You Aren’t Jewish Enough (and A Story About Chopsticks)

Creator-or-complainer-chopsticks

Note: this article is very “trigger-y”. Fair warning.

A few months ago, I led a Shabbat service online at OneShul around the issue of legitimacy.

I asked my fellow congregants, “what is the legitimate form of Judaism? Who is legitimately Jewish? And who is legitimate enough to make these kinds of judgement calls, and what does that mean for you?”

Their answers were simple: everyone is legitimate, except me.

But first, a quick thought about chopsticks.

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Do you remember the first time you used chopsticks?

Where were you? And what was that experience like? Were you excited? Perhaps confused, asking yourself how anyone could possibly eat with sticks?

Sitting in a Chinese restaurant, or a sushi bar, or a Thai place, or wherever you were, you were engaging in something basic, like eating, in a way that was totally foreign to you.

I suspect three things ran through your mind, as you stared at those chopsticks:

  1. I have no idea what is going on
    Do I stab the food with them, and eat everything like a kebab? I know I hold both of the sticks in my hand…so do I make an impractical shovel and scoop things up? And how do I eat rice? One grain at a time? Oh well.
  2. Everyone else around me is completely confident of what is going on
    Wow, there are a lot of people in here. They’re all laughing and having a good time. They’re magically able to make these damn sticks into magical food portals. How do they not get splinters? And how can that eight year old kid use these better than me? They must have gotten the easy chopsticks. Can I trade?
  3. Those confident people can see right through me, and that makes me a total loser
    Please don’t look at me! Please don’t look at me! I know you know everything about chopsticks and it’s obvious that I’m not nearly as sophisticated as you are and I’ll have to resort to asking for a fork and looking like a total stooge. Can I go home now?

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For all the excuses that people make as to why they don’t go to synagogue, or get involved in Jewish life, there is an undercurrent of fear and apprehension about Judaism. Whether its lighting a menorah, going to a Jewish wedding, or even something as hardcore as being given an aliyah, the following thoughts run through their minds:

  1. I have no idea what is going on
  2. Everyone else around me is completely confident of what is going on
  3. Those confident people can see right through me, and that makes me a total loser

Let’s go through this together.

  1. I have no idea what is going on
    Do I stand? Sit? What language is this? Hebrew??? What do I do with this book? What page are we on?
  2. Everyone else around me is completely confident of what is going on
    This is West Texas. How can all these people know Hebrew? Their parents must have spoken it in the home. Wow, I am totally uneducated. Wait…they’re holding cups of grape juice but not drinking them. What’s this about??? Are we doing communion? They all seem to just know what to do. No one is telling them what happens next. Wait…why are they standing on their tippy toes and saying the word “kadosh”?
  3. Those confident people can see right through me, and that makes me a total loser
    Cue the scene from Carrie: They’re all gonna laugh at you! They’re all gonna laugh at you!  They’re all gonna laugh at you!Can I go home now? Clearly I’m not legitimately Jewish.

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In my event at OneShul, I thought I was being empowering when I replied, “you are legitimate. You are here. You showed up.” And even though it was not on our parshah calendar, I gave the stump speech about Torah being given to every person to learn here on Earth, not as a relic in Heaven that a Jewish Superman will bring down for you (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20). I used that line to move swiftly into an appeal for volunteers. “Of course you can lead a Shabbat service. Of course you can lead a Torah study. We’ll teach you how!” I thought I was channelling the oratory spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the guy who sells ShamWows on late night TV all at once. Certainly my plea for others to see their legitimacy would work.

Only, it didn’t work for everyone.

I got an email immediately following the service. “Thanks for the great class rabbi. You really got me thinking.”

I replied, “awesome! When do you want to start teaching/leading/contributing in whatever way you are passionate about?”

The answer: never. I’m not legitimate.

I got several emails like that.

“Thanks for the positive encouragement Patrick. But you’re wrong. I’m about as legitimate as a Ph.D. from a mail order college in Romania. So I’ll just hide in the proverbial back row of OneShul for the rest of my life hoping you’ll never try to empower me again. Sincerely, someone who isn’t worth your time.”

I try to end every email I send with the words “you matter”. My friend Rob taught me that…and I love it.

But I tell you, it’s hard to impress on people.

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The bottom line is simple: we are so obsessed with legitimacy and looking like we know what we are doing that is keeps us from doing amazing things in Jewish life. We are terrified that someone is going to call us out for doing things wrong, that for some of us it’s easier to hide in the corner and do nothing.

But I’m here to tell you something: hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die.

This article was written by Rabbi Patrick Aleph, executive director of PunkTorah.