By: Aaron Kohn  | 

Will the Real Jews Please Stand Up

My story begins as a young child studying in a Jewish private school. Here, Jewish foundations were instilled and accepted unquestionably by the students. My rabbis and teachers taught me right and wrong and many other various ‘truths’ which I eagerly adopted. As I got older, I started to develop my own thoughts and became the ‘troubled’ teen who would ask too many questions in class. My rabbi, would often dismiss me mockingly, along with my opinions and my ideas, claiming that I didn’t want to accept the objective ‘truth’ he was proclaiming, and implying that something was wrong with me for asking. Yet those conversations always ended with a heartfelt “Judaism loves questions” or some jargon similar to that. With enough time and too many questions, I started feeling on the outskirts of my Jewish community and life as I started to see more grey while everyone around me was seeing black and white.
Though the gap at first wasn’t large, it gradually increased. I was questioning more, while those around me were questioning less. At this point, I stopped asking questions since the unsatisfactory answers I had received too many times weren’t good enough for me. I started to keep all my philosophy and theology to myself, afraid to openly go against the tide since I was surrounded by many close minded Jews, and my entire life was just that: Jewish friends, Jewish school, Jewish synagogue, and Jewish neighborhood. It was my only way to stay somewhat connected to those around me, even though I didn’t see things in the same way as the people close to me. But as I got older and more self-reliant, I was able to find friends and a community outside of my religious identification, though mostly for my hobbies and interests. I realized that only I could provide answers to the questions that I had been asking. Only I could form a structure and foundation for how I view the world.
I tried desperately to bridge the gap between my own ideas and Jewish tradition, to create an appealing synergy that everyone could appreciate. But as the gap widened, the breaking point became more and more obvious. Certain ideas that had been eagerly dismissed and glossed over by my high school rabbis, like evolution, David’s sin with Batsheva, homosexuals and gender roles were now more viable and clear to me. Sometimes I was able to blend my thoughts with Judaism, and often found various ancient sages supporting the same ideas. But those rabbis and teachers had insisted on maintaining their monopoly over ‘correct' Jewish thought. Their disciples and followers only continued in their blind and intolerant footsteps, only seeing one opinion as true while negating all the other opinions of the debate. If anyone disagreed with the accepted commentary or anything taught within their framework, they would likely find themselves labeled a heretic.
And it happened. During the most recent Sukkot holiday I was home in Lakewood with my family, and in conversation I mentioned that I didn’t believe that Jews are elite to our gentile neighbors. My cousin in his 30’s was hysterical and immediately shut down the conversation. He told me I was a heretic, and refused to even bear the fact that two opinions could persist on the subject. Why is it that many Jews that find such ideas so threatening and controversial? A similar episode happened to Rabbi Natan Slifkin when his book, “The Challenge of Creation,” was banned by several notable rabbis. It was deemed too controversial and heretical to highlight and prove how science and Judaism aren’t in opposition. What makes this even more remarkable is that Rabbi Slifkin quoted several ancient sages who supported his ideas. These rabbis act that as though by refusing to acknowledge the grey and multitude of opinions in Jewish controversy, they will somehow further their own black and white storyline.
But in fact, Judaism is a religion that cultivates free thought. Differences in Jewish thought go back as far as the Twelve Tribes, and the two kingdoms of Israel. The Dead Sea Scrolls and archaeological findings show us how other sects of Jewish thought lived and argued during the Temple eras. Nothing is, was, or will be clear- cut in Judaism. It is only through arguments, intellectual conversation, and the free market of ideas that we can advance and better ourselves. Because for an idea to stand true, much like a building, it needs to resist the forces and challenge of opposition and nature.
I beseech you, my fellow students and Jews, to embrace difference within Judaism. We need to start appreciating and helping men and women find themselves in our community, rather than pushing them out when they don’t fit in the line. We are all members of one nation, and we all have something we can add to the marketplace of ideas. Don’t be afraid to have an opinion or do something that hasn’t been tried before. Permit yourselves to ask questions and and to explore fully what it means to be Jewish. Granted, it’s difficult for me to be absolved in the Jewish community with the ideas that I have, and the ideas others have about me. But I won’t stop; I never have and never will surrender my mind to satisfy a dream. I will never believe or feel something is right just because someone tells me it is. Whether we agree or disagree, our difference of opinion is the beauty of our tradition. The ability to argue while fully respecting and understanding the beliefs of the other side is what ultimately allows us to grow and prosper. The challenging of ideas is what enables us to evolve and become better individuals and a better people.