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What Should I Do If I Feel Like A Bad Jew?

Dear Jew in the City,

I feel like a bad Jew, what should I do?

Sincerely,

Joe

Dear Joe,

Thanks for your question. For the edification of readers, this question was received in response to the article “What’s the Difference Between Guilt, Regret and Feeling Like a Bad Jew?” In that article, I dismiss the concept of being a bad Jew by saying that I don’t even know what that means. While I don’t necessarily agree with the concept, I acknowledge that sometimes people feel that way, and I do know what they mean: they feel bad about themselves for not living up to their responsibilities. Here’s a news flash: none of us is perfect. We’re all just imperfect in our own unique ways.

In the previous article, I vaguely alluded (in a roundabout way) to an educational activity I remembered from my NCSY days. (NCSY is the youth division of the Orthodox Union; I was an active member as a teen, some 200 years ago.) In this particular activity (insofar as I remember it), a father left his estate to whichever of his sons was the best Jew. Son #1 followed all the ritual laws – Shabbos, kashrus, tefillin, etc. – but he was bad with interpersonal mitzvos like charity and his business dealings. Son #2 was the opposite: he was exemplary in interpersonal mitzvos but did not observe much in the way of ritual. Son #3 was a big supporter of Israel, both philosophically and financially, but he didn’t do much else. A mock trial was held in which the merits of each son were argued, then we broke into groups and voted on which son was “the best Jew.” Suffice it to say that there was no consensus, with each son receiving a not insignificant percentage of the votes. (I also disagreed with the final result, which did not align with my own opinion.) Now, lo these two centuries later, I consider the entire question to be invalid. (An invalid question assumes as fact something that is untrue. “Who is the best Jew?” presupposes that it’s possible for us to rate people as Jews based on their actions. Doing so is in fact above every human’s pay grade.)

So I don’t know who’s a good Jew and who’s a bad Jew, and I suspect neither do you. But you might sometimes feel like one. If that’s the case, there are two things that I think you might do. The first is have an attitude adjustment.

If you feel like a bad Jew, it’s probably because you feel uncomfortable with your imperfections. As I cited in that previous article, Koheles (Ecclesiastes) 7:20 teaches, “There is no person on Earth who is so righteous that he only does good and never sins.” But that’s far from the only source that acknowledges our fallibility. 

Consider the Shemoneh Esrei, which is the central prayer of every service. Of the nineteen blessings we recite, there are two that are predicated on our fallibility. One of these asks for God’s assistance in performing teshuvah (i.e., repenting for our misdeeds), while the other one requests forgiveness for our sins. So, nestled among our requests for health, livelihood, peace, and other things that are ultimately beyond our control, 10.5% of our main prayer is dedicated to the fact that we’re less than perfect. (I’d say that the Sages who composed the Amida were pretty aware of human nature!)

Consider also Deuteronomy 9:7. As part of “bawling out” the Jews for angering God, Moshe says, “You were rebellious with Hashem!” Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, known as “the Ishbitzer,” commented on this this verse that even when we are rebellious, we are still “with Hashem.”

You may still want to be “with” God, but you may simultaneously wonder if God reciprocates. In my experience, people who worry about being “bad Jews” are often concerned that their fallibility has caused God to turn His metaphorical back on them. I respond to that with a slew of Biblical verses, including:

  • He will not forsake you, nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers that He swore to them (Deuteronomy 4:31);
  • Hashem will not forsake His people for His great name’s sake, because it pleased Hashem to make you His people (I Samuel 12:22);
  • I will dwell among the children of Israel and I will not forsake my people Israel (I Kings 6:13);
  • Hashem will not forsake His people, nor will He abandon His inheritance (Psalms 94:14);
  • In Your great mercy You did not destroy them, nor forsake them, because You are a gracious and merciful God (Nehemiah 9:31).

There are many more such verses. The point? God doesn’t turn His “back” on people who are worse than you could ever hope to be. This shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to go out of your way to be ungracious to God; it should illustrate not to beat yourself up for being less than perfect in your relationship with Him because He’s not going to walk away from you.

So we see that there’s a lot of support for approach #1, which is attitude adjustment.

Approach #2 is the Nike approach: Just do it.

Seriously. If you feel bad because you ate on a fast day, don’t eat on the next fast day. If you feel bad because you slept in and missed shul, get up and go to shul. And if you mess up and eat on a fast and missed shul, don’t beat yourself up. See approach #1 (attitude adjustment) and try approach #2 (Just do it) again.

Before we wrap up, let me share two psychology concepts with you: the Dunning-Kruger effect and imposter syndrome. The Dunning-Kruger effect is when incompetent people think they’re awesome at something, while imposter syndrome is when competent people feel like frauds. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.

Let’s say I aced the solar system in third grade. I could tell you all about asteroids and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. I now consider myself an expert astronomer, even though they changed the number of planets since I was in school. I suffer from Dunning-Kruger.

My friend, however, studied astronomy in college and grad school. He can tell you all sorts of obscure facts about solar flares and the Van Allen belt. But he only has a Masters degree and he’s surrounded by PhDs. He’s aware of how much more there is to know and considers himself inadequate in his own area of expertise. He suffers from imposter syndrome.

We can be like this when it comes to religion, too. We can consider ourselves brilliant, charitable and pious when those are gross exaggerations of our merits. Similarly, we can consider ourselves “bad Jews” by exaggerating our flaws. Neither of these is a great look.

Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa wrote that a person should have two notes in his pocket, each to be read as needed. On one, for when he is feeling lowly or discouraged, “The whole world was created for my sake” (Sanhedrin 4:5). On the other, for when he is feeling conceited or self-important, “I am nothing but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). (Years ago, as part of my “day job,” I made a printable wallet card with both of these sayings.)

So, feeling like a “bad Jew?” Remember that you are made in God’s image and that you are worthy of having had the whole world created just for you.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent

Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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