Friday, August 6, 2010

Who and How Defines Jewish Identity?

I'm not going to answer that question today folks. It's been an open question for a number of centuries, or many of them, and this blogger can't resolve what lots of worthier sorts haven't managed.

Yet I will make an observation. There has been quite a hullabaloo recently, mostly among America's Jews, about how awful it is that various orthodox rabbis and secular politicians in Israel may or may not be about to legislate a law that would imply disapproval of some things some American Jews hold dear. The starting point of this hullabaloo is that American Jewish movements such as the Reform and Conservative denominations are totally legitimate expressions of Judaism, and any aspersions cast upon them are nasty, evil, backward-looking, parochial, primitive and diverse additional blemishes. Tablet Magazine even has a rather cute satirical piece by Shalom Auslander about The Day They Come to Take Your Judaism Away, though nothing in the logic of the discussion is remotely geared in that direction: the Orthodox complaint is mostly that the Jews are discarding their Judaism with fervent energy, not the other way around.

So just to put the matter in historical context. American Jewry in the past half century or so has radically redefined what it means to be a Jew, how you become one, what's expected of you as one and what's the relationship between the Jewish community and individual, and the surrounding society. Some of these changes may be for the better - assuming there's a way to define "better" - and others may prove to be fleeting innovations which leave no long-lasting mark. Yet for all the vagueness and ambiguities about how Jews decide about major changes to their way of life, the method chosen by American Jews is unprecedented. What has effectively happened is that various American Jewish groups adapted the practice of their religion to their immediate perceived needs, they made no serious effort to engage the rest of the nation, and now they shrilly demand that everyone else acquiesce.

Take the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding. Not the personal aspects: everyone joins in wishing the new couple many years of the best. On a communal level, however, the entire affair flies in the face of much that many Jews would be willing to die for, and indeed, large numbers did die for over the centuries.

The more I reflect on the very serious discussion presently raging about Jewish identity, the more I'm puzzled by the supreme arrogance of some of America's Jews, who are unilaterally re-writing rules which were accepted for centuries, while reprimanding those of us who aren't greeting their project with enthusiasm. Odd.


AKUS said...

Yakov, there is an even more interesting aspect to this. Conservative Rabbis will not officate at marriages between a Jew and a non-Jew, even if the intention is to remain affiliated with their synagigue and raise the children as Jews - e.g. - if the bride is Jewish.

Seems to me there's a lot of confusion and perhaps hypocrisy in the American Jewish position, even though I think its more than time that Israel started separating "church" and "state".

Anonymous said...

I read a piece (in Tablet?) that there is a growing? movement of young people becoming very pious Jews but opposing vehemently to thereby establishing any connection to Israel. The piece struck me as very odd i.e. Judaism as a fashion fad.

... and reminded me of the outbreaks of Hare-Krishnaism and Tibetism and whatever elsisms I have witnessed over the decades i.e. embrace anything sufficiently "exotic" seeming while refuse to deal in depth with your own heritage instead learn an easy memorable canon of the latest "exotic" whatever.

just belatedly heard this story - how can one want to negate a connection to something so fascinating i.e. on the one hand they may be into exploring their family tree on the other hand this is "dusty old stuff"?


Lachish Reliefs (made around 700 BC). Stone panel, found in northern Iraq

Anonymous said...


never mind, this is just an American habit one has to live with if one is an old-worlder
in the aftermath of 7/7 I've read countless times that the phenomenon of home-grown muslim terrorists was entirely due to Europe's abysmal and depraved way of treating its muslim populations and it could never happen in the US because they were doing so much better in that field.

Now they have stopped to be so specific about it but when I read what they dream up about signals the Cordoba mosque is going to send to the world, I realize that they still think they possess the philosopher's stone.
And of course anything resembling the peaceful hate-demos which originated from our own oh so moderate and beneficial to be Duisburg mosque will be impossible in the US.

I don't think it would be smart strategy/tactic for Israel to move to perfect separation the way things are now - especially not when the trend even in the US seems to point in the other direction. - lots of well functioning democracies have murky connections between the two and I am not so sure any longer that that is such a bad thing - it seems the real art is to keep the two balancing eachother

- just one thought: don't you think the secular part is a bit too lenient to letting new religions including their cultures and political ideas in? Even though I suspect the catholics of being willing to prefer muslims to protestants let alone orthodox any day I don't think they'd give up any of their "territory" as willingly as courts (have to) do.


NormanF said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NormanF said...

he supreme arrogance is American Jews telling Israel on the one hand it can't convert non-Jews in Israel to Judaism while on the other hand, they don't think inter-marriage is spiritual holocaust for the Jewish people. The very people raging at Israel for not accepting them as Jews are not the ones who are going be around in a generation or two. What the Jews in the Galut say should be of little interest to Israeli Jews. Israel's national unity and survival are more important than the hurt feelings of American Jews whose fundamental commitment to continued Jewish survival is questionable at best.

That is the real hypocrisy.

DRW said...

Norman the real hyprocrisy is when 70%to 80% of Israeli Jews, for whom the synagogue they don't go to is "traditional," surrender control of personal status issues to superannuated Lithuanians. Does this passiveness arise from some misplaced nostalgia - sort of like when Ben-Gurion thought it was harmless and yiddiskeit to give army exemptions to 150 haredei yeshivah students? Or is this another example of the Israeli majority's reluctance to challenge the extremists in their midst - just as the majority of Israelis who oppose the ideological settlements fear to confront the crazier element of settlers. What Yaakov fails to admit is that were the Israeli rabbinoot similar to the mainstream "modern" Orthodox establishment in the UK or US, there would be little dissension. Instead, the Israeli rabinoot follows the standards of the Haredi rabbis, increasingly dominated by Chassidim, who are arguably no more "authentic" than any other branch of Judaism.

Anonymous said...

Conservative and Reform Judaism have certainly radically redefined what it means to be a Jew but the standards of Conversion promulgated by the Chareidim or even the Religious Zionist rabbonim aren't the same as those practiced by our ancestors either. To what extent if at all someone has to accept upon themselves the yoke of Halacha is widely debatable.
None of this really matters though. Judaism belongs to those who practice it and however they define it becomes legitimate.
But what this shows though is what an AWFUL idea it was for the State to get involved with Religion!

Empress Trudy said...

Egalitarianism really wasn't the point of that article in The Foward. It was an attempt to EXCLUDE Orthodox. As in they are the new Nazis. We really shouldn't worry all that much about the tripe that spews forth from The Forward, or Jewcy or most of The Tablet.

Evan said...

I assume Yaacov already knows about this, but the Reform movement has actually moved affirmatively closer toward Jewish tradition in the last 50 years. For instance, as a kid during the 1990s I attended a very old Reform synagogue in the American South that, until the mid-20th century, held Shabbat services on Sunday and conducted those services entirely in English. By the time I attended, on the other hand, services were mostly in Hebrew and I learned how to read Hebrew in religious school. I've had some difficulty getting up to speed in traditional Judaism, but Reform religious school did teach me the rudimentary skills that I needed.

I basically agree with the premise, though, that the interrelated issues of conversion and patrilineal descent will ultimately cause a full schism in the Jewish world. In my Reform religious school, at least 30-40 of children had mothers who were either not Jewish or who had undergone a Reform conversion. I can't see how Orthodox (or even Conservative) Judaism will ever accept what it perceives as a such a fundamental affront to halakha.

Anonymous said...

The key is not to get involved. Why should the state of Israel be defining who is and who isn't jewish?
Eliminate state sanctioned religious marriages, make all marriage civil unions and pooft, away goes all these issues.

Anonymous said...

this guy just told me that the as far as I know supreme model of separation of state and religion greatly favours protestants

there is no perfect balance/solution/model, there never has been and there never will be ...

no way one can eat the cake and keep it
Secularisms in crisis
Department of Anthropology public lecture
Professor John Bowen is Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor in Arts & Sciences, Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.

who has hated any instance of church interference in "our" life, who is a convinced agnostic but who by now grudgingly and reluctantly recognizes that churches are there for good reasons.

Michael said...

Wouldn't a full separation of state and religion in Israel mean there could be no Law of Return?

Anonymous said...

I guess lawyers could finesse that, they can finesse almost anything if they want to

I'd guess the problems would come more from the quarter who claims that Jews haven't lived there from way back then

here is something from the British museum btw about (sad) history from the before the Babylonean exile (audio and pictures also available and at least for an outsider like myself very sensibly presented, no BBC-news-style ambiguity ;-)

Lachish Reliefs (made around 700 BC). Stone panel, found in northern Iraq


Laura Beck (Laura SF) said...

Well, as the spouse of a halakhically-converted Jew who wouldn't be considered Jewish in Israel because his Beit Din consisted of Conservative rabbis... I think it's "supremely arrogant" of Israelis to expect American Jews to contribute charitable funds and political support to a country that considers the vast bulk of them not Jewish!

In other words - Israelis can vote in whatever mishegas they like, but at some point - if they alienate enough American Jews - they're going to find themselves even more alone in the world. And that's bad for all Jews, everwhere.

Besides, as DRW and Anonymous point out, the haredi are hardly pursuing a "traditional" approach to conversion. Since when can a conversion be revoked? Since when do you have to promise to live a completely observant lifestyle in order to convert? And heck - whatever happened to Klal Yisrael?

Soon, the only "real" Jews according to the Israeli religious establishment will be the ones who have paperwork tracing their ancestry to the Vilna Gaon or the Baal Shem Tov. All 3 of them. And Hitler (y'mach sh'mo) will be laughing in his grave.


Shabbat Shalom.

Laura Beck (Laura SF) said...

To clarify:

I love the Land of Israel because I am a Jew.

I love the Jews of Israel - as I love Jews all over the globe - because I am a Jew.

But how can I love the State of Israel if it decides that my husband is not a Jew? If it calls my Jewish marriage into question? And you think we should just quietly accept this? And you call *us* arrogant?

Anonymous said...

I have no picture what this dispute about religion is in the end all about and despite my general keen interest in relations between state and religion through history I'll wait patiently until the fog of debate will clear
I rush to the defense of America and Americans on almost every occasion come rain or come shine, it is a knee-jerk with me because overall your impact on my life has been a good one

that said:
whoever from the ol' world accuses Americans of arrogant TALK has my gut reaction sympathy due to the verdicts I read in your media on
- how we treat our immigrants
- how stupid our welfare state is (btw one remark by somebody likely to be trustworthy I read during the eco-turmoil stated that overall your expenditures in percentage of GDP is higher than even Germany's)
- socialism (I am a fan of Orwell's take on it)
- our aversion to inflation
- etc etc etc

in every one of these instances everything we do is wrong and America is in possession of the philosopher's stone and always that is pontificated by your commentariat on the basis of almost none to extremely meager knowledge.


Yaacov said...


Your husband can make aliya tomorrow morning and be accepted as an Israeli. That's the law here, and no-one is suggesting changing it.

The question is, why are you so convinced otherwise? Why doesn't anyone ever get the truth about Israel, only the parts they'd like to believe?

As to the rest of the commentors: did anyone hear me defending the Haredi in this matter? I don't remember having done so.

Anyway, I wasn't trying to give a full exposition of a position. I was merely commenting - and don't retract it - that the position of many American spokespeople is arrogant. They haven't asked the rest of us if we can live with the changes they're making; rather, they make them, and then threaten that if we don't accept we'll be left friendless and anyway how dare we. I think that fits rather well under arrogance.

(Nothing personal, Laura).

Anonymous said...

If Laura's husband made aliya, would he be in the same position as the Russia immigrants the law was trying to address?


Yaacov said...

T34 -


The Russians are people with some Jewish ancestors but not thru their mothers; or they're the spouses or family of Jews. Laura's husband could of course come as her husband because she's Jewish. But he could also come irrespective of her. For purposes of immigration to Israel, Reform and Conservative conversions are recognized. No one is proposing to change this.

Laura Beck (Laura SF) said...


If this - "For purposes of immigration to Israel, Reform and Conservative conversions are recognized. No one is proposing to change this" - is true, then that's great. To be absolutely clear - do such immigrants get recognized as being Jewish for official purposes, or are they allowed to immigrate but not classified as Jewish? There is of course a difference.

It's true that we're hearing otherwise - we're hearing that at the very least, this new bill is the first step towards changing the right of non-Orthodox converts to be recognized as Jews for purposes of immigration and within other official channels. Maybe that's not true - if not, great, and I apologize for being misinformed and getting upset. But for years we've been hearing from the Haredi about how they want to change the Law of Return to limit it to only born-Jews or ultra-Orthodox converts (it was a big issue back in the late '80s, as I recall).

Anyway, thanks for replying. Shavuah tov!