The Tragedy of Apologetic Judaism
Last year, before my friend began his business internship, he asked me a seemingly innocent question: Should he wear his kippah in the office? The answer, I thought, was an obvious and resounding yes. In an era that champions diversity and inclusion, will we voluntarily check our Judaism at the door when we step outside of our personal lives? The answer to that question, many others thought, was also a resounding yes.
At the advice of older, “more experienced” Jewish professionals in the field, my friend believed a kippah would, for whatever reason, reflect negatively on him. Moreover, his own senior boss was an Orthodox Jew who chose not to wear his kippah, so my friend feared that wearing it would send an arrogant signal. The issue was not with religious practice per se, but rather it was with others’ conscious and constant recognition of his Jewish identity. I’m not sure what he decided to do, but the conversation stuck with me.
Since then, I’ve realized that my friend’s dilemma was not an isolated incident but actually a common mindset among many Jews — even at YU.
Just last week, a different friend boasted that the word “Talmud” doesn’t appear on his law school application. In agreement, another person quipped, “If you’re Jewish, law schools don’t want to hear from you.” Beneath the veneer of this harmless exchange was the same problematic thought: Judaism can jeopardize one’s career aspirations, so when in doubt, leave it out. I experienced a similar situation myself after a YU staff member grimaced when seeing my resume, noting that it “said ‘YU’ too many times.” They encouraged me to try and emphasize my non-Jewish activities.
I’d imagine that for some or even most people reading this, the logic checks out. Antisemitic hate crimes are high, and Jews feel unsafe, especially those who are recognizably Jewish. Why, then, should one sacrifice professional success on the altar of their Jewishness?
Halachically speaking, there’s a compelling case that it’s actually permissible to conceal one’s Jewish identity by taking off one’s kippah, for example, if it could harm one’s job prospects. The issue, however, notwithstanding whether one’s job would actually be at risk in such cases, is less a question of halakha and more a question of values.
From biblical Egypt to Nazi Germany, we have always been a “stiff-necked people” that refuses to capitulate to the greener grass of assimilation, whatever form it may take. We merited liberation from Egypt, the Midrash says, because we retained our Jewish dress, language and names. We celebrate the Maccabees’ fierce resistance against the Greeks’ attempted Hellenization every Chanukah. The contemporary instinct among some to so willingly part with their Judaism at the slightest hint of animosity stands in contrast to the proud footprints of Jewish History. That instinct is apologetic Judaism.
This type of Judaism has no issue lauding Torah and Jewish values in general, but that pride is conditional. When that same Jewishness stands in another person’s doorway, so to speak, many opt to find a temporary, partial assimilation, a way to “pass” as non-Jewish. Implicitly, it says, “I’m sorry for being Jewish.”
This model sounds like the pitiful description of the “Jew with trembling knees” that former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin rejected at the United States Senate in 1982. Instead, he declared that Jews are a people who “stand by our principles.” To imagine that those principles are threatened not by government persecution or genocidal regimes but by our own insecurity is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.
The solution begins with redefining how we relate to our values and going from apologetic to unapologetic. The spirit of such an idea is especially apropos given the recent passing of Rabbi Moshe Tendler z”l, someone who fully embodied this ideal.
A decades-long rosh yeshiva and professor of YU, Rabbi Tendler was renowned in both Jewish and medical circles. The list of his accolades is a long one, especially in the field of Jewish Medical Ethics, but what I find most inspiring about Rabbi Tendler lay not in accomplishments but in his character, namely his unapologetic Judaism.
This is most readily apparent from a particular episode in 2010. After the Rabbinical Council of America redefined its position on halakhic death, backing away from one Rabbi Tendler himself developed in the 1990s, he vocally and adamantly expressed his opposition. He penned many pieces with strong language against what he called the “the most dramatic chilul Hashem” in the American Jewish community, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
While tough, Rabbi Tendler’s approach was ultimately rooted in a place of deep love. Everything he said and did was backed by his undying dedication to Hashem and His truth, and for that, he had no apologies. Such conviction is a rarity today, but with Rabbi Tendler, it was the norm.
In that vein, Rabbi Tendler serves as a model for more than just his breakthroughs in Jewish Medical Ethics. He showed up in his life as his whole, Jewish self. As we reflect upon what his loss means for the Jewish community and the Jewish People, we are prompted to ask ourselves: Do we want to be the Jew with trembling knees or the proud Jew? How we present ourselves in the world will answer that question.