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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

DEFINING THE NATURE OF JEWISH IDENTITY

RABBI WINE'S FIRST ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS FOR MODERN JEWS


Welcome back to our continuing series about the core message of Humanistic Judaism. In today’s commentary we’ll begin to examine some Humanistic Jewish answers to six essential questions about modern Judaism first published by Rabbi Wine back in 1977. A few weeks ago I invited your responses.


Our first question, slightly re-written by me (please click HERE to see Rabbi Wine’s original) was this:


How do we define the nature of Jewish identity in an age when the spectrum of Jewish belief ranges from intensely pious forms of religious observance to completely secular expressions of identity?


When he addressed the question, Rabbi Wine immediately ruled out characterizing Jewishness as a religious identity. If, indeed, a religion is a set of beliefs distinguished by a certain lifestyle, Jews do not participate in the same religion. The lifestyle of a Reform Jew – even a very committed and religious Reform Jew – is barely similar to that of a pious Chasidic Jew. However, Jews are not quite unique on this front. Consider Christianity. When we enumerate the largest religions on earth, Christianity always comes first with almost 2.4 billion followers. Do they all share the same set of beliefs or a common lifestyle? The 45,000 denominations of Christianity suggests that they do not! That said, I concede Rabbi Wine’s point if only because the spectrum of Jewishness, which in modern times has comfortably accommodated even atheism, is far broader than Christianity.


Rabbi Wine’s proffered solution, the description of Jewishness he deemed “broad enough,” deemed Jewish identity as “ethnic and familial.” At first glance these ideas seem vulnerable to accusations of “Ashkenormativity,” the academic idea that the typical descendant of eastern European Jews best represents Jewishness. But on closer inspection – and more to the point after consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica on the issue – this answer continues to resonate. There the editors define ethnicity as “the identification of a group based on a perceived cultural distinctiveness that makes the group into a “people.”


Which just so happens to be my preferred word for that which connects all Jews.


Elaborating on the ideas contained in “ethnic and familial,” Rabbi Wine wrote that “to be Jewish is to be a member of an international “nation” which he viewed as a world community. Today I recommend we avoid the word “nation” as a category for all Jews. It simply raises too many problematic issues, not the least of which is its association with antisemitic accusations of Jewish dual loyalty. This is not to say Rabbi Wine was wrong. “Nation” happens to be a common translation of the Hebrew word עם – ahm. In our instance, however, I would prefer another translation: “people,” as in “the Jewish People.” And what is the quality or state of constituting a people? Merriam-Webster tells me that it is peoplehood. Which, at least for me, works much better than “ethnicity” or “nation.” Why?


I believe it has three great advantages that concede certain truths of Jewish identity: 1) it acknowledges the many facets of Jewish belonging; 2) it puts aside ideological differences in favor of things all Jews share in one way or another (more on that in another commentary); and 3) it emphasizes our feeling of connectedness without the need to examine anyone’s specific Jewish identity or beliefs.


The word peoplehood is exactly as imprecise as the imprecision of Jewish identity and therein lies its strength. Because the real truth is that the Jewish People is a bit of an anomaly in the world. We’re older than modern nationalities and religions. Our journeys throughout the world have gifted us with enormous diversity not associated with any single “race” or “ethnicity.” And yet we still feel connected!


Next week (barring any breaking news) I’ll move on to Rabbi Wine’s second question:


How do we deal with the historic primacy of the Torah at a time when the Torah lifestyle corresponds in no way to the behavior of most Jewish people?


Feel free to share your thoughts with me: rabbi@chj-detroit.org.


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As promised here are some thoughts from our fellow members. Any editing errors are on me.


Debra Luria focused on why she chose Humanistic Judaism even as she continues to have warm connections to and feelings for more traditional expressions of Judaism (something I can relate to):


“Following one's heart means very different things to different people. God is a comfort, rules are a comfort, tradition is a comfort. People are drawn to comfort. It's hard to find the courage to make a choice which is consistent with one's beliefs, and thus attend a synagogue where one's family won't be in attendance...it's a big deal. I believe that we, as Jewish humanists, chose behaviors which are consistent with core/philosophical beliefs, which takes integrity and courage: we must face the indignities and hardships of life with strength and hope, and appreciate our good fortune with pride for what we've earned, and daily purposeful taking note of our good fortunes.”


Bruce Hillenberg provided his perspective on Jewish diversity in the context of his own Jewish choices and journey:


“First, here is the definition that I am using to guide my daily life. The history of the Jewish people is a parable reflecting a collective need and desire to journey towards community, wisdom and knowledge, and goodness as a common person (menschlichkeit). Some believe this was our purpose set forth by a higher power. Some people believe attaining these goals comes from strict adherence to biblical writings and summaries. Others, Humanistic Jews and the like, as myself, believe that attaining these goals comes from willful action in actualizing an endowed state of goodness coupled to a biological need to form attachments.


“Jews are survivors. Jews understand being downtrodden. Jews love to learn. Jews love to help. Some Jews feel special. Some Jews feel one among. Jews love celebration. Some Jews live in fear. Some Jews live beyond boundaries. Jews love the light. Some Jews isolate themselves. Some Jews mentor us in being connected to a wide spread of differences. Jews help. Jews experience appreciation. Jews defend when necessary. Some Jews are not open to new experiences. Some Jews thrive on new experiences. Jews come from the same place, but their orientation to the world is as diverse as mother nature. They reflect this diversity. Some are threatened by it; some rejoice in it.


“I love Jewish customs. For me they represent metaphors for the journey of our people, gratitude for survival, and the courage to connect.”


I thank them both for their contributions!

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