The Irrational Man

Two things have become clear to me lately:

  1. People are committed to irrational behavior
  2. People have a basic need to identify as something specific, and in many ways, as something different from the way other people identify (us vs. other).
How do people act irrationally? There are Orthodox Jews who wear suits and ties even in 100 degree weather. People continue doing something because that’s the way they’ve always done it, even though there’s a much more efficient way to do it. It really bothers me that a friend’s front door only locks on the inside with a key. Every time she locks and unlocks her front door, she has to go get the key, where it’s hanging 2 feet away.*

Ok. We’ll come back to this in just a sec.

Let’s talk about the need to identify oneself in a specific way (#2). There are a multitude of ethnic, religious, and national identities and they’re never going to go away. They’ll change, some will disappear, but at the end of the day, people like to feel different from other people. (They also like to feel the same. Are you starting to see how #1 and #2 intersect?)

So really what should happen is EVERYONE should just accept that people will always identify in all these different ways (since it is inevitable), but that would be too rational.

I’m sure you can think of plenty of scenarios where identities clash, but seeing as I’m in an ongoing Jewish identity crisis, I’m going to address identity struggles within Judaism.

When I was in an Orthodox elementary school, I thought Judaism was defined first and foremost by a belief in one God and the belief that that God wrote the Torah. Even though many Jews do not believe that, I think this “traditional” outlook still pervades the Jewish consciousness. It’s the reason “nonobservant” Jews joke that they’re bad Jews and the reason people show up for services once a year for the High Holy Days.**

This brings up two related points. The first is that nonobservant Jews still identify as Jewish even though most of them don’t fit a definition of Judaism they recognize(#s 1 and 2). The second point is that it’s futile to define Judaism for anyone but yourself if there are always people out there who insist they’re Jewish regardless of its definition.

So while Jewish institutions can determine for themselves which kind of Jews fit into their particular institutions, it’s most peaceful to accept that those who don’t fit in are still Jewish.

I’d like to see a world where Jews feel comfortable and confident in their Jewish expression; that they don’t feel inadequate for not being Jewish in a specific way. Because if you’ve decided that yes, you identify Jewishly, you are the only one whose business it is to determine what that identity means. I imagine many Jews, especially New Yorkers, approximate this, and I want to see more Jews liberated by that confidence.

*My purpose in writing that was to show that I was irrational for caring about the stupid lock, but in reading it again, I realized that both of us are pretty irrational.

**Because if they didn’t think good Jews were supposed to go to synagogue, they certainly wouldn’t go to the most boring service of the year. How about considering doing something on Rosh Hashana that is effectively introspective?

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

I recognize that pressure to conform to a Jewish box when everyone at the JCC asks, “Where are all the young people?” Clearly the younguns must not be Jewish if they don’t go to Jewish programs. And studies show that intermarriage is through the roof! What will come of the Jewish people?

My response to all this is:

  1. The #2 rule will always hold true
  2. It’s inaccurate to look at intermarriage rates and absences at Jewish programs and decide that those people aren’t Jewish.
With that said, it’s none of my business if an individual determines that Judaism is not an important component of his/her identity. I accept that that person has made the choice with most meaning to him/herself, and I don’t value someone maintaining Jewish practices that ring false.
And it’s for that exact same reason that I advocate eliminating the Jewish box: people shouldn’t feel compelled to be Jewish meaninglessly.
And people wonder why there’s a lack of spirituality in Judaism…
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