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This Kippa Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

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Many years ago, I was attending a Chris de Burgh concert with my girlfriend at the time (now my wife). As we were looking for our seats, I found myself interrogated by another patron as to my beliefs. Most probably because I was wearing a kippa (skullcap), this individual, seemingly out of nowhere, pressed me: Do you really believe in a personal god? To be honest, I did not know how to respond. As evidenced by my head attire, I would think the answer would be obvious: of course, I did (and do). From the tone of the question, though, it seemed clear that my interrogator did not share a belief in a personal deity, and his intent was simply to challenge me.

This however, was not what bothered me.

My problem was that, most likely, my definition of this personal God was different from his, and if so, if I answered him with a yes, I would be giving the wrong impression that I believed in whatever it was he had in mind; not what the term meant to me.

To do the question justice, a lengthy theological and philosophical discussion was necessary, and this was, obviously, not the time for that -- so what could I answer, pursuant to the famous Talmudic parameter, "while standing on one foot"?

Since I wear a kippa, this actually is a consistent, pervasive concern of mine -- will I communicate a false impression of myself simply through my behaviour and dress? I have no misgivings about following the strictures of my faith by wearing a head covering. Informing all around me of my status as a Jew, on a simple level, also does not bother me -- although sometimes I may experience some apprehension as a result of anti-Semitism.

What continuously concerns me however, is the possibility that I may be perceived, through no intention of my own, to be conveying a message with which I actually strongly disagree. People see me as religious -- but what does that term mean? In the minds of most people, it seems to have some generic quality - almost all, with few exceptions, defining a large group of individuals into a singular, undivided entity.

Not all religious people however, are the same. Not all Jews are the same. Because I am grouped together with some other person through the use of a defining term, it does not mean that this other person is necessarily able to speak for me. In a certain way, that old line by the Animals is right on point: "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."

I accept that terms are useful and necessary in gaining an understanding of others and our world -- they are a means by which we communicate. Yet terms also have to be correctly defined and articulated; their meaning has to be clear. When we group people together through the use of some term, if we do not face the potential complexities inherent in such characterizations, if we avoid precision, we simply foster obscurantism and misunderstanding.

The sad reality is that some people specifically aim to foster this confusion as they intentionally use terms in a broad, generic way as to blur details and mislead. We must all be aware of such deception and step away from it. What may be sadder however, are the many individuals who misuse a term out of an honest belief that they fully understand its meaning, and yet are actually woefully uninformed of its complexities. It is truly upsetting when you encounter such a person and he or she, filled with his or her own surety, rejects any attempt to clarify and to educate, or be educated.

Yet this is a reality that I, as a [term] Jew and as a [term] religious person, encounter all the time. And this lack of understanding arises not only from non-Jews and irreligious individuals but also, and perhaps even more so, from other Jews and other religious individuals.

So someone comes over to me and tells me what her rabbi said, expecting me, as another rabbi, to be in agreement. When I voice disagreement, however, this person is shocked. When I attempt to explain, and start by asking what branch of Judaism this rabbi belongs to, the response is even more vehement: What does it matter? Aren't we all Jews? Don't we all practice the same basic principles of Judaism? I am clearly done for at this time, as this person is not really interested in clarification.

Yes, we are all Jews -- but what exactly does that mean? What are these basic principles of Judaism that we all follow? Are you aware of the fact that some of the theological divides between the branches of Judaism make the distinctions between certain Christian denominations pale in comparison? I just find this so strange.

Would anyone share with a Methodist minister the thoughts of a Catholic priest expecting them to be in agreement simply because both are, generically, Christian? Yet such is the assumption amongst Jews. And throw in Maxim Schrogin's statement that "[a]theism and Judaism are not contradictory;" it almost seems that anything goes, and that a term does not have to be used in any specific way but simply as one wishes to define it.

No wonder there is so much confusion out there. We talk and talk, all believing we are communicating, speaking the same language -- when in fact, we are not. We all may be using the same common terms, but we define them differently and, what is perhaps even more tragic, refuse to recognize this. Also, the overriding issue is not which of us is correct in the use of a given term: if I respond to Schrogin in the negative, that indeed atheism and Judaism are contradictory, is our issue truly the correct definition of the English language terms "Judaism" and "atheism?

The goal should rather be to communicate our ideas, and to subject any use of terms to this higher calling. The demand upon us must be to be as clear as we can be in our message -- even explain what we mean when we use a term -- and to make every effort similarly to fully understand what someone else is trying to tell us. What does Schrogin really mean when he says that atheism and Judaism are not contradictory, and what do I really mean when I say that they are?

Communication insists that we solve this question. Of course, understanding what we are really saying to each other will not fix every problem -- but it is a worthy starting point.