For the last several years, one of the hottest topics in the Jewish world has been “Who is a Jew?” The debate over this issue – which spills over into the subcategories of, “Who is a convert?” and “Who is a rabbi?” – is as sensitive as it is super charged, and has serious implications for everything from Israel’s Law of Return to an accurate count of the Jewish global population.
So much has already been written on this subject that I don’t think I can add much to it. However, what I do think deserves discussion is an even more important question: “What is a good Jew?!” That, it seems to me, is the challenge which all of us need to face.
And so I offer for your consideration the following “Top 10 Qualities” that I believe define the “good” Jew:
1. HUMILITY: We start with the need to be humble. While confidence and self-assurance are surely good traits – and a person has every right to proclaim “For me the world was created!” – arrogance and conceit do not suit us well. The prophet adjures us to “walk humbly” through the world, acknowledging the goodness of others and our subservience to the Almighty.
The greatness of Moses – and all of our finest leaders, for that matter – is directly proportionate to his humility and self-effacement. The humble person accepts that there is much he can learn from others, and is apt to develop a keen sense of respect for his fellow man. Though the country-western song proclaims “Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way!” I prefer the observation that “A person all wrapped up in himself makes for a very small package.”
(I have a standing principle, by the way: If an article uses the words “I” or “me” more than three times in the opening paragraph, I stop reading. And so there are writers – some even in this great newspaper – whose columns I haven’t read in several years!)
2. HESSED: This is not an easy word to define, but like all these invisible attributes, you know it when you see it. Hessed combines the features of compassion, kindness and charity.
A Jew is, by nature, a giver, and he seeks outlets for assisting others. He may do this by sharing his knowledge, time or money; he has an insatiable need to “get involved” by volunteering for community work and reaching out to the less fortunate. Jews are referred to in rabbinic literature as “the merciful, descended from the merciful” – the network of Jewish “self-help” organizations worldwide bears witness to this trait – and one Talmudic opinion says that we may question the Jewish lineage of anyone who shuns kindness and practices abject cruelty.
3. JUSTICE:. A Jew has a keen sense of justice, of wanting to see society’s wrongs made right, of defending the weak and standing up against corruption and inequity. Abraham argued against indiscriminate punishment in the “Sodom vs the Creator” case, and Moses established his leadership credentials by striking out against Egyptian oppression. I have no doubt that this is why Jews make the world’s best lawyers and judges (and perhaps the worst politicians!) due to their acute sense of justice. Unfortunately, the world at large sometimes gets it wrong – applauding the freeing of terrorist murderers, for example, and lending support to Palestinian perpetrators of evil – but on the whole, we Jews have a great track record; wherever there is a noble cause to be fought, we are there.
4. TRUTH: From the moment we were created as a nation, we were given a mission: Tell the truth. The whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Tell the world that there is a God, that He is alive and active; that He has the ability to intervene in history and that He does so, in His own way. That there are rules in the universe that define right and wrong, laws and standards of behavior which are as immutable as the rising of the sun or the sprouting of a seed. Tell the world about decency, morality, sin and civility – even if that world is determined not to hear it.
Like it or not, we are meant to be the voice of heaven, sent earthwards to represent and reiterate eternal truths, without which humanity cannot hope to achieve perfection.
5. MODESTY: I’d like to believe that whoever said “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” wasn’t Jewish. Because there is a certain grace in not being gaudy or garish, a certain charm in holding back and leaving something for the imagination. The impulse to go “all out” may be a good poker strategy, but we have always practiced discretion in dress and demeanor.
Tzniut, loosely translated as modesty, is about much more than skin or skirt lengths. It is a way of conducting ourselves so that we project a certain class and minimalist sophistication. It is refraining from invading another’s space, with either coarse language or our car horn. It is knowing that not everything that can be said should be said and that not everything that can be shown should be shown.
6. SCHOLARSHIP: If books make one smart, the People of the Book are bound to be highly intelligent. We have always put the highest value on study, as in the phrase “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam” – Torah study is equivalent to all other virtues combined.
“At three I started Hebrew school...” is not just a cute song, it became our way of life. Fathers sought out scholars for their daughters to marry, and communities pooled their resources to support study programs for young and old. Often denied entrance into guilds and universities, we developed our own institutions of higher learning and found our greatest joy in the amassing of knowledge. We may lag a bit behind in the number of sports trophies in our display case, but we are second to none when it comes to Nobel Prizes.
7. COURAGE: No people ever faced greater physical danger than we have. Throughout the centuries, we have faced off against the world’s mightiest empires and warriors, from Greece to Germany to Sisera to Stalin. Despite the image of the Jew as the weak, downtrodden bookworm, we have displayed heroic fortitude and an indomitable will to survive. There is no better proof of this than the fact that we are here, and they are gone, and that we have arguably the finest, fittest army in the world.
But courage is not always measured on the battlefield; it can be found just as often in the decision to live on when the smoke of the crematoria has finally cleared, and in the determination of the bereaved mother to present her second son to the officers at the IDF induction center. Which brings us to our next category...
8. FAITH: I often marvel at how steadfastly we have stuck with God, despite all the tests and trials He has put us through. Ever since Sinai – and even before that, at the Akeda, or enslaved in Egypt – we never severed our connection to the King of Kings. We walked into fiery furnaces rather than abandon our faith, we marched into gas chambers reciting the Shema. We risked our lives, time and again, to give ours sons a brit, or strap on a pair of tefillin.
Why? Was it because we understood that with the glory comes the grief? Or that our destiny was to be God’s child, no matter what the consequences? I suggest it is because we knew – and we know – that Judaism is the holiest way of life, that it brings us the greatest meaning and spiritual satisfaction, and that, when all is said and done, God will see us through. Which brings us to...
9. OPTIMISM: We Jews can be world-class complainers, no doubt, but we always manage to see the brighter side of things. We never give up, even when the odds are against us, because we innately believe there will be a happy ending.
We have packed up and moved a thousand times to virtually every place on Earth, and each time we told our family that it will be better this time than before.
Accordingly, our operative color is white (see: weddings, Yom Kippur, etc.); our favorite children’s book is The Little Engine That Could; our favorite movie is Cinderella or Rocky; and our favorite sports team, hands down, is the Chicago Cubs (my apologies to the Mets fans out there). Logic aside, we believe! It’s all summed up in the classic story about the town that’s told it will be deluged by a massive flood in just three days’ time. The mayor tells his citizens to go and say their last goodbyes to their families; the priest urges his parishioners to use the time remaining to make a final peace with their Maker; but the rabbi gathers his fellow Jews and tells them matter-of-factly: “We have exactly three days to learn how to live underwater!” Which leads us to...
10. ISRAEL: There was perhaps a time when Israel played only an abstract, academic role in our national lives. Mired in the Exile, scattered over a half-dozen continents, we could only relate to the Holy Land in daily prayers, picture books and dream sequences.
But God has performed an awesome miracle in our day – greater, Jeremiah the Prophet wrote long ago, than even the events of the Exodus – by gathering up the Jews of many nations, allowing us to reclaim our land, bestowing us with a united capital of Jerusalem and giving us the opportunity to practice Judaism in its natural habitat.
I am convinced that this is our reward for all the combined attributes above, maintained throughout the generations by our people – the courage, the faith, the optimism – that is finally bearing fruit. Who would miss the chance to claim the prize? Who would ignore the handwriting of history and not choose to be a part of the play’s last, great act? We live in a time when much of the world has turned its back on us. A great percentage of the globe is anti-Semitic, eager to ban and boycott us, while ignoring the real troubles and travesties that fill the headlines.
Even America, our stalwart ally, has abdicated its moral principles by embracing the Palestinian terror government and failing to recognize, let alone repel, Islam’s war on humanity.
And that is precisely why this is the time when we must reaffirm the qualities which made, and make, us great. This is the time to look inward, to perfect our selves and our souls by being the best possible Jews we can be.
How do you rate yourself?
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rabbistewartweiss.com