Worst. Metaphor. Ever.

As a runner, I’m obsessed with numbers. Measuring my distance to a tenth of a mile (and getting stressed when my GPS watch doesn’t agree with mapmyrun on the computer). Maintaining my pace—minutes and seconds per mile—and not running a second slower than before. Becoming upset because I finished a race 43 seconds slower than last year. This is all familiar territory to regular runners. We live and die by numbers—by quantifying things.

Practicing Judaism shouldn’t be thought of in the same way. Yet, too often we get stuck in exactly the same numbers-obsessed world. We evaluate our success by quantifying things. How many people can we get to come to Friday night services? Oh wow, you get 50 at your shul? We can only get about 40. Sure, but you should see our sanctuary on Saturday morning—we get around 100 people. How many families do you have? We were at 375 before but, you know, the economy isn’t great, so this year we’re down to 368. On and on it goes.

In many cases, we’ve done this to ourselves. One of the most popular and enduring metaphors in Jewish tradition is that of a simple ladder. We are taught that Jewish observance can be compared to the rungs of a ladder. All of us, according to this metaphor, are somewhere on that ladder—and it’s not important where. What matters, though, is that we’re moving up on the rungs—adding to our observance to the Jewish laws and rituals. The starting point isn’t as important as the fact that we’re going higher, adding holiness, and moving our lives in a positive direction.

I’m not a fan.

What’s the implicit message, then, if you’re not climbing (or if God forbid, you’re descending) this imaginary ladder? That’s right—and you all know what’s coming—you’re a Bad Jew. People love to toss that phrase around, often in a self-deprecating manner, and really, truly believe it.

“I drive on Saturday. I’m a bad Jew.”

“He never goes to services because he’s a bad Jew.”

“I grew up religious but since then I’ve become a bad Jew.”

Could we stop using this destructive and utterly inaccurate phrase—forever?

Instead of the dubious image of the ladder, picture a giant banquet table instead. Replace vertical with horizontal. The whole of Jewish ritual and tradition is laid out in front of you and you can have anything you want. You may help yourself to whatever you like, and politely refuse other items. You can sample something, decide you don’t like it, and put it back. And then try it again later. There are no judgments, implicit or otherwise, as you make your way across the banquet table.

The High Holidays are soon upon us, and we understand that this time of year is a period of judgment. But that judgment is to come from within—how we view ourselves, how we treat people, the decisions that we make in our lives. In other words, our mandate is to judge, not be judgmental.

Let’s put the ladder away and never think of others or ourselves as bad Jews. There’s simply no such thing.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

7 comments on “Worst. Metaphor. Ever.

  1. Love this! Will be sharing with a friend that feels if she doesn’t “buy into” everything Jewish that she’s an outsider and therefore stays away.
    I love the imagery of everyone being welcomed at the table and trying what’s most appealing to them. Hopefully after a while, we all try something new as well! Thanks Matt –
    now go count your steps! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kol HaKavod! I agree about the “bad” word…One doesn’t have a “bad” knee…or a “bad” heart…one’s knee or heart is injured. We are all in constant process of repair. While I don’t mind the ladder approach (I think trying to improve everything in our world is worthy), I love the banquet table! Food, family, community, comfort…Shabbat shalom! XO


    • Cantor Matt Axelrod

      Improve? Absolutely! But the damaging message of the ladder metaphor is that it assigns value to the number of things a Jew does. According to the algorithm, a Jew who goes to services is better and more holy than a Jew who doesn’t.

      To build on the banquet image–our job as clergy is to be the host at that banquet. Invite people in. Make them feel like cherished guests. Encourage them to try as much as possible. Explain why they might really like that item even if their initial instinct is to walk away. But not to let them feel like they’ve failed if they choose not to participate.


      • Tali Axelrod

        I agree with Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz-Boro that I don’t mind the metaphor of the ladder in its concept of going higher, adding holiness and moving our lives in a positive direction. But I think we need to adapt this image to be more flexible – it is not ONLY about adding to our observance of the Jewish laws and rituals, if we find meaning in observance, but it should be inclusive of other mitzvot that many of us find meaningful, such as feeding the hungry, reaching out to those in need, advocating for justice and equity in our daily lives. I believe these concepts are equally as important in being a “good Jew”. Thanks for helping us think about these ideas, Cantor!


      • Cantor Matt Axelrod

        You’re welcome Dr. Axelrod!


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