December 30, 2022
In a funny coincidence, a couple of weeks ago, two articles came through my email within a 24-hour period. The first, from the Forward newspaper, had the title “Do ‘bad Jews’ really exist? A new book says no.” The article, about a recently published book called ‘Bad Jews’ by Emily Tamkin, is mostly an interview with the author, exploring the tag “bad jew” and its Jewish social implications.
The other, from a controversial Jewish British commentator named Melanie Phillips, was titled “The Good Jew/Bad Jew demonization strategy.” Phillips is a right-wing polemicist. The article has her blaming the left for dividing Jews up into two categories – “good Jews” and “bad Jews,” placing themselves squarely in the “good Jews” category and branding everyone else a “bad Jew.” The article is, at best, silly, and is not worth commenting on, other than to say that Phillips ends up doing exactly what she is criticizing the left for. But that’s neither here nor there. What was noteworthy was the fact of this article coming across my desk in the wake of the Forward article, illustrating Tamkin’s thesis that the titles “good Jew” or “bad Jew” are unhelpful in any context.
What’s interesting are the parameters of the discussion. Does “good Jew” or “bad Jew” refer to religious observance? To political affiliation? To support or lack-of-support for Israel? In the religious sphere, the term is bandied about enough that non-Orthodox Jews often feel a sense of inadequacy with regard to their “Jewishness.” At one point in the Forward article, Tamkin notes that “The most common answer I got when I [asked], ‘What do you think of when you think of a bad Jew?…’ [was] ‘I think of myself.’” In other words, people (at least non-observant ones) were expressing shame in their relation to religious practice and observance.
In the political sphere (both in regard to US politics and Israeli politics), both sides throw the terms around accusingly. If your views don’t align with my religious values, then you are a “bad Jew.” If you are not primarily concerned with Israel’s security, you are a “bad Jew.” If you don’t believe in reproductive freedom, you are a “bad Jew.” Conservative radio-host Ben Shapiro is quoted as saying, “The Jewish people has always been plagued by Bad Jews, who undermine it from within. In America, those Bad Jews largely vote Democrat.” And, of course, supporters of Israel’s new right-wing government are “bad Jews.” Or are they “good Jews?” It’s all a little confusing.
The use of these terms leaves a lot to unpack, but the bottom line is that we should attempt to move away from such facile labels. In essence, they have no meaning and serve no purpose other than offering yet-another opportunity to self-righteously brand those with whom we disagree. Religious observance is not necessarily a marker for who is and who isn’t a “good Jew.” Is a “good Jew” necessarily a good person? We all know of people who are religiously observant but still find room to be unethical in their personal lives. The corollary to that, of course, is: is a Jew who is a “good person” necessarily a “good Jew” even if they are not religiously observant? And with regard to politics, “good Jew” and “bad Jew” are most often euphemisms for “good person” and “bad person” – again, if you don’t see things the way I do, it’s not just a political difference – it’s a character flaw.
The idea of “good Jews” and “bad Jews” unravels with the slightest tug, so meaningless are the labels. If the secular new year is a time for making resolutions, let’s resolve to think deeper in 2023. Let’s feel good about our engagement with our Judaism, avoiding shame and guilt, and let’s aim to hear the voices of those with whom we disagree without rushing to judgement. The incredible diversity of Jewish practice, of Jewish self-expression, of Jewish (or secular!) political engagement, is what makes us so rich. Rather than lobbing epithets and judgementalisms at one another, let’s take “bad Jew” out of our lexicon and start with the idea that we’re all “good Jews” who simply might not agree about everything.
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat, and a very happy 2023!
Rabbi Sam Levine