Does Issue of Semantics Negate Well Wishes?

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Dear Miriam,

In the wake of Pittsburgh, I have seen and heard a lot of well-meaning non-Jews offer words of comfort to, “people of the Jewish faith.” Since this isn’t really how Jews talk about ourselves, is it worth correcting them? Their comments are, I know, meant to be kind, but it still strikes me as a awkward. Thoughts?

Signed,

Faith’s Not My Thing

Dear Faith,

Jewish tradition has a script for what to say to someone in mourning, which helps mitigate the fear of saying the wrong thing. When you see a mourner, you say a Hebrew phase that translates to “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Another common phrase to say about a deceased person is “May his/her memory be for a blessing.” While I have not heard a single non-Jewish person say either of these phrases in the past week (or ever), I understand that there’s probably no way they would know what they’re “supposed to” say.

Without that language, and knowing the implications of a non-Jew saying “Jew” publicly, many allies may struggle even to know how to refer to the people they want to support. Good options are “Jewish people” or “members of the Jewish community,” but there’s no obvious way someone would know that. Because, in my admittedly limited understanding, faith is a central Christian concept, I imagine people say “Jewish faith” because it sounds extra considerate.

For many Jews, though, faith isn’t really part of their Jewish identity, and even if it is, “Jewish faith” sounds borrowed from Christian identity. As Jews, a lot of us think about culture and language and holidays and rituals and commandments and good deeds waaaaaaay before we get to faith on the list of things that define us. Jewish peoplehood is, for most Jews I know, a concept that extends far beyond the more narrow definition of religion.

As for what to do when you hear or see a non-Jew say something about “people of the Jewish faith,”  it helps to remember the context of all of the above. If you hear a politician say this in a speech, there’s probably not much to do about it. If a friend says it to you directly, you could gently say “Thank you so much for the sentiment. I hope you don’t mind me mentioning, but you might be interested to know that the phrase, ‘people of Jewish faith,’ doesn’t tend to resonate with Jewish people.”

As we all figure out how to move forward from last week’s events, Jews and non-Jews, I also think it helps to remember that our best options for getting through terrible events is in partnership with other people.

If we dismiss someone’s kind gesture because they didn’t get the words quite right, we’re shutting off opportunities to learn and engage with each other. And if we never take the opportunity for gentle corrections and teaching, we’re also shutting down the chance to learn more about each other in authentic ways.

Be well,

Miriam

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