What kind of Jew are you? - comment

We need new categories that faithfully reflect the way American Jewish life is actually lived.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What kind of Jew are you?
Ask the question these days, and people are likely to answer it in one of three or four ways. They may tell you, for example, that they are religious Jews or secular Jews, making observance the focal point of their identity. Or they may apply politics as a yardstick instead, saying they’re conservative or liberal Jews. Some may self-identify as Zionists or anti-Zionists, and some as Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist Jews.
These answers all have one thing in common: They’re all terrible.
What, for example, can we learn about a person who tells you they’re secular? We could assume, of course, that he or she doesn’t observe Shabbat and might not adhere to the laws of kashrut, but other than that, the definition tells us almost nothing about the human being in question. Even worse, because we’re so used to thinking in categories, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing ourselves and our community through these lenses, making assumptions and forming affiliations based on ideas and notions that are, at best, wildly inaccurate.
We need to do better. We need new categories that faithfully reflect the way American Jewish life is actually lived. Luckily for us, there’s only one such category: learning Jews.
Who among us isn’t learning? For some of us, this means engaging with Daf Yomi, the practice of studying just one page of Talmud a day. For some, this means reading a book or listening to a podcast. For others, it could mean signing up for a class at the local JCC or watching a show on Netflix or even just getting together with friends to talk about small frustrations and big ideas. We shouldn’t dismiss any of these activities as banal. Seen correctly, they form the foundation of Jewish life, a foundation that invites each of us to build on it further.
This is why, traditionally, the greatest compliment you could pay a fellow Jew was to call them a talmid hacham – an excellent student – not necessarily a genius who already knows everything, but a committed, lifelong pupil who is constantly eager to grow and know more, and is willing to adapt and change.
What happens if we commit to identifying as learning Jews? Two things.
FIRST, WE would be much more likely to overcome the condition a friend of mine had jokingly referred to as “Jewbarassment,” or the stinging feeling that you’re just not educated enough about all things Jewish and should feel a little bit ashamed. Being involved with Jewish communal life, I routinely meet Jews, young and old, who feel the need to apologize – for not studying enough Torah, for not knowing enough about Israeli history, for not being familiar with every in and out of our faith, as if that were even possible. Declaring ourselves to be mere learners will free us of these burdens by announcing ourselves to be perpetual works in progress interested in the process rather than the outcome, while still maintaining our eye on the prize of achieving essential Jewish knowledge.
Second, it will allow us to connect with fellow Jews with whom we never thought we had much in common. See yourself as a Reform Jew, say, and you’d be likely to seek out the company of other Reform Jews, with whom, it is logical to assume, you just fit in. But see yourself as a learner instead, and you’ll soon gravitate to the subjects you find fascinating, finding there a surprising and mightily diverse group of Jews connecting, not over external attributes such as political opinion or denominational affiliation, but over things that really matter, like their love of reading or their passion for philosophy.
That, in turn, may inspire our institutions too, to rethink the way they approach their mandates, encouraging them to look for new members not only among the usual suspects who belong to the same narrowly defined groups but among the many, many Jews, many of whom are unaffiliated, who clamor for a chance to get together and learn something, anything, that will enhance and inform their connection to their tradition.
Not that traditional institutions are essential for learning to take place. While there’s no substitute for getting together with other Jews in the sort of large and welcoming physical space only large organizations can maintain, we’re lucky to live in a time when learning opportunities are everywhere and many. Podcasts and magazines, WhatsApp groups and TikTok accounts all provide chances, some meaningful and some lighthearted, to rethink what Jewish life means for each and every one of us.
Let’s not waste all of this bounty by insisting on artificial divisions that mean little. Instead, next time anyone asks what kind of Jew are you, just answer: the learning kind, the only kind that ever mattered.
The writer is the board president of the Bnai Zion Foundation.