Our Issues with the Jewish Community

We are Jewish, we teach Jewish identity and values to our children, and we observe some of the Jewish laws and traditions in our home. Yet we don’t interact much with the Jewish community.

It’s partly because we are not communal people, we prefer not to belong to any groups (such as homeschooling “tribes”) and we don’t like living in a close-knit community with its herd mentality and small-village gossip. We value independence, we like to form individual relationships and hand-pick our friends based on their personal qualities and on our mutual interests, not based on their belonging to a certain social circle. That, along with unwillingness to pay hefty membership fees or donations that are usually expected, may explain why we don’t attend a synagogue that often. We are also deeply disappointed with the children’s events held at our local synagogue that have little to do with exposing kids to Jewish history and values in any meaningful way and that have increasingly come to resemble average dumbed-down kids’ “fun” with rides, face painting, pretend play, and not much more.

However, we also have deeper disagreements with the common mentality of our fellow Jews, and we will teach our children a different perspective on these issues. For example:

Commandment to “love your fellow Jew” and prohibition against derogatory speech

These commandments* are often misused to suppress constructive criticism, to silence those who speak up and make judgements, and to cover up for someone’s misdeeds. While interacting with many orthodox (strictly observant) Jews and reading their news sites and blogs, I usually find it difficult to speak or to learn an objective truth about a person or an organization because of such self-censorship: people filter their speech so only the positive comes out and the negative gets covered up. Such attitude presents a distorted picture which is hardly helpful to anyone.

*Here and below I’m referring to the commandments from the Hebrew Bible.

What we will teach to our children: You should only respect those who deserve respect. You should only love those who deserve your love and who love you back. You should try to help a Jew (or any person) who is in trouble, but you don’t owe your love and respect to anyone who doesn’t deserve it, even if it’s a Jew. If you see someone doing a wrong thing, speak up or at least make a mental note not to be like them. Constructive criticism and moral judgement are good because they may help the person being criticized, but even if they don’t improve the other person, they will help you to learn the right lessons.

Victim mentality

Yes, the Jewish nation has a tragic history of pogroms, persecutions, and the Holocaust, and these events must be remembered and taught to children. However, it seems to me that the Jewish people dwell on their victimhood a little too much, which is counter-productive. Numerous Holocaust museums have been built and thousands of books have been written, yet most of these focus on Jews who were helpless victims. One will be hard-pressed to find many stories about active Jewish resistance, such as the Bielski partisans or the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In reality, such stories were numerous, but in the mainstream literature these stories are not as prevalent as the stories of Jews hiding in fear or being obediently herded to ghettos and to death camps.

My mindset is such that when I hear a tragic story of an individual or a group of individuals falling victim to violence and persecution, my first reaction is not only to feel sorry for the victims, but also to reflect on what can be done to prevent this from happening again. The best way to honor the victims and to preserve their memory is not by erecting memorials, building museums, or sounding sirens in Israel once a year on Holocaust Remembrance Day. After visiting a museum or listening to a siren, people go back to their daily lives and nothing changes. The best way to honor the victims is by trying to understand how so many people could have been killed, why so few of them resisted, and what can be changed so that these horrors never happen again. And this is where I disagree with most of the Jews who hold liberal views, who vote for the big government and for gun control. How can Jews support the expansion of an ever-controlling government and at the same time decry the atrocities that the big, oppressive German state committed against them during the Holocaust? After their ancestors were murdered in pogroms and rounded up like defenseless sheep to be sent to death camps, how can Jews be against firearms as the only effective means of self-defense?

What we will teach to our children: Beware of the expansion of government because a big, powerful state always oppresses people in one way or another. Gun ownership and self-defense skills are a must for every Jew who wants to be free and strong. The Jews like the Bielski brothers who chose to fight rather than to be victims — these Jews are the true heroes who should be honored, and they are the ones we should learn from. If we don’t want Jews to suffer anymore, crying for the victims of past atrocities will not help. Rather, we should learn how to defend ourselves and how to recognize the signs of the government oppression and do what we can to prevent such oppression, at least by voting responsibly.

Focus on charity instead of on promoting financial responsibility

Giving assistance to the poor, usually in the form of monetary aid, is a fundamental Jewish tradition, yet I don’t completely agree with the way it’s promoted and practiced. Of course, there is nothing wrong with donating money for any cause as long as it’s voluntary and not forced by the government as is the case with taxes. But I personally see a problem with charities for able-bodied adults, such as collecting money to help families pay for their children’s education or to help poor brides and grooms pay for their weddings. Unless it’s helping people who are truly needy, vulnerable, and are unable to work, such as the sick, the elderly, or orphaned children, I don’t think that a charity should subsidize people’s needs beyond basic necessities.

What we will teach to our children: If you don’t have the money to pay for a private Hebrew school, move to a cheaper place, live frugally, and homeschool your children. If you don’t have the money for a wedding party, have a small private wedding and skip the party. Rather than giving money to adults who are poor but who are otherwise healthy and able to work, it’s more commendable to teach them to earn money and to manage it properly so they can increase their income and savings. There’s nothing praiseworthy in giving a handout to a poor groom to pay for his wedding. Such a handout only makes the donor feel good and does nothing to improve the recipient’s life. On the other hand, someone who teaches the groom to be financially responsible, to live frugally and debt-free, not to buy things he can’t afford, and to go against the mainstream by refusing to throw a big costly wedding — that teacher is the one who truly deserves praise.

Excessive trust in authority

My favorite period of the Jewish history is the Time of the Judges when the Jews had no central authority and elected “judges” (warriors or prophets) to perform limited leadership duties. As a Libertarian, I believe in each person’s free will and ability to govern oneself and to work out what’s right and wrong on one’s own. I support the idea of a small limited government and I resent kingship or any other unelected central authority. Nowadays the Jewish nation has no king, but the habit of relying on authorities and of blindly trusting communal or spiritual leadership still persists.

What we will teach to our children: Be skeptical and critical of any human authority, whether it’s government officials or people who claim to be professional or spiritual experts. While a small limited government is necessary to provide overall organization, guidance, and external protection, such government should be controlled by the people and no authority should ever interfere with the people’s personal rights and freedoms.

Excessive faith in schools and formal education

Unfortunately, the modern Jewish nation doesn’t have a rich homeschooling tradition, so we haven’t met many like-minded people among our fellow Jews. Formal education has always been regarded as one of the pillars of the Jewish community, so most families send their kids to school, often to a private Hebrew school, even if it comes to sacrificing a significant part of the family income or relying on charity help. As far as we see based on our experience, homeschooling is rare and usually temporary, and unschooling is even more uncommon and not typically accepted among the Jews.

What we will teach to our children: Contrary to the mainstream Jewish tradition, we don’t trust authoritarian top-down methods of education. We believe that every person, including a young child, deserves the freedom to choose what and how to learn and is perfectly capable of exercising that freedom effectively — and this is why we unschool.

Emphasis on superficial observance

This is particularly a problem with religiously observant communities: if you walk the walk and talk the talk, you are considered observant. In other words, if you maintain an external appearance of religious observance — such as keeping a kosher diet, wearing a head covering, attending a synagogue regularly — you will be accepted as part of the community and you will be respected as an observant Jew. The problem is that there are many commandments that are given to the Jewish nation to observe, yet in my experience of interacting with religious Jews, it often happens that some commandments are emphasized too much while others are downplayed or ignored. For example, self-defense and financial independence are important commandments, yet, as mentioned above, self-defense is not widely accepted and practiced, and fiscal responsibility is not commonly studied in Jewish religious schools. If you are a financial advisor or a gun owner, no one will praise you for teaching the right stuff and for observing a commandment, yet if you are a bearded rabbi who wears a head covering and goes to a synagogue every day, you will surely be respected as an observant Jew.

What we will teach to our children: All commandments are equally important, but if you can’t keep them all, at least keep the ones that improve your character, make you stronger and your family safer, and ensure that you don’t depend on others to support you financially. External signs of observance are secondary.

These disagreements and, as a result, differences in political views (the majority of Jews hold liberal views) are the reasons why we haven’t found much inspiration in the Jewish community so far. I hope that the situation will change with time and that the Jewish community will become more inclined to the Libertarian ideas of individual freedom, self-reliance, and willingness to protect life and preserve safety. Maybe it will take a few generations, so I hope that giving my children the right attitude and perspective will contribute to this progress.