Identity = ?

By Yehudah Mirsky
Thursday, March 10, 2011

In discussions of that elusive entity known as "Jewishness," few terms have become so ubiquitous, and as a consequence so elusive, as "Jewish identity." The phrase regularly serves as the name of a communal dream: the wished-for end product that vast apparatuses of education, institution-building, and programming aim to instill and perpetuate. But what is it? What is its relation to classical terms like Torah and mitzvah? What quality of being does it try to capture, and how good a job does it do?

A symposium in the latest issue of Sh'ma goes at the question in the context of contemporary America, a society increasingly characterized as "post-ethnic" and therefore, presumably, in quest of new forms of personal identity. And we have indeed come to quite a historical pass when the happiest man in the United States, at least according to Gallup and the New York Times, is an Asian-American observant Jew—and when a ranting Charlie Sheen seeks refuge from his own Jew-baiting in the protective shade of his Jewish mother.  

More prosaically, and much more poignantly, growing numbers of the children of intermarried parents now actively identify themselves as Jews, and a significant proportion do so without either converting to Judaism themselves or relinquishing their other ethnic or religious affiliations. To the contrary: this very personal mixing-and-matching, by reference to no traditional formula or dogma, Jewish or otherwise, is for many exactly what makes their Jewish identity meaningful. 

In this they partake of one contemporary sense of the word "identity." Instead of signifying that individuals are what they are in any fixed sense, as in x=x, "identity" today is often used to indicate that individuals are what they will themselves to be, over time and in different ways.  Resistant to classification by any external standard or institution, one's identity is, rather, a complex truth that emerges from within.

Interestingly, this sense of identity as self-constructed is at odds with another sense that only yesterday seized center stage through the "identity politics" of the 1990s and its adjunct, multiculturalism. (This was itself a shift from the early idea of identity as personal integration, a psychological concept injected into American discourse in the 1950s.) The two contrasting senses of self have been characterized by the British social theorist Steven Lukes  as "the communitarian 'embedded' self, whose identity is there to be discovered or rediscovered, and [the] postmodern 'self-inventing' self whose identity is yet to be created and re-created anew from an increasing variety of cultural elements available from around the globe."

The embedded self is still very much alive in European debates about multiculturalism. But the postmodern self holds sway in the globalizing, information-society elites in which many educated Americans hold membership. An emblematic figure here is surely Barack Obama, the man from everywhere and from nowhere. That this very quality is no small part of his appeal to younger Americans, Jews very much included, is indirectly attested in the essay introducing the Sh'ma symposium. There, Susan Glenn and Naomi Sokoloff write that "Regardless of the formal, historical, institutional, or national definitions of 'who is a Jew,' the experience of identity [today] is layered, shifting, syncretic, and constructed, and it is clear that Jewish identity can be re-forged under new circumstances."

Of course, as Glenn and Sokoloff go on to note, such a definition opens "profound debates," some of which are explored in the symposium itself.  The depth of those debates is made clear in the pithy comment of one participant, Yehiel Poupko: "My grandfather had no Jewish identity; he was just Jewish. In traditional society, one is as one is born."  In other words, to assert one's Jewish identity was once to assert one's continuity with a community whose history, teachings, beliefs came into being in times and places in which the very terms of modern identity would simply have been unintelligible. That, however, was then, and now is now.

But is it indeed just a matter of ancient history? Well into modern times, Jewishness was felt as what the philosopher Charles Taylor called an "inescapable framework." And it is still felt as such by many around the world. In this connection, we cannot remind ourselves often enough of the distinction between Diaspora Jewry, a complex network of voluntary communities, and the nation-state of Israel.

Through the Law of Return, Israel, for better or worse, links Jewishness to citizenship; and through its (deeply dysfunctional) coalition politics it also links the conferral of citizenship to the most reactionary elements of the Orthodox rabbinate. This does not mean that Jewishness in Israel is not chosen (though the choices are more limited, and dramatically more so for haredim).  But it is chosen differently, and the results of that choice look different—less ambient, "hybrid," and open-ended—than is the case with its American cousin.

Yet even in America, and until quite recently, as Lila Corwin Berman points out in the Sh'ma symposium, ethnic identity remained normal and strong among Jews even as religious distinctiveness increasingly fell away. And still today, as Noam Pianko cautions, one ought not draw too bright a line between descent and consent. It may indeed be the case, Pianko writes, that "descent is not destiny"; nevertheless, "descent-based ties provide a natural home for individuals linked through family and history to opt into communities of meaning." 

One may go further. If such "opting-in" is to be at all meaningful, and if it is to realize the significance of today's personal freedom, it involves not just trying out, or trying on, a random set of "shifting, syncretic, and constructed" accoutrements that "can be re-forged under new circumstances" but assuming real, durable responsibilities. True, the language of "Jewish identity" is at best a pale substitute for the robust God-talk whose place it tries to fill.  But with the dissolution of traditional structures, it may be, for now, the least coercive and thus the most defensible common denominator available.

"Identity" will only serve, however, if it involves thinking through, and affirming, the foundational commitments that ground our choices and the fact of our choice. And that great fact of our choosing, as conscious and responsible beings, itself entails at least a trace, and perhaps more, of transcendence.  It is an assertion, amid the fluidities and banalities of "identity," that we are not quite self-constructed all the way up, nor are we "socially constructed" all the way down. 

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