Thoughts on Jewish Identity

The Winter 2012 edition of Contact, the journal of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, is devoted to the question, “What is Identity?” You can read the issue online as a pdf.

The following are excerpts I found to be the most thought-provoking. They offer a snapshot into the issues raised in this publication. I’ve included my responses to each – what do you think?

Identity is Strongest When It Leads to Action
The more interesting question concerns how people come to consider their Jewishness as somehow helpfully guiding them as opposed to operating merely as a feature of their background.
- Bethamie Horowitz, page 3

As educators, ideally we show people how Judaism can be experienced in everyday life. We demonstrate how Judaism can be lived, how ancient values apply to modern scenarios, and we instill a sense of a Jewish purpose, connectedness and rootedness that guides the decisions we make. How do we do this as educators? We study Talmud, rabbinic stories and midrash to evaluate modern day ethics. We share a Judaism that applies to the transitions in the day, from waking up to eating to work to interacting with our friends, parents and children. And we suggest ways to access Shabbat that will be realistic and doable for modern families. Our “Jewishness” has to be helpful to us in living a life of meaning, purpose, joy and order.

What is Specifically Jewish About My Behavior?
The sharp boundaries that traditionally separated Jew and non-Jew have been blurred, and it is more difficult to know what self-identification means.  Intermarriage, in particular, adds to the complexity of describing Jewish identity both for the Jewish spouse and for the children of intermarried parents.

If Jewish identity is to be salient among the dozens of potential identities available, Jewish education will have to be prominent and effective.
- Leonard Saxe

Anytime I participated with my religious school in a social justice project, I always followed up by asking the students to describe what we did. The students would explain how cleaning up the park, working at the food pantry, serving dinner at a homeless shelter, etc., was a good deed and helped make the world a better place. They would talk about helping our neighbors and taking care of the earth. They would say that this is part of what it means to be a good person.

I would ask, “What was Jewish about what you did?” They would say that all religions teach these ethics and values; tzedakah (Hebrew, literally meaning “righteousness,” but generally referring to charitable giving) and gemilut chasadim (Hebrew, literally meaning “bestowing kindness”) are the way Judaism describes what to do, but ultimately it’s just about being a good person.

Is this true, that Judaism’s approach to repairing the world is based in universally held principles of kindness and generosity? Yes and no. We may share values, but each religion has specific ways of understanding, talking about and acting on them. Judaism has a language, guidelines and narratives that teach a specific way to approach areas of charity.

When those raised with Judaism grow up knowing the particularities and nuances of their religion, they may see more distinctions in a Jewish way of life. Rather than water down Judaism and Christianity to blend into a sea of universal ideas of being a good person, why not learn and celebrate the specific stories, specific heroes or models of a certain trait, and seek to emulate the profound values of our sacred texts?

Jewish Identity is About a Connection to the Jewish People
[The term Jewish identity] carries with it three misleading and ultimately distorting messages:
Being Jewish resides in the individual … is about subjective feelings … is a fixed quality.
- Steven M. Cohen, page 5

Cohen, like others in this publication, suggests that when someone has friends who are Jewish, he or she will tend to identity more strongly with Judaism. Affiliating with a community of other Jews is what it means to be Jewish. When someone is “unaffiliated,” we work tirelessly to bring them into the fold of organized Jewish communal life. We don’t care about people’s Jewish beliefs, behaviors or level of literacy nearly as much as whether the person belongs to a community with other Jews.

This is an ostracizing and potentially divisive and hurtful statement to make to people who are not Jewish who have Judaism in their lives and participate in Jewish communities like synagogues. Cohen is essentially saying that it is fine if people who aren’t Jewish raise Jewish children and attend synagogue programs, but the main factor in forming a strong Jewish identity is when children, teens and adults hang with other Jews.

I believe that identity is about feelings. It is about affirmations that one makes about one’s own sense of self and place in the world. Identity is personal, yet it can be expressed and felt in groups. Community is essential for living out Jewish ideals. However, the make-up of today’s Jewish community is more and more diverse. I think these new voices and backgrounds strengthen rather than diminish the group.

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