Dear Rabbi, I'm Losing Faith in the Sanctity of the Kippa

Wearing a skullcap doesn't make someone a good Jew. But what does?

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A few weeks ago, I received an email from a congregant of mine who recently made aliyah and is currently serving in a military preparatory program before joining the Israel Defense Forces.

He wrote:

Since I live in Israel now, I meet a lot of Jews (obviously) and of course also a lot of religious Jews. In the army I have met many people who pray every morning, wear kippot, and follow all the "rules" of Judaism. Yet, I know they are not very moral and just people. They lie, cheat and use copious amounts of profanity. They can often be extremely rude and demeaning toward women. Overall, I would not characterize them as "good Jews."

And so I'm starting to lose faith in the sanctity of the kippa, tefillin and prayer. Whereas before I thought they were symbols helping us live a higher standard of living and be more modest and humble, at this point I feel more and more that they are crutches that people cling on to in order to justify their behavior. It is as if they think, "Well, it's okay because I'm religious."

While I have never actually heard someone say this and I have plenty of friends who are religious but are not this way, I am still troubled by these types of people.

So I guess my question is: What makes a good Jew? I really want to get your perspective as a rabbi. Not directly what the Torah says; I'm sure the people I'm referring to think they're good Jews because they follow every rule exactly, making sure to fast on the fast days, doing everything they're supposed to (excluding the moral aspects). I really want to know, from your experience meeting tons of Jews and studying the Jewish religion: What makes a good Jew? I'd like to hear your genuine thoughts because you are someone I respect.

I know it's a bit of a complicated question, but if you could give me some sort of answer, it would mean the world to me.

In turn, I responded:

Now that I am back from vacation, I can attempt to answer your deep and very profound question. I say "attempt," of course, because what you have done is most certainly to point out what is one of the many paradoxes of living in Israeli society that are largely unanswerable.

Considering that Israel is a Jewish society, you are naturally surrounded by many more Jews than you previously were. Consequently, you are likely to encounter more Jews who wear kippot and tefillin but act in a way that is otherwise amoral (there are also many others, as you said, who are very moral).

As you no doubt were taught during your studies at our synagogue, the kippa, tallit, and tefillin are all mitzvot – commandments. However, these mitzvot are supposed to be mechanisms that remind us to live by the Jewish law rather than being isolated mitzvot unto themselves. I still believe this to be true, which is why I choose to wear them. For some Israelis, these symbols may be a public display of association or affiliation that has little to do with their moral or ethical behavior. This, of course, as you correctly surmised, misses the point.

Before you decry Jews who act this way, you should know that this paradox of irreligious religiosity exists throughout the religious world more generally. There are people of all faiths who publicly seem to live righteous lives, attend services, etc., but who are in reality disgusting people. Some of the worst hypocrites, I am afraid to say, could be rabbis, priests and pastors.

When my wife's Israeli secular cousins first met me and saw that I wear a kippa, they were initially very reserved. Living in the very secular town of Herzliya, I am not sure they knew what to do with me. They are not fond of religious Jews. However, over time, as they came to understand that my Judaism represents openness, tolerance and a modern way of thinking, they warmed up to my religious practices. When people striving to live moral lives like us wear these symbols and are also moral people, we do more than inspire ourselves to enhance our own moral practice. We recapture these symbols and teach others their original meaning.

No Jew or human being is perfect, including this one. However, for me, a good Jew is someone who sees these objects as a vehicle for creating a more perfect world. A good Jew not only dons a tallit and tefillin. A good Jew sees his or her tefillin and tallit as garments through which to bring light unto the world.

I hope that we can all together do our small part to embody these objects and restore their original intent. 

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J.