Q – I have been struggling with some issues. I am not observant and the teacher of a class I’ve been taking has led me to believe that this makes me a bad Jew. I do lots of good deeds and am ethical in my actions. So can a good person be a bad Jew?
A – Relax. Loving your neighbor puts you are well on your way to being a "good Jew," whatever that means.
Most of the ritual commandments, such as Kashrut or keeping the Sabbath (the so-called mitzvot between people and God), are designed in large part to be training wheels to help us act more ethically toward other people. That doesn’t make them less important, but it points out that when you look at the whole package, Judaism is all about cultivating goodness; so, by definition, a person who is the living embodiment of these ideals cannot possibly be considered "bad" in any respect.
Here’s an interesting question. If you don’t vote, are you a bad American? Perhaps. What if you don’t vote, but you gave your entire life savings to feed the hungry? Are you still a bad American? Of course not. Similarly, if a Jew doesn’t keep Kosher but works tirelessly as a fieldworker in Haiti or Darfur, how could we consider that person a bad Jew?
There are 613 commandments and countless derivatives, and no one in human history has fulfilled all of them, not even Moses. It’s impossible to be a "perfect Jew." Try following the laws against gossip for a single 24-hour period, as I did, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s impossible.
We all really need to be getting away from this "Good Jew / Bad Jew" dichotomy, but to aim to be, as Dennis Prager calls them, "serious Jews," ever growing, seeking, learning, challenging our traditions – and increasing our capacity to love.
We also need to get away from the essentially Christian notion of "sin," one popularized by Paul and St. Augustine, which confuses us into thinking that Jews who don’t fulfill the complete package of commandments are in some manner "bad." For Christians, Original Sin is an existential flaw in the human condition that, since Eden, can only be remedied by belief in Jesus. For them, the Adam and Eve saga uncovered that fatal defect in our nature and all babies since have been born tainted by that sin.
But for Jews, being flawed IS the human condition – and we’re cool with it. Eviction from Eden was a necessary stage of growth. For us, babies are born morally neutral, neither sinners nor saints. The "punishment" for Adam and Eve was in fact a gift: the opportunity to be fully engaged in the process of living, to bear children naturally and to work for a living. We all live in that state of imperfection. Invariably we stray from the correct path; but during the period of the High Holidays we make a midcourse correction. We find our way back.
Each mitzvah, then, is a lifeline from God, an opportunity to elevate ourselves to live more sacred and ethical existences. We are continually climbing – a ladder, a mountain, whatever image works for you. I like the ladder. The more mitzvot we perform, the higher we go in our spiritual ascent. If you are a few rungs higher than I am in giving charity, but I happen to keep Shabbat more fully, it doesn’t make either of us a better Jew or less sinful person.
Let’s get beyond the "good" and "bad" labels and strive, each of us, to be ascending Jews.
As for your teacher, on the ladder of non-judgmentalism, he’s got a long way to climb.