Posts

Who is a Jew?

“Who is a Jew?” The Jewish Humanist, August 1988

The “Who Is A Jew” question is a critical issue in Jewish life today. Orthodox authorities in Israel and in the Diaspora are seeking to achieve the power to force all Jews to accept their definition of Jewish identity. Reform and Conservative leaders, eager to appease the Orthodox, are not anxious to recognize a purely secular definition of the Jew. And secular Jews, especially young ones, are now beginning to succumb to the new assaultive fundamentalist propaganda that theistic religion is the only way in which Jewish identity can be maintained and preserved. “No davening [praying], no Jews,” it says.

Growing intermarriage among Diaspora Jews also makes this question critical. The Jewish status of countless thousands of sons and daughters of Jewish fathers is now in question. If they love the Jewish people, but do not want a religious conversion because they are not religious, they will be excluded. Plus, there is the humiliation of Jews, who know themselves to be Jews, having to undergo a ritual test they do not believe in in order to become what they already are.

All these people need our help. If the orthodox and conservative authorities have their way, the Jewish people will continue to shrink into a hard core of religious fanatics. A bold generous counter-statement is necessary to prevent this tragedy.

The Jewish world is confused on this issue.

Religious authorities have for so long been in charge of Jewish life that even many non-religious Jews think that they have the right to determine the criteria of Jewish identity. An inappropriate nostalgia prevents them from dealing with this question with integrity.

In Western Europe and North America, the prevailing definition of the Jews as a member of a religious denomination and nothing more makes it difficult for many Western Jews to understand how one can be Jewish and not be a “believer.” Even secular Jews pretend to be religious in order to conform to the social expectation of what it means to be Jewish. The history of this definition—the fearful attempt of emancipated Jews to deny their national identity lest they be accused of dual loyalty—is largely forgotten. And we are all victims of this cowardly compromise.

Zionism has also provided some mischief. While, to its credit, it has emphasized the national and ethnic character of the Jewish people, it has tended to stress the incompleteness of Jewish identity outside of life in the state of Israel. Diaspora Jews, if they are not religious, end up being shadow figures of ethnicity.

Liberalism has also provided its trouble. Given the history of racial and religious prejudice, most liberals hate all forms of involuntary identity. As a result, they want Jewish identity to be a purely voluntary act. If you want to be Jewish, you are. If you do not want to be Jewish, you are not. However, commonsense indicates that there are many, many Jews who despise being Jewish who indeed are. Excluding them from Jewish identity does not do justice to who they are. Ethnic identity is generally an involuntary identity. Pretending for the sake of some illusory self-mastery that Jewish identity can be discarded when it is inherited is foolish. Neither conscience nor residual antisemitism will allow it.

Our resentment of our historic enemies also poses a problem. On the whole, liberal Jews will allow deviations from the traditional theistic norms provided that the deviant does not join the “enemy.” Atheists and practitioners of transcendental meditation can stay in the fold, But Jews who become Christians or Muslims cannot. Now this distinction is irrational; if Jewish identity is a religious identity it does not make sense. When the Supreme Court of Israel excluded Brother Daniel, a Catholic monk from Jewish identity, they even went beyond Orthodox rejection. His parents were Jewish. He had suffered persecution during the Holocaust period. He had left Poland to live in Israel because he identified with Jewish nationality. He simply saw himself as a national Jew with a different “religion.” But he foolishly expected consistency from liberals and secularists who viewed him as a traitor.

Internal racism is another source of difficulty. Jewish social practice belies official propaganda. While many Jews publicly applaud the religious definition of the Jew, they privately make insidious distinctions between born Jews and Jews by choice. They regard the former as being more authentically Jewish. A thoroughly assimilated Montana rancher with a Jewish mother is “more Jewish” than the Dutch humanist immigrant to Israel who identifies with the Jewish people, masters Hebrew and immerses herself in Jewish culture, Even if she hypocritically chose a religious conversion—which many Gentile kibbutzniks do—it would make no difference. Conservative Jews have responded timidly to the issue and to this confusion. They accept the right of rabbis to determine Jewish identity. They simply want Conservative rabbis to have the right to be considered kosher authorities.

Reform—especially American Reform—has responded more boldly. In recent years [1983] they have championed the cause of paternal descent. They want children of Jewish fathers to be given equal status to the children of Jewish mothers. But they still adhere to the supremacy of religious arbiters. In the end, non-Jews who want to broaden the list of kosher authorities to include Reform rabbis.

At the other extreme we have the proposal of certain secularists like Haim Cohen, the former chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, who want to make Jewish identity purely voluntary, an act of personal will and decision. Jews who do not want to be Jews are not Jews. And individuals who want to be Jews, who regard all other Jews as illegitimate—like the Black Hebrews—are also Jews. Neither history, culture nor social context are relevant.

It seems to be that an appropriate answer to the question “Who Is A Jew?” must fulfill the following criteria.

It must recognize that for most Jews, Jewish identity is involuntary. We are born into the Jewish people. We do not choose to be Jews. We discover that we are Jews. Hopefully we will enjoy what we are. But there is no guarantee. Choosing to be Anglo-Saxon or Chinese is not an option.

It must include people with two Jewish parents or with only one. A father is just as good as a mother. After all, he most likely gives you your last name.

It must make no ideological criterion for Jewishness. There are Jewish theists and Jewish atheists. There are Jewish communists and Jewish fascists. There are rabbinic Jews and Christian Jews. There are Jews we are proud of and Jews we are ashamed of. If we are a normal ethnic group we cannot pretend to be what we are not.

It must provide for some identification with the historic Jewish people. “Bizarre” people who deny that Jews who are normally regarded as Jews are really Jewish and who affirm that they alone are Jewish—like certain Black religious sects in America—cannot be taken seriously. There has to be some identification with the history and fate of the acknowledged Jewish people.

It must allow all men and women of goodwill to join the Jewish people, whether they be religious or secular, theistic or humanistic. No formal ceremony or certificate is required. The informal acceptance of the Jewish community which the individual wants to join—whether it be the synagogue or the kibbutz—is sufficient.

Jewish Survival

“Jewish Survival” from Humanistic Judaism journal, Spring/Summer 1980

Jewish survival.

It’s a magic phrase.

Most Jews feel guilty if they are not concerned with Jewish survival. Most of us feel it necessary to prove that we are.

After all, we have suffered so much persecution, we have been assaulted by so many enemies. If we consent to the disappearance of our group, we will earn the disapproval of our martyred ancestors. We will give the final laugh to our enemies. We will be accused of treason.

Because of this guilt, the issue of Jewish survival has become a Jewish obsession. All Jewish discussions ultimately lead to it. Most Jewish anxiety stems from it.

Despite the tenderness of the problem, we Humanistic Jews have to have an answer to the question of survival. If we are committed to the value of Jewish identity, we are also committed to the preservation of that identity.

But we have to be careful how we define the question.

We have to avoid regarding Jewish survival as the highest value, to which all other ideals are subordinate. Such devotion is the narrowness of community leaders who always regard social action and cultural programming as “gimmicks” for interesting Jews in Jewish institutions; or the fanaticism of Meir Kahane who justifies terrorism in the name of community survival.

We have to distinguish between the quantity of life and the quality of life.

There is no doubt that if all of us embraced the Lubavitcher ideology and life style that Jewish uniqueness would be preserved. But at what price? Is a life of compulsive ritual, male chauvinism, cultural segregation and a childlike devotion to an absolute ruler morally tolerable? And if it is morally Intolerable, it is not an appropriate demand to make on anybody.

We need to make a distinction between holocaust and assimilation. A holocaust implies the destruction of the Jew. Assimilation implies the disappearance of Jewish identity. Certainly, there an important distinction between the fascist who wishes to physically eliminate the individual Jew and the universalist who desires that the Jews and all other ethnic groups choose a “higher” human identity. Changing one’s cultural commitment is radically different from losing one’s life.

We need to be aware of the irony of antisemitism. While hatred of the Jew has destroyed many Jews, it has also brought many reluctant members back into the fold and unified the community against the enemy. Without our foes we would be hard put to stay together. Therefore, it is by no coincidence that community leaders use antisemitism as a motivation for loyalty. Just as physicians have a vested interest in disease, many avid Jews have an unconscious need to find enemies.

We have to dismiss the illusions which traditional historians have fostered. The assertion that Torah loyalty preserved Jewish identity throughout the centuries is not completely true. Religion is not the only factor in Jewish culture. Language (whether Hebrew or Yiddish) and economic specialization were of equal importance. The Christian rulers of medieval Europe did not allow our ancestors to live because of their Torah. They granted them survival because of their economic usefulness. In the end, language, religion and work were vehicles of ethnic pride.

We have to avoid blind nostalgia. It is important to remember that what worked in the past may not work in the future. A technique for group survival that was effective in the past, like ritual segregation or the refusal to marry outside the group, is useless if the vast majority of contemporary Jews are unwilling to use it. Laws that nearly everybody disobeys, subject the authority that pronounces them to ridicule. They produce self-righteousness, not survival.

. . . .

What does Humanistic Judaism have to offer to the promotion of Jewish identity that is different from the well-known approaches of Orthodoxy, Reform-Conservatism and Mystical Judaism?

We offer a positive voice about the Jewish present. We maintain that, on the whole, the quality of Jewish life in the present is superior to the quality of Jewish life in the past. The contemporary society of secular study, individual freedom and sexual equality is morally better than the societies that spawned the Torah and the Talmud. There is no need for reverent nostalgia and sentimental guilt. Our Jewish identity is not inferior to that of the past.

We offer a cultural definition of Judaism. In a world of enormous diversity in Jewish choice and practice, it is naive to confine Jewish identity to affirmations of theological belief and to religious behavior. If Judaism is primarily an ethnic culture, and not a religion, then it can embrace wide ideological differences. It can be inclusive rather than exclusive, allowing more and more people to identify themselves as Jews.

We offer the possibility of a secular religion. Such a combination is not a contradiction in terms. It simply implies that the secular Jewish activities of language, music, dance and humor are of equal or greater importance to those of religion. If religion refers to the appeasement and resignation behavior we manifest in the presence of what we do not control, then too much religion is dangerous, just as no religion is pretentious. The secular mood is the opposite to the religious feeling. In the face of situations, we have the human power to alter, it is defiant, challenging, irreverent and eager to change. In the presence of the unalterable, the secularist becomes mildly religious, shrugging his shoulders in resignation, but offering no gratitude. For those Jews who are far more secular than religious, we applaud their liberation and welcome their Jewish identity.

We offer an alternative history of the Jewish people, and an alternative view of Jewish roots. Instead of seeing Judaism as the creation of priests, prophets and rabbis, as the gift of the authors of the Bible and the Talmud, we credit its secular origins. The Jewish establishment was controlled by the clergy and distorted Jewish history to make it appear that the survival of the Jew lay in religious behavior. They consigned to oblivion the thoughts, ideas and names of countless millions of Jews who were skeptical of religious authority and who contributed their secular genius to Jewish culture. Merchants, musicians, poets, folklorists, inventors, soldiers, humorists, and the devotees of the popular language were made officially invisible, although their contribution to a Jewish sense of uniqueness and well-being was the equal to that of the clergy. The attitudes and ideas of the modern secular Jew are not alien to the Jewish past. They just never made it through the official censorship. Humanistic Jews have Jewish roots. But they need an alternative history to recover them.

We offer an openness to intermarriage. In a world of multiple identities, family identity does not have to coincide with Jewish identity. The intermarried are not pariahs who need to be excluded; nor are they erring children who need to be patronized. They are members of the Jewish people who should be welcomed into whatever community activity they wish to participate. To insist that Jewish identity has to be the primary and all-encompassing identity for all Jews is an act of ethnic suicide.

We offer the opportunity of cultural “conversion.” There are now hundreds of thousands of Gentiles who are married to Jews, or who are socially involved with Jews, who would enjoy the opportunity of identifying with the Jewish people and with Jewish culture if they did not have to make theological commitments that even most native-born Jews have behaviorally rejected. Joining a culture is much kinder, more rational and better humored than joining a religion.

We offer the endorsement of a variety of life-styles. We refuse to drown in the sentiment about the traditional Jewish family. Its patriarchal tyranny and male chauvinism are as characteristic as the security system it provided. Singlehood and individualism are not unfortunate aberrations. They are legitimate options that deserve moral recognition and discussion. The long-suffering Jewish mother needs to share the Jewish stage with Bella Abzug. Otherwise, we will save our clichés and lose our young people.

We offer a unique relationship to Zionism and the Jewish homeland. The state of Israel was not created by the devotion of the pious. The orthodox rejected political Zionism and branded it a secular heresy. The founders of the modern state were secular and humanist pioneers who desired to initiate a revolution in Jewish life and to define Jewish identity in terms of a full national culture, and not by the narrowness of religious ritual. Tel Aviv and the kibbutz are more characteristic of the new Israel than Jerusalem and the Bible. This Israeli humanism is now under severe assault by the growing power of militant orthodoxy. Its defenders need our help to protect the integrity of the pioneer vision and to create a truly secular state freed of religious coercion and open to a truly cultural definition of Jewish identity.

We offer more than a Jewish agenda. We are also humanists, eager to participate in an emerging world culture, as well us in Jewish culture. Parochialism, in an age of multiple personal identities, will drive away the ethically responsible. They will not want to participate in any cultural effort that forbids them to look beyond the boundaries of their own ethnic group. Judaism is too narrow unless it is willing to share its time with universalism.

We offer the concept of a new kind of Jewish leader. He must be able to serve as the ethical and cultural guide of Jewish groups and congregations in the same way that the historic rabbi served the community. But his training would not ape the training of the traditional rabbi, with its almost exclusive emphasis on religious texts. It would focus on the secular and humanist roots of Jewish culture and prepare him to add his own creative alternatives. (The training of Reform and Conservative rabbis today is simply a watered-down version of the training of traditional scholars.) Without this new leadership, the Jewish humanist and the Jewish secularist will gravitate to more traditional guides to serve their needs.

We offer more future and less past. In a time of rapid change, excessive nostalgia can be disastrous. What will be, becomes just as important as what was. The scientific spirit refuses to worship the past and to imagine that the greatest wisdom was uttered three thousand years ago. Nor does it need the endorsement of the past, whether Biblical or Talmudic, to make changes for the future. Given the revolution of modern life, we should be just as interested in creating new Jewish culture as in reviving old varieties. If we invent behavior to serve human needs—and do not invent human life styles to fit rigid behavior—we have no other choice.

As you can see, if we value Jewish identity there are many bold and unique actions that we can take to ensure its survival.

We Humanistic Jews are part of a “fourth alternative” in Judaism. We share this alternative with all our brothers and sisters who designate themselves as Secular, Cultural or Creative Jews. We have different labels, but essentially, one program. We need to cooperate with each other to make this program for Jewish survival a respectable reality.