally valuable to him. When Moshiach comes, our Sages assure us, G-d will personally lead each of us home to Israel, regardless of our knowledge, level of observance or stature.
But, equal value does not mean sameness. Yes, we all pray the same Shema and observe Shabbos on the same day. Yet, none of us hears the same message in the Shofar or sees the same glow in Chanukah candles. The prophet Zechariah described the Jewish nation as a seven-branched Menorah, all crafted from one solid gold piece, but each a unique branch. Our nation is founded on twelve tribes, not one of whom thought or behaved like the other. Our forefathers ranged from the open kindness of Abraham to the focused spiritual discipline of Isaac to the worldly success of Jacob. Read the Talmud, and you’ll see the polarised views of a Hillel and Shammai, who studied the same tomes under the same masters and followed the same laws and rituals, yet took radically different approaches to understanding Judaism. Kabbalah speaks of those Jews who connect to G-d through study and those who connect through deed.
The question “what kind of Jew are you?” isn’t so new. The Talmud records sages asking each other what kind of Jew their respective fathers were. They use the expression “zahir”, as if to say, “which mitzvah was your father most scrupulous with?” You might recognize the connection between that word, “zahir”, which means careful and the word “Zohar”, which means “radiance”. These sages wanted to know which mitzvah made each of these great men shine. Each of our souls resonates most strongly with a specific part of Judaism. When we discover our personal soul-connection, which comes to life through a specific mitzvah or Torah portion, we set our soul alight. That’s when we start to really live. That’s when we shine. That’s when we make the unique contribution that G-d dispatched our soul to fulfil. That’s when we complete our piece of the grand tapestry of Existence.
So, we ask ourselves, at this introspective time of year, “What kind of a Jew am I?” It’s not an accusation. It’s an invitation to probe. Which part of the Jewish experience ignites my soul? The part of the Torah I most resonate with relates to the kind of Jew I am; to the kind of soul I have. G-d expects us all to do our level-best to fulfil all of the Torah’s requirements, but there is one special element of the Jewish experience that speaks to the kind of Jew I am.
When I find it, my life comes alive.