I have always been proud of the Jewish people, even when I wasn’t Jewish.
I’m a convert. I looked up to the Jews, to their strength in times of trial, to their faith when giving up all hope would have been more practical.
Nothing made me prouder than immersing myself in the mikveh and yoking myself to the Jewish people. But today I sit ashamed of what we’ve let ourselves become. We are a nation divided and broken.
Like many others I was confused when I read that the chassidic reggae singer Matisyahu shaved his beard and even more confused when he posted a cryptic message to his Twitter page: “At the break of day I look for you at sunrise when the tide comes in I lose my disguise.”
Soon it became clear that he was going through something spiritually and I couldn’t help but wonder what that was. Was he denouncing Orthodoxy as a whole? Judaism? Or maybe like all of us, he just did something without thinking.
My curiosity was extinguished when I saw the responses he was getting. The news media didn’t seem to care. The non-Jewish population questioned his motives for a moment and then moved on to someone else. No one seemed to mind all that much, except Matisyahu’s own people.
Immediately I began to see angry responses from Jews, calling him a fraud, a sellout and questioning his religiosity even after he assured the masses that he is still an observant Jew. Facebook and Twitter have been full of people mocking him and saying how typical his “spiritual journey” is.
What happened to Matisyahu is something that happens in our communities every day. We are only comfortable with those who look like us and identify themselves the same way we do. The moment people step across the imaginary lines we’ve drawn we’re unsure of how to deal with them, so we don’t. We invalidate them and look down on them as if they are less.
I signed my toddler up for a playgroup at a local Conservative synagogue, much to the horror of those around me. I was asked repeatedly what I was thinking and was told it was no place for an Orthodox child. My immediate and permanent response is “why?”
My children will grow up in a world filled with people who are different from them; the Jewish nation is less than 1 percent of the world’s population. There is no way I will raise them in a make-believe world and tell them that every Jew is just like us – and that anyone who isn’t, just isn’t as “Jewish” as we are.
We are weak because we separate ourselves from one another at every turn. We divide into groups – Orthodox, non-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, yeshivish, chassidic. We make mental notes of who is better and who is worse based on hair coverings and skirt lengths, beards and shtreimels.
We cease to be the Jewish people and become a minority within our own minority. Worse than closing ourselves into small boxes, alienating ourselves from our own people and teaching our children to do the same, we shove others out of our circles when they don’t comply with our brand of Judaism.
When did we forget what Judaism is about? It’s about knowing, loving and pleasing Hashem. It’s about having complete faith in Him even when we can’t see the end of the road. It’s about a nation of people, forever bound to one another.
We are the people who accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai. We above all others told Hashem “Yes! We want to do your will. We want to know you.” All the mitzvahs we do are to please him. I wonder how pleased he is when we condemn fellows Jew instead of offering our support or simply letting them figure out their lives without our interference.
Hashem speaks to each and every person as an individual. He will not tell you what Matisyahu should be doing, or your neighbor or your friend. He will only tell you about you.
The day after he publicly shaved his beard Matisyahu posted a quote by the Alter Rebbe: “I want nothing at all! I don’t want your gan eden, I don’t want your olam haba…. I want nothing but you alone.”
Perhaps this is something we should all remember when we get caught up in the politics of our lives and faiths instead of focusing on what matters. Our ultimate pursuit should be to know and to please God, not to fix our fellow Jew.
Yael Armstrong is a wife, mother and freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org