Identity, Religion

Who are we? Redux

Because I am personally opposed to ever agreeing with anyone, I find myself, often, embroiled in interesting discussions with all sorts of folks. Over at JCarrot, I am having an interesting comments thread with Ben Murane about (I think) the difference between who is Jewish, and what is Jewish. The difficult part of this, of course, is that it’s not a completely separate question.
Who one is affects what one does, and the reverse, as well.
I recall a famous quote by (the eminently quotable) Kurt Vonnegut, Jr:
“To be is to do”–Socrates.
“To do is to be”–Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”–Frank Sinatra.
Er, I’m getting off-topic here. Anyhow, so Over at the NYT , there is what is apparently another discussion of the ongoing rift caused by the stringent versus loose approach to answering the question of “who is a Jew.”
The question for me is pretty fraught: I do believe that being this exclusive is ultimately untenable -but at the same time, there does need to be a certain level of internal definition of who gets to be considered “in.”
The question remaining, of course, as to who is in enough, or how in they have to be, in order to make such determinations.
That’s why I’m less interested in talking about who is Jewish, than what is Jewish. If one can agree on the latter, at least in broad terms, than the former can be fixed in almost any case.
Professionally, of course, I have dedicated myself to a particular kind of Judaism, and I do think that meaning inheres in Judaism in particular acts, practices and disciplines, and that there is a teleological reason for doing these practices. This doesn’t invalidate other kinds of doing, but it does mean that not all doing can be accepted as within the boundaries of Judaism. And in truth, I can’t really believe that anyone truly believes that anything goes. No matter how loose your boundaries are, there must be some, otherwise names become meaningless. If everything is “within” then one simply ceases to be – in simply a logical sense.
Anyhow, I invite others to pop in on the conversation, here or there.

43 thoughts on “Who are we? Redux

  1. The Times piece struck me as less about “who is a Jew” than “who is a rabbi” in the eyes of the Israeli rabbinate. I did like the slight schadenfreude on the part of one of the non-Orthodox American rabbis about how the bona fides of American Orthodox rabbis were now being called into question. Mmmmm, irony!

  2. Yes, it’s interesting to think about where the boundaries are. But the people discussed in the Times article aren’t near the margins at all — as the article notes over and over again, they are completely typical American Jews, with Jewish ancestors, and living in a country with separation of church and state means that they don’t have any legal documentation of their Jewish status.

  3. htrouser-
    More than slight. I think it’s wonderful that American Orthodox Jews are finally coming to understand that the rabbanut is not their friend, and I hope that this will help shift the balance of opinion so that there is a possibility of systemic change.

  4. Oh, I have so much to say about this, but I will brief tonight because I need to go to bed.
    BZ, your point about the folks struggling with the rabbanut being typical american Jews is important, not because they are “not near the margins at all” but because precisely what is at issue is the question of where are the margins, and for the charedi rabbanut these folks are certainly on the margins. In the article one rabbi from the rabbanut calls an American Conservative Rabbi a goy. Neither the center nor the margins are obvious, because various communities constitute them differently depending on which discourses of Jewishness they rely upon.
    This leads me to KRG’s ridiculous (though admittedly common) argument that since everything cannot be Jewish there must be a boundary, and all we need to do is find it.
    The thing is there is no boundary, because there is no center. There are many boundaries depending on the kind of judaism being constructed. There is no essence of Judaism or Jewish identity, there are only the varied and shifting communities that identify as Jewish. There is no Judaism, only Judaisms (often at odds, and sometimes mutually exclusive).
    It is your choice to rely on one set of meanings or another to draw those boundaries. Some common sets of meanings include orthodox halacha, ethno-nationalism, self-identification, etc. Each of these sets of meaning themselves are not static, but are constructed within a history of discourse. So, this means when you choose to draw boundaries in particular way you are creating a Judaism. Don’t claim your hands are tied, take responsibility for your choice.
    The Charedim on the rabbanut are not doing anything much different than the Conservative movement’s t’chuvot about conversion, marriage etc. The only difference is the rabbanut has state power behind it (I’m leaving the big questions of zionism, ethno-nationalism and theocracy for a different post).
    I don’t think we need to draw boundaries like this. Yes, KRG, anything can be Jewish. It only takes a group of people making that claim for it to be the case. I know this is shattering to people’s need for there to be an essential and stable judaism, but culture don’t work that way, so we need to build meaning in communities constructed on this shifting ground, without insisting that our community reaches to the root, cause the root ain’t there.

  5. An addendum: I admit the above post presumes a sociological rather than theological understanding of Judaism (though I actually think theology would be stronger if it were built on top of an understanding of the sociological reality rather than in opposition to it).
    I think this the way to go because Judaism, like all religions, is manifestly a sociological phenomenon. It only exists in the social world, not the natural world. If you want to claim it also exists in the supernatural world, then we cannot really have a conversation, because I will be bringing evidence, and you will be telling me I must take your assertions on faith, which implies already agreeing with you, which if I did, you would not need to convince me. Do you see the circle that gets us into?

  6. I’m going to go one step further here and posit that there is no — I repeat, zero — uniting factor of Jews, Judaism or Jewish culture EXCEPT a pervasive myth that we are one people.
    No food, since we’ve lived everywhere. Not culture, since the Sino Jews in China and the Mizrahi (read: Arab) Jews from Iraq and Iran all practice a culture more related to Confucianism and Islam, just as Ashkenazi fashions and rituals are mirrors of Christian Europe. Not even Torah; hell, the Ethiopian Jews don’t even have the Chumash. The outlook of a French Orthodox Jew and a secular Indian Jew have little in common. Even literacy or education or intellectualism, so-called Jewish values, are not consistent across Jewish life.
    But we believe that we’re one people. Which is clearly a romantic but fabricated extension of the truth: you could say we are all related by history, but there’s nothing innately “Jewish” in culture, ideology or gastronomic habits.
    And it’s a nice myth. It really is. Except when defining “in” and “out” in terms of legal matters, because Jewishness is totally in the eye of the beholder. Somebody is going to be left out, no matter how you define it. Thus, the labels are useless if conducting precise business. It’s a propagation of injustice to do so.

  7. Also, this whole question is important, because suddenly, somewhere, its worth it to be a Jew: you get immigration rights to a developed country and a large sum of cash.
    The solution is simple: abolish the law of return. Separate church and state in Israel. Grasp that there is an “Israeli Nation” which also happens to be Jewish – and a Jewish religion with many adherents in Israel, but that the two are not synonymous in any way.

  8. As for, ‘who is a Jew?’ we are a people with a common history that goes back to Egypt and the desert. Not all Jews share blood and not all share religion, but we all share history.
    As for, “what is a Jewish action?” I offer this piece from IL Peretz (Yud Lamed Peretz):
    “As long as there is no universal system of education for mankind-in-general, then each individual is the product of his specific national entity. Though he be removed from his ethnic group as a suckling babe, his brain already contains in embryonic dormant form the hereditary talents that will afterwards awaken and be developed. He will bear the traces of his former origin unto the tenth generation.
    No Matter what language you speak, no matter what pearls stream from your lips, no matter what ideas you propound, you eloquence is Jewish eloquence, your wit is essentially Galut-wit, your intellectual acumen is reminiscent of Talmudic sagacity.
    Meyerbeer cannot escape the Kol Nidre melody. It meanders through his music. Heine and Borne are Jews in their every expression, in their every jest, and in their earnestness.” (from the essay ‘education’)

  9. Amit, I could not agree more.
    Jacob, the beginning of this quote assumes that culture is learned, which I think is correct. However then it goes on to state that no matter what language you speak your cultural context will be Jewish. This may have been true in pre-modern and early modern Jewish communities, bounded as they were by corporatism anti-semitism. In the post-modern period however some Jewish communities (in particular America) are not so bounded, so we cannot presume education with a particular national context.
    Peretz can shift from traits acquired via education to some kind of persistent traits by presuming a Lamarkin understanding of evolution (“Though he be removed from his ethnic group as a suckling babe, his brain already contains in embryonic dormant form the hereditary talents that will afterwards awaken and be developed. He will bear the traces of his former origin unto the tenth generation.”). This concept is now thoroughly discredited, and cannot explain the transmission and evolution of Jewish culture.

  10. [Editor’s note: I meant “Tanakh” when I said Ethiopians don’t have the Chumash. It’s the later books of the old testament which they don’t or only partially have. I’m also aware much of their version is orally transmitted, making it differ substantially in many ways.
    Correct me if I’m wrong.

  11. KFJ – you’re wrong. Being essentially a scion of the abyssinian church, the Beta Israel have all 24 books of the tanakh plus a large selection of apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, some of it (like the Book of Jubilees) extant only in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopians.

  12. Chorus –
    Yes, yes, blood doesn’t transmit culture – I couldn’t argue against that.
    But the second half of the quote is what intrigues me. Every action taken by a Jew, it seems Peretz is saying, is a Jewish action. Even if the person has tried very hard to remove themselves from the community, their actions are shaped by all that comes before.
    “No Matter what language you speak, no matter what pearls stream from your lips, no matter what ideas you propound, you eloquence is Jewish eloquence, your wit is essentially Galut-wit, your intellectual acumen is reminiscent of Talmudic sagacity”
    It seems that he is saying that the content of the action is irrelevant.
    I would argue that cultural information is passed on with or without formal Jewish education. The way your parents turn a phrase taken together with other equally small cues communicates cultural information. I have met people who I could identify instantly as Jewish, in very foreign contexts, because of the way they asked questions and the questions that they chose.

  13. KFJ, you are also wrong to call Iranian Jews “Arabs.” If the non-Jews of Iran are not Arabs (and they are not), what makes the Jews of Iran Arabs? I agree that Mizrahi is often used as a term to make Jews from Arab-countries sound not Arab. But of all of the Arab countries, why choose as your example one country that is not?

  14. Um, am I the only one on this website to think that you all are crazy?
    I think shows the ultimate bankruptcy of certain views of Judaism. By your relativist views, you have allowed yourselves to completely argue your way out of defining a Jewish people, even really, having a Jewish people to begin with. And abolishing the right to return? Are you serious? It is that law (and that law alone) that permits Jews persecuted around the world to always know there is a place for them the moment they step into Israel.
    Judaism is a religion. If your mother is a Jew, then so are you. I don’t have to argue about social this or religious that. That is my definition. If you disagree, you are outside of Halachah. If you have an issue with my definition of Halachah, look about to see where those perspectives get you. Be snooty about it all you like, but at least I think that the Jewish people as a whole exists! I can be sickened by Charedi actions in Israel and still be for the right of return, and still think that Jews everywhere should stand for SOMETHING by acting like Jews.
    Are all of you so comfortable as Jews that you would define it away? I’m sickened.

  15. Bears:
    By what you say: If your mother is Jewish and you are not are not religious – even if you are anti-religious – you’re still a Jew. right? So being a Jew can’t be a religious choice.

  16. It is a religious choice for two reasons:
    The definition of who is a Jew is defined by religion (i.e. Halachah). More literally, choosing to convert is a choice of religion.
    By ‘religious that’, i was (poorly) trying to get across the idea that other notions of my religion do not affect how i interpret my religion.

  17. “Judaism is a religion. If your mother is a Jew, then so are you.”
    I think these two statements are contradictory.

  18. Or, perhaps not contradictory. But in that case, it seems that according to halakhah, what makes a Jew – what BFI is calling “religion” – is much closer to what in most other cases we would call ethnicity or nationality.

  19. As I recall the Nazis did the same to us. They kept better family records on Jews than anyone.
    This whole article revolted me. I am SO tired of all the sects that our family decided to declare ourselves non denominational Jews about 2 years ago. And yes Israel court,we have both female and male Jewish proof back to middle 1800s. None of my family ever intermarried and my whole dad’s side is German and Romanian blue eyed Jews.
    My childhood was Conservadox shul.But once you move to subs, there is nothing but reform shuls. So we hop between services at Chabad and have friends at reform shul.
    In the end what happened to Ahavat Yisroel?

  20. Much of post XP from Jcarrot
    Worshipping Jesus is not a Jewish practice even if a Jew does it… it’s not a Jewish practice to worship human beings, no matter who says it is. Not even if you call them something else.
    The problem actually comes out of a problem of philosophy, which is that once one divorces Judaism from the divine, there is no way of saying anything is Jewish – it’s not that everything is Jewish if Jews do it, it’s that nothing is at all.
    A rational approach to Judaism in which we explain the meaning of the mitzvot (which is, by the way, prohibited by the rabbis in the gemara) is a path down which if we follow it, there can ultimately be no reason to practice any Judaism.
    It’s true that someone who comes from a point of view of suggesting that halakha is the boundary setter ultimately can’t have much to say to the one who says that it’s culturally determined, but I will point out,also, that the one who says that whatever Jews do is Judaism is making a category mistake.
    …If you want to be spiritually uplifted by eating shrimp, Kol HaKavod, but it isn’t Judaism, and feeling uplifted isn’t the point of mitzvot. Key thought: mitzvot, like much of Judaism isn’t about you (in the generic sense) at all. It’s about national, not personal salvation. One’s feeling good about doing X or Y is completely irrelevant to the reason for doing mitzvot, and no specific mitzvah can have a reason – Only the body of them as a (family-resemblant) whole have meaning, and the meaning is that when the Jewish people – as a whole- do mitzvot, we -as a nation- are brought closer to God.-Not, by the way, feel closer to God.
    If you feel good about eating shrimp, fine, but don’t call it Judaism just because you’re a Jew. Judaism isn’t about Jews, it’s about God.

  21. also crossposted from jcarrot (sorry I’ll quit it after this):
    Well, whatever a Jew does is a Jewish action in so much as it is an action influenced by all of that has come before, from Egypt until now. I think that is what Peretz is getting at in the quote I left above.
    As for Judaism not being about Jews – well – perhaps not, but it certainly looks like it is. The rules look towards building ways that we can live together in justice and peace – ways to build community. Perhaps Judaism is about G-d, but only in that G-d would wish us to live in these ways that are beneficial and healthy. And then the point becomes only semantic. Are the laws for the people? Are the laws for G-d? It does not matter, because the effect is the same.
    I don’t understand what you mean when you say that rational examination of the mitzvot will lead us to have no reason to practice. Most mitzvot are helpful. Gemara aside, better to examine what we do and make sure that it is helpful and causes no harm. There is always a chance that we are wrong (Hillel said: do not trust yourself till the day you die) and best to err on the side of doing things that look to be helpful and at least not harmful. Man has some sense – most people know, even when they don’t practice it – what is good.
    And this, from Walt Whitman:
    “go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in open air every season or every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency”

  22. KRG,
    I want to be clear, I never said anything the Jews do is Jewish. I said that anything can be Jewish, and that it only takes a group of people making that claim for it to be the case. There is a distinction here. The Jewishness of an action does not rest in the essential nature of the action, but the claims made regarding the action. I must admit I oversimplified things a bit in the interest of brevity.
    If a group of people claim be practicing Judaism, they need to tie that claim to something. The process of making the claim creates the reality. Of course, this whole process is shot through with social power, so that some claims are more readily accepted and others are not. Since there is no possible (knowable) authority, all we have is the sea of claims and counter-claims, each of which rely or rhetorics of authenticity, but none of which have absolute authority.* This is particularly true in modern liberal societies, where the religious authorities have lost coercive power. This is why the Israel case is so striking to people, because their religious authorities do have coercive power. Fortunately, there is still a thriving diaspora which can be the ground for counter-claims. There is space beyond the rabanut’s monopoly on social categories, (as we see playing out in the NYT article).
    You claim Judaism is about God. It may be about God (at least parts of it), but it is not an entity created by God. It is manifestly a social entity. If you want to claim that Judaism (in its present form?) was created by God what do we do with historical judaism (say the temple cult), or other religions. Were they also created by the Jewish God?
    If we understand Judaism as a sociological phenomena it is comprehendible in the same way that all religions are. If we attribute the forms and meanings of Judaism to a divine source we have to account for all other cultural practices. This can be done it two ways. One is by claiming God creates all culture through revelation. This would be a weird claim, and one that can only exist in a fully deterministic universe, because all the changes in all cultures over time would have to be understood as teleological. The other way is to say that Judaism dropped from the sky (was revealed) while other traditions are merely cultural forms created by human societies. I know the claim that only Judaism is divinely revealed is the classical claim of biblical and rabbinic Judaism. However, looking around the world today at the diversity of cultural and religious forms we now know about, makes it increasingly harder to make that claim.
    The basic point is that we have to explain Judaism the same way we explain other religions, and cultural explanations can do that.
    This does not negate theology, and its expression through Jewish forms. It does however require that we recognize that the forms, the boundaries are arbitrary. The creation of the forms can be traced, they have histories, but they do not have essences or innate divinity.
    So, anything can be Jewish if it is claimed as such in the process of cultural production that produces Jewish life. For example, Kugel is an Eastern European dish, but is becomes Jewish when Jews move to America and suddenly Kugel distinguishes them from their neighbors.
    *(God’s will is not clearly knowable so we cannot rely on it as authority)

  23. “None of my family ever intermarried and my whole dad’s side is German and Romanian blue eyed Jews.”
    RiviK-
    There was likely intermarriage, but it probably occurred during the Roman era before Christianity became the state religion and it became against the law to convert to Judaism. The first Jews to settle in Europe were often younger sons seeking a fortune (as they were not inheriting the family’s land or livestock) and while it may have been intended that a wife would be sent to them once they could support a family, often they could not wait– but Judaism took converts more easily in those times.
    I look “like a Jew”– i.e. Middle-Eastern, but my brother has blue eyes and red hair. So the genes got into the pool somewhere despite nothing but Jews as far as we can trace our family tree.

  24. eh… why are people comparing blood? The argument really can’t come down to this. Let blood be as it is – the rivers that carry your oxygen and food to your limbs and fingers and head and carry away all that isn’t useful.
    I have to side with chorus on this one.

  25. I can’t help but notice the amazing path through all of this that my faith (I’m amazed that that word has only come up once in this discussion, and derisively at that) really answers all of these questions.
    Judaism is an at times irrational religion. There’s that whole Edot, Chukim, and MIshpatim thing. Part of accepting Halachah (mainly the d’oraita stuff) is knowing that the why’s might not always be answered. But this is why I thank G-d I’m (liberal modern, yay for modifiers!) orthodox- so that my faith doesn’t explain away itself! To be sure, Judaism can be described through sociological, ethnic, and other lenses- but to then claim that Judaism is PRIMARILLY one of these lenses because we can view it through them is circular. Judaism is a religion, a way of leading life. Anything else ascribed to Judaism must be viewed through that lense first or else Judiasm loses all meaning, which I think that rational ones amongst you have realized.
    I think it’s despicable that RiviK compares how we know who’s a Jew to the Nazis, You should be ashamed of yourself- do you really let your moral relativism take you that far? At that point, what’s the use of being relative at all, if you can connect deeply held Jewish beliefs to Nazism?

  26. Bears (or anyone else),
    On what does your faith rest? How do you understand other religious practices? What makes those practices different from Judaism?
    I find it ironic that you consider my reasoning circular. I am explaining Judaism as a cultural construct. This does not require a prior position, but comes from observation of how culture operates. This includes, but is not limited to cultures we identify as Jewish. Your position, as best I can tell, predetermines the revealed truth of Judaism, and uses that faith to determine what Judaism is. That is circular.
    It may be that I am advocating for an abandoning of faith in Judaism. I think this is different from having faith in God. In my conception one can use Jewish categories to enrich one’s relationship to divinity, just as one can use Buddhist meditation or the experience of Hajj. One cannot, however, claim the divinity of Judaism to the exception of the divinity of other religions. In a modern interconnected pluralist world, that claim is truly untenable.
    In order to preempt comments about relativism I want to be clear that this conception does not prevent us from making ethnical distinctions. It is not moral relativism. Its a form of cultural pluralism. In fact, separating ethical distinctions from religious ones requires us to embrace the ethical elements of our own tradition (and other traditions) while distancing ourselves from the less ethical elements of our own tradition. This way we avoid the trap of thinking everything within our tradition is automatically ethical.

  27. Chorus- faith rests on belief. Yup, i have something ‘irrational’ to back myself up. I’m not arguing that your beliefs are irrational or misbegotten, just that they, while consistent, lead you to some pretty bad results, which you seem comfortable with because you arrived at them logically. That’s fine. It’s just that my beliefs leave me in a place that doesn’t explain away Judaism. We’re not disagreeing, really. I think Judaism is the best because I believe it. I have logical reasons too, but at core, I have certain beliefs that really have no rational basis (like a Christian would say if they believed in Jesus). I’m not afraid to admit it, and you disagree (‘It may be that I am advocating for an abandoning of faith in Judaism’). Alrighty. I just think that the average involved Jew on this site would find your conclusions distasteful, and might realize that their desire for rationality and pluralism, taken to its logical extreme, gets them to where you are. By all means, continue on your path if it is comforting to you. But get this: what’s the point of Judaism if it’s nothing special? And if it’s nothing special, what are you doing on this site?

  28. one can use Jewish categories to enrich one’s relationship to divinity, just as one can use Buddhist meditation or the experience of Hajj. One cannot, however, claim the divinity of Judaism to the exception of the divinity of other religions. In a modern interconnected pluralist world, that claim is truly untenable.
    I only want to point out your own comment, that one look at it very carefully. The ultimate conclusion is indeed that Judaism is ultimately the same as any other practice (as long as that practice is ethical) and that, ultimately means that any, or no, practice is as good as any other, thus if you syncretize Judaism with another faith tradition, or abandon it altogether, that’s totally fine.
    The “Cultural” route for Judaism has been tried – recall the Yiddishists, and the Workman’s Circle- where are they now? The Workman;s Circle is still around, true, but only just by the skin of its teeth, and are out there renting space to anyone who could use it (including their former arch-enemies, the religious Jews) just to pay their rent. Their numbers abound in the…tens.
    Cultural Judaism is interesting if we don’t mind dying out, but ultimately it’s meaningless.
    I don’t argue that Judaism is the only way to experience the divine, nor that it’s the only ethical way, but if Judaism is to survive – in fact, if there’s any reason for it to survive and not be simply a form of ethnocentrism- there must be more to it than “it’s a fun thing to do sometimes, and an interesting cultural construct.”
    I believe that Judaism has a mission, that it’s not about the people who engage in it, but about the God who gave it to us -and yes, of course, lo bashamayim hi, it ‘s no longer “in heaven” and its interpretations are those of learned human beings – but it’s not for interpreting by just anyone; it’s a tradition of learning, and as the rabbis say, an ignoramus cannot be pious because in order to understand a holistic system, one has to be immersed in it deeply, both intellectually, spiritually and emotionally; moreover its interpretations must serve the larger purpose – which is to understand what God wants of us within the system that we’re given (halakhah) which is given to us to guide us in a particular way. That way is about national salvation (not individual) its about God and Israel’s partnership, it’s about making over the world into a plce where holiness can enter in, and where the rules that God gave us are ours to interpret, but only insofar as we neither add nor take away fro mteh system as a whole. If an individual ceases to keep kosher, sure,they’re still Jewish, but not eating kosher isn’t a Jewish practice, no matter how much you like shrimp.
    The parts make up the whole, and if one abandon law and purpose, then there’s nothing left except empty feel-goodness, which of course is immoral then if you start advocating that one shouldn’t marry non-Jews just to perpetuate a system that has no independent meaning.Which is why the Yiddishists and secular culture types have all but disappeared – we’ve been down that road. It doesn’t work. Holiness is not cultural, it’s embedded.

  29. if Judaism is to survive – in fact, if there’s any reason for it to survive and not be simply a form of ethnocentrism- there must be more to it than “it’s a fun thing to do sometimes, and an interesting cultural construct.”
    This reasoning seems backwards to me. What Judaism is should precede (and determine) whether it is worthy of survival, not the other way around.

  30. Of course the workman’s circles and radical Yiddish culture are not “empty feel-goodedness”. To claim such dismisses much of our family as of no use.
    These movements are are made up of people acting to make a world more just – in what I see as a very Jewish way. The demise of Yiddish is in large part due to: the assimilationist movements in the US, persecution in the USSR, the holocaust, and, importantly, the decision of Israel to take on Hebrew and the subsequent change in Jewish education here and abroad. Yiddish was taboo in Israel for many decades and the whole education apparatus shifted to support the Jewish state. Who knows, Yiddish is on a strong upswing that started with the Klezmer movement and has grown since then. The tragedies and pressures that damaged Yiddish culture are still very recent, who knows what the result will be in the long run? Too early to judge I say.
    Besides this though, religious culture is introverted with a priority of building community for its members. Radical culture is more extroverted, focused on humans at large. Perhaps this extrovertedness has hurt radical Jewish culture, made it less capable of defending itself from assimilation. But I would argue it was not “empty feel-goodedness”, a lack of values, that has hurt groups like the workman’s circle, or secular Jewish radicals.

  31. This reasoning seems backwards to me. What Judaism is should precede (and determine) whether it is worthy of survival, not the other way around.
    OK. I totally agree.
    But that’s exactly what’s at stake here!
    Jacob P:
    I of course didn’t mean to say that socialism and Yiddishists were empty-feel-goodness. What I did mean to say was that saying that one does something Jewish because it makes one feel spiritually uplifted, or good in some other way, is. Moreover that assimilation you mention is part and parcel of being Jewish “culturally,” but not religiously. eating bagels is nice, but you don’t have to be Jewish to eat bagels or lox or whitefish, or to say “oy.” Or even to speak Yiddish or play klezmer.
    I’m in total favor of people working to make the world more just, and that’s what Judiasm does, but it does it in a particular way, not in any way. And also, one doesn’t need to be Jewish in any way to do good and be good. Speaking Yiddish while you do it is nice, but not especially Jewish, unless, for example, one understands the talmud in Bava Metzia to drive one’s actions towards getting employees a fairer shake. Then it’s a Jewishly motivated action – but there has to be some consciousness about it, otherwise it’s just doing good – which again, is not a bad thing at all, but also not necessarily Jewish!

  32. Point taken on the ‘spiritual uplifting’ bit.
    Perhaps we have come to a point where we just must disagree. I would say any action by a Jew is ‘Jewishly motivated’. I agree with Peretz that a Jew cannot escape this. Yiddish is Jewish – it’s source stretches back all the way to the exodus, even if there was no Yiddish then. Jewish radicals of today reflect Jewish values and Jewish history – whether they wish to or not.
    And these radicals add something to the culture. A vibrancy, a commitment to working for all people, defense of the stranger. If the person doesn’t know the verse that taught them to value such things, it doesn’t mean the verse is not the source.
    one more thing:
    Most people define a Jew not by what kind of person he or she is, but by where he or she has come from. It is also possible to define a Jewish action not by its content, but by its source. Both definitions have similar structure and similar problems. An argument made against one could probably be made against the other.

  33. Bears, Judaism is nothing special (in the sense that it is somehow unique and better). It is however special to me (in the sense that it is a context for meaningful community; meaningful because of the riches of the Jewish tradition).
    Think about it like a partner. I don’t think my girlfriend of boyfriend is the best person in the world, just the one that makes me feel good. He or she is special (to me), but not special as in “unique” or “better.” I have a meaningful (and complex) relationship with Judaism. Not because of some essential quality of Jewish culture (be it revelation, halacha or some vague commitment to making the world a better place) but because I am in relationship with it, in all its complexity. Sometimes this relationship is expressed by studying chassidut or shouting out in prayer, sometimes it is expressed in my categorization of shrimp as parve (like fish), and therefor edible within my vegetarian diet, sometimes it is expressed in my deep desire to build exciting post-nationalist (read non-Zionist) Jewish community.
    I cannot claim that Judaism has access to divinity that other cultural practices lack. This means that If I find meaning in other practices, I can practice them as well. I guess I am not monogamous (in my relationship with Judaism) because Judaism is not actually a person, a single self, one thing, but is rather a dense and sometimes contradictory cultural complex.
    KRG, When I talk about judaism as culture I am not talking about secular Jewish identity (though it certainly includes that), I am talking about understanding Judaism, including theology and halacha, to be a series of cultural constructs, created by various social groups over time. They are divine as far as all human culture is divine. I guess this makes me a religious humanist in a meaningful relationship with Judaism
    I’m curious. How do you relate to other faith traditions? Are they all divine? Are none of them? How do you figure that you happen to participate (and perhaps were born into) the “right” one, the one that God has created?
    Im with BZ on this one, why does Jewish “survival” precede our understanding of Judaism/Jewish culture??

  34. Chorus,
    I’m glad we could flesh out these ideas. I have no argument with you because we clearly have different values, priorities, and, above all, beliefs. Which I don’t mean as any kind of condescension at all. If I thought Judaism was just one partner, one of many, then my view of Judaism might well be a lot like yours. But I don’t think of Judaism that way, so there we go.
    Good luck on your journey.

  35. I’m curious. How do you relate to other faith traditions? Are they all divine? Are none of them? How do you figure that you happen to participate (and perhaps were born into) the “right” one, the one that God has created?
    Im with BZ on this one, why does Jewish “survival” precede our understanding of Judaism/Jewish culture??

    I have to agree with BZ, too I’m afraid -as I said above.
    But as to your questions, I don’t think I have all those answers worked out yet. I think of religion oddly similarly to you I think, except that I believe that monogamy is extremely important. I also am unclear on the truths of other religions. For example, I do not believe (or, actually, I believe that not) that Jesus is or was divine in any way, that God takes on or ever has taken on a human, or any other living form, that we need an intermediary to reach God through prayer, and so on.
    I think that some of them are divine in some ways.
    But Judaism, like many other religions does not require someone to be born into it, so that doesn’t make any difference – someone had to be born into it for it to exist (or create it) and I was. But if I hadn’t been, perhaps I would have been like on of my conversion students – that Judaism was the right religion, that they had to convert, that they maybe even didn’t have any choice because they had Jewish souls that they needed to fulfill. I don’t know. Or perhaps I would have been an (i hope righteous) non-Jew. There are plenty of those, too, you know, more of them than righteous Jews, probably, if only by percentage of the population.

  36. I just want to say how much I’m enjoying learning from you all — Bears, COA, and KRG. I didn’t have anything to contribute because my mind is too awash in thinking through all of your different points. Thanks for yourselves and your thoughts. This discussion could have turned sour and useless but you guys rescued it.

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