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Bad Jews/Good Jews

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

Kol Nidrei Eve 5780

How many of you here tonight think you are a bad Jew? I mean, we have already confessed to a variety of sins tonight. So how many of you think you are bad Jews? Hands please?

So an observant Jewish man goes to his rabbi just before Sukkot and says, “Rabbi, I have to admit, I know it’s a pretty new year, but I’ve already failed to fulfill some mitzvot, some commandments.”

The rabbi asks, “So what did you do wrong?”

And the man answers, “I forgot to bench, to say Birkat haMazon, the Grace After Meals, after lunch one day last week.”

“OK,” says the rabbi, “That’s not so bad. Just remember to say it next time. But why did you forget?”

“Well,” says the guy, “I didn’t wash my hands before the meal.”

“Oh,” says the rabbi, “Well that’s two mitzvot you broke, but that’s also not so terrible.”

“That’s not all, rabbi,” says the man, “I forgot to wash my hands because there wasn’t any place to do it in the restaurant.”

“And why was that?” asks the rabbi.

“Well, you see, it wasn’t a kosher restaurant,” the man says, “So the food wasn’t kosher.”

“Oy,” says the rabbi. “Couldn’t you have at least gone to a kosher restaurant for lunch?”

And the man answers, “On Yom Kippur?”

Now that’s kind of being a bad Jew. Or is it? You see, being a good Jew can be a complicated thing. There are many kinds of violations that we regularly commit, and are supposed to atone for on Yom Kippur.

Most of these are the kinds of mistakes, errors and sins with which we are all familiar: we lied about something, we were rude, we got unreasonably angry, we cut corners, we didn’t do what we said we’d do, we let self-interest get in the way of doing the right thing, we were too lazy to bother. These are normal, human errors we all commit, foolish or unthinking or selfish acts we wish we hadn’t done. They are the errors that Yom Kippur atones for, right?

But what about those things we do that damage the whole Jewish people? What if we have been really bad Jews?

When I teach the concept of the peoplehood of Israel, Klal Yisrael, I explain there isn’t anything rational about considering us to be one people. Being a Jew is not a racial thing, except that we are all part of the human race. We Jews may have come from the Middle East originally, but today there are Jews from nearly every country on earth: black Jews from Ethiopia and Uganda, black hat Jews from Brooklyn, blonde, blue-eyed Jews from the Caucasus in Russia, Moroccan and Yemenite and Iranian and Iraqi Jews, Mexican and Argentinian and Brazilian Jews, Italian Jews, Greek and Turkish Jews, Jews from India, even red-haired Jews from Tucson, and every combination of those ethnic heritages. And there are many Jews-by-Choice, whose origins sometimes include Jewish ancestors but often do not. We are certainly not any biologically distinguishable ethnicity. What is it that connects us as one people?

If you say Judaism is a religion and we share the same beliefs, I must say that there are quite a few differences within the Jewish world in the realm of belief—maybe you’ve noticed that. It is not clear that ultra-Orthodox Jews in Willamsburg or B’nei Brak or Mea She’arim or even Chabad of Tucson share the same understanding of Judaism as Reform Jews on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, or progressive Jews in the Foothills or Oro Valley. We differ on many things. So just what do we all agree on?

Not a lot, really. It’s safe to say that all Jews are pretty sure that there is no more than one God. We all call ourselves “Jews.” We all think the Torah is an important Jewish book. We have general agreement on the Jewish holiday cycle, and we tend to agree Israel is and should be a Jewish State. But beyond that there are more than a few differences in beliefs about God, rituals, Kashrut, history, politics, Shabbat, music, the status of women, Bibi Netanyahu and a few hundred other things. You know, two Jews, three opinions, four synagogues, five rabbis... I mean the only Jewish nation in the world, Israel, has held two national elections over the past six months and still can’t agree on a prime minister or government.

In truth, we Jews don’t really even pray together much. There’s the classic Jewish joke about the desert island: a ship is sailing in the South Pacific when the captain sees smoke coming from what should be a deserted island. He steers for the island, and is startled to find that there’s a full pier, and a well-dressed man waiting on the beautifully built dock. The captain comes ashore and is welcomed by a man who says his name is Goldberg. "I'm astonished, Mr. Goldberg," the captain says. "How'd you get here? And how did you construct this magnificent dock?"

"Oh," says Goldberg, "I was shipwrecked here, alone, 5 years ago, and I did the work with mine own hands. But the dock is nothing. Come see…”

So Goldberg leads the captain on a tour of his island, which includes a paved main street, a store, a school, every possible convenience. But what really impresses the captain are the two magnificent buildings at the end of the street, both with stained glass windows.

"My God, Goldberg, look at what you have done with nothing but your bare hands. But," says the captain, "what are those two incredible buildings?"

"Oh," says Goldberg, "those are the synagogues."

“Amazing!" the captain says, "But why do you need two of them when there is just you?"

"The one on the right is my shul,” says Goldberg. “The one on the left I wouldn't be caught dead in!!"

No the real connection between Jews comes not from racial solidarity or shared beliefs or even common practice but from something quite different, a seminal idea in the Talmud: kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, each Jew is responsible for every other Jew. We are all in this together. Kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, each Jew is responsible for every other. And what does that mean?

It means that we Jews feel a connection that goes beyond anything reasonable, a mystical alliance that helps guide our actions. It means any time a group of Jews is endangered, anywhere in the world, we expect—we know—that Jews everywhere else will try to help them and save them. In recent years this has been true for endangered Jews in Venezuela, Ukraine and Africa, and in recent decades for Jews in Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, Sarajevo, Argentina, Ukraine and other countries. It is what made it so very strange to see the indifference of the Christian world to the destruction that Syrian Christians suffered at the hands of the Islamic State in the recent Syrian Civil War. You did not see a dramatic world-wide Christian church-led effort to save them, although the Christian world is enormously larger and more influential than the Jewish world. But if those had been Syrian Jews you can be certain that there would have been a tremendous synagogue and Federation campaign to bring them out safely from that destruction, and you would have donated to it.

Kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, each Jew is responsible for every other. We are all part of the same, large family, dysfunctional maybe, but a family.

This Jewish sense of mutual responsibility extends in other ways. If you are Jewish and someone Jewish does something great, you feel pride, even though you had nothing to do with it. And if you are Jewish and someone Jewish does something terrible, you feel a sense of shame, even though you also had nothing to do with that. So if a Jew hits a home run in the World Series—like Alex Bregman or Joc Pederson—or wins a gold medal in the Olympics, like Tucson’s own Kerry Strug did, or receives a Nobel Prize—we Jews win a lot of Nobel Prizes, not just Bob Dylan, scientists and physicians and authors and poets and diplomats, too—it is common to kvell a little, to feel a frisson of pride, although you may not actually understand what that person did to win that prize.

And similarly, when a Jew does something awful we feel a sense of shame, even though we didn’t commit the offense, and likely don’t even know the people involved. We wince and grimace and note that it’s a shondeh, a shameful thing the person did. We didn’t do it ourselves, of course: but we feel some responsibility, nonetheless.

Israel deals with this differently. David Ben-Gurion, the father of modern Israel and its first Prime Minister, said some version of the following: “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.” And for better and for worse, that’s been true for a long time now. But Israel is a country in which Jews form roughly 80% of the population, and no one has to feel shame about an Israeli embarrassing other Israelis because he or she is Jewish. They are all Jewish, the good ones, the bad ones, and the in-between ones.

But we American Jews still have this identity issue, the challenge of avoiding being Bad Jews, of being a shondeh far de goyim. My New York friends Peter and Betsy Shaerf’s 23-year-old son Nick has created a list of “Bad Jews.” His list is a bit idiosyncratic—he is 23 after all—but included on it are some obvious candidates, Jews that give us real reason tor collective shame: Jeffrey Epstein was at the top of this year’s list; Bernie Madoff made the list of bad Jews, of course, as did Harvey Weinstein. So did Stephen Miller, the virulently anti-immigrant White House advisor, whose own grandparents are all immigrants. Anthony Weiner is on it. In the historical category, financial manipulators Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken are Bad Jews, as were Jewish gangsters like Lepke Buchalter, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen. And then there are Jewish terrorists, like Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amar, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s murderer. Arnold Rothstein, whose bribery threw the World Series exactly 100 years ago, is on the list, as is David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam. These are Jews we all cringe about, aren’t they? Really bad Jews.

But that’s not what we mean when we say that we are bad Jews.

We mean that we are not tzadikim b’nei tzadikim, righteous, observant people and the children of righteous, observant people. Definitely not. Gerald Shapiro wrote a great short story, “Bad Jews,” reworked into the movie “King of the Corner” by actor/director Peter Riegert. At one point the protagonist of the story, Leo, confesses, “I’m descended from a long line of crummy Jews. Moses is up on Mt. Sinai working his [bottom] off getting the 10 commandments, and the bad Jews are down below, drinking and shtupping and melting all their rings and necklaces to make an idol. Those are my people.” His people, you know: the bad Jews, children of other bad Jews. Going back to Mt. Sinai. In other words, there’ve always been bad Jews, just as there have always been good Jews.

Which leads to the important question, especially so tonight: just what is a bad Jew? The High Holy Days are the time when we are supposed to look at our conduct over the past year, consider when we have been “bad Jews” and attempt to become good Jews again. To do that, we need to know just what it really means to be a bad Jew.

I cannot tell you how many times people have told me, “You know, rabbi, I’m Jewish, but I’m a bad Jew.” I always ask: what do you mean by a bad Jew? Generally speaking, they don’t say, “I murdered my business partner last week” or “I’m about to be arrested for selling state secrets to Russia.” They say, “I’m Jewish, rabbi, but I don’t go to services much” or “I don’t have Shabbat dinner every week” or “I don’t really believe in God” or “I don’t know much about the Torah” or perhaps, “I don’t believe in life after death.” Sometimes they mean, “Rabbi, I really like to eat scallops. Also bacon. Sometimes together.”

See, the people who say, “I’m a bad Jew,” mean, “I don’t do enough Jewish religious stuff to be considered a good Jew.” Or perhaps, “I don’t belong to a synagogue.” Or, “I just had bacon and eggs for breakfast. On Yom Kippur.”

But then I say, “What would it take to make you feel that you are a good Jew?” Because you are not bad Jews, none of you, not really. You are here in synagogue on Yom Kippur. You are seeking Teshuvah. You are not the kind of person our people has cause to regret, none of you. And so I ask you, tonight, what would it take to make you feel that you are a good Jew?

We all must start by being decent human beings. But the Boy Scouts of America requires that, and so does Rotary Club. We mean something more than that when we say someone is a good Jew, not just not a bad Jew.

We mean be a good, caring, principled person of integrity. We mean work to make this a better world: bring food for the hungry and clothes for the immigrant and the stranger in our midst. We mean give Tzedakah to the poor, visit the sick, console the bereaved, celebrate with bride and groom. We mean advocate for the truth at a time when lies and invective threaten our ability to see what is real. We mean be loyal friends, and be honest in our business dealings. We mean make peace where there is strife.

But we also mean, choose to do Jewish acts that connect you to this extraordinary, eternal people. Light Shabbat candles on a Friday night. Build a Sukkah. Study the Torah, this amazing book. Bring your children and grandchildren to Jewish events, and to Hebrew School. Travel to Israel. Have a Shabbat dinner.

And yes, of course, attend and join a synagogue, the institution in Jewish history that has kept our people alive and vital throughout the centuries.

Be good, of course, my friends, and seek to make up for what you did wrong in this past year. Work to make this a better world, because God knows, it needs it. But also: be good Jews. Find ways to make the incredibly beautiful garment of Judaism fit you and your family. Do Jewish acts that enhance your life, and your family’s life. Be part of our amazing young Jewish synagogue community here. Make your Judaism vital, as it should be, as it is, and do so in your own honest, principled way.

Find your own way to your own Judaism and your own Jewish practice. And then, God-willing, by next Yom Kippur you really will be able to feel like a good Jew. Gmar Chatimah Tovah—may you be sealed in the Book of Life, as good Jews, for a truly good Jewish year.

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