By: Shayna Zema
“Because I’m Bad, I’m Bad-
And The Whole World Has To
Answer Right Now
Just To Tell You Once Again,
Michael Jackson might have sung these words as the chorus of his 1987 pop hit “Bad;” however, as fall brings the bundle of High Holidays, I’ve heard many a Jew mutter the lyrics themselves. Walking with a brilliant Providence rabbi over Rosh Hashanah, we analyzed the question of what it means to be a “good” or “bad” Jew.
Judaism has developed into an inclusive, diverse, and dynamic religion. While I might consider the Modern Orthodox approach the best to strengthen my relationship with the divine, another might be inspired by singing aloud and playing the guitar in Reform services. Others might simply identify as Jews, wave to a chabad family on the street, and have that be enough for the year. How one defines being Jewish, what it looks like to be Jewish, and how one acts upon being Jewish is different for each practitioner; there is no set, rigid definition.
One might view shul-goers, 25+ hour fasters, and sukkah-eaters as “good” since they are doing the norm – the traditional, standardized, and accepted behavior. Sitting in the Brown Sciences Library the Thursday before Yom Kippur, I was greeted by a friend who started to chat. She told me about her academic pursuits as well as a party she was having for her roommate the night of Yom Kippur. She finished the story with, “I know, hosting a dinner party the night of the holiday, I’m a bad Jew.” Was she though, really? If I’ve learned anything over the course of the holiday marathon this past September and October, it is that women and men definitely do not have the power nor right to judge another person; that is left in the hands of the divine. By not observing the letter of the law, I don’t think she ought to consider herself “bad.” In fact, we should erase such distinctions of good and bad.
Based on the ideas of Maimonides, each and every one of us on our path of life is climbing the ladder toward the divine. Each person has a different manner of going up and falling down unique to him or her. For me, every Shabbat I keep, each bracha I make, and every time I open up the Torah to study enable me to lift myself one small rung up the ladder. Alternatively, forgetting to say grace after meals or missing a day’s prayer services makes me fall so quickly down the ladder that I struggle to hang on. But one must always remember that each ladder is unique with more or less rungs just as each person is unique in his or her goals and desire to climb up or stay steady in his or her relationship to G-d. That person cannot be defined as “good” or “bad.” As the holiday season comes to a close this week, “Don’t stop ’til you get enough, keep on with the force don’t stop” as we construct our own individual connections with ourselves, our religion, and our creator.