Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

Identity = ?

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?

Relevant Links
Who Is a Jew and What Is Jewish  Susan A. Glenn, Naomi B. Sokoloff, Sh’ma. Introducing a symposium on Jewish identity today, with links to individual essays by diverse contributors.

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. 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Larry Constantine (Lior Samson) on March 10, 2011 at 9:20 am (Reply)
Self-identified does not necessarily imply self-constructed. One way to identify as Jewish, whatever one's ancestry on whatever branch, is simply to embrace what is on offer from contemporary interpretations of ancient definitions. Neither does a compound identity, such African-American Jew, entail either dilution or fluidity. One can be, with equal fervor and sincerity, many things at once.

The struggle over definitions, as distinct from but not disjoint from matters of identity, is about boundaries and the maintenance of borders, and hence, as I argue in the Spring issue of CJ ( entangled with fundamental issues of survival and growth of the Jewish community. How we define Jews and Jewishness shapes how that community evolves and what it will become. To the extent that we insist on perpetuating narrow and traditional definitions, we limit our options and probably our size and possibly our impact.

As a novelist (pen name, Lior Samson), I can freely explore these issues in fiction, but the facts on the ground make us a shrinking minority on the world stage, not wholly because of how we define ourselves but not wholly independent of that either.

The collective pragmatic issues are as poignant as those of messy individual identity. Are we to be inclusive or exclusive? Are we growing and thriving and changing, or are we fighting a rear guard action? Is the future of Judaism dominated by a robust and vital mainstream or ruled by fecund factions at an extreme?

These are choices. And if we choose not to choose, the choice will be made for us nonetheless.

--Prof. Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)
David Aharon on March 10, 2011 at 9:53 am (Reply)
As an Torah observant Jew, I object to the use of the term "1/2 Jew" that has suddenly come into recent use. You either are Jewish or you are not.

What is defined as Jewish was given to us at Sinai when we as a nation of 3 million accepted the Torah.

This definition is as follows:

A Jew is someone who is born of a JEWISH MOTHER or was converted according to the 1 standard that has been upheld by Jews throughout 3500 plus years from the receiving of the Torah at Sinai.

Until the late 1700's this definition never had reason to be challenged no matter how observant you were.

Along the way we picked up a few Jews who tried to modernize the observance by eliminating the tradition by labelling themselves as REFORM Jews or Jews of the HASKALAH movement [enlightenment] and today we now have a group who call themselves "1/2 Jews" because they have a Jewish father [the latest innovation of the Reform movement to accept those of PATRILINEAL descent as Jews]. As stated this now leads to mass confusion among our people.

To all those who are children of a mixed marriage to go to a Torah Observant Rabbi and decide after you hear his decision to either accept your status or change it through Conversion according to the Torah at Sinai.

There are a few organizations that specialize in this regard:

a] Aish Hatorah
b] JEP
c] Chabad-Lubavitch
d] Peylim
e] sh'lach Ami V'avduni

You may want to look at the Sally Armstrong Case carefully. As a woman was declared Jewish after being a practicing Methodist Christian for many years. What's interesting in this case is not only she but many of her cousins are also Jewish.

As mentioned at the beginning there is no such thing as a 1/2 Jew.

I realize my opinion here is rather extreme, but it is to be understood both in its historical setting and the reality.

David Aharon Ben Imi Morati Sarah
David Aharon on March 10, 2011 at 10:08 am (Reply)
On a historical note:
as a follow up to my previous post , we have a true convert that lived in the time of the Roman occupation of Israel somee 2,000 years ago who was a relative of the Roman Caesar ...

His name is well known in Jewish World as Onkelos - Billions of Jews have read his translation -commentary of the Torah in Aramaic - the spoken language of the Jews at the 2nd temple era.

Among my commentaries is one called Netinat Ha-Ger on Onkelos.
art.the.nerd on March 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm (Reply)
I agree with David Aharon. Being 1/2 Jewish is like being 1/2 pregnant. Perhaps a man is 1/2 female since he has an X chromosome?

Of course one may construct distinctions: one who is born Jewish versus one who has converted; Torah-observant versus Torah-ignorant versus Torah-despising; FFB versus Ba'al T'shuvah. None of these change the halakhic definition.
David Aharon on March 10, 2011 at 12:56 pm (Reply)
At the moment, there is a book called the Bamboo Cradle [Mesorah -Art Scroll] of a Jewish family who adopted a Chinese baby and at the age of 12 she was given the option to be Jewish.

Also, the Sally Armstrong case is reported by a number of places on the internet.

What should important to note is that in the Bamboo cradle the family adopting her were unaware of the change that was to take place in their own lives.

At last recall, I heard that the lady recently got married to a fine Yeshiva student.
zak on March 10, 2011 at 11:09 pm (Reply)
Hi Yehuda:

Liked the article but would make two critical suggestions.

I wouldn't overdraw the distinction between a
"postmodern self" and an "embedded self." After all, postmodern selves are embedded in the condition of postmodernity. And perhaps they are more embedded in the condition of their place and time than the type of conservative identity that seeks after more fixed, stable warrants when these, perhaps, are not available.

This leads me to suggest that "shifting, syncretic, and constructed" identity formations are never as "random" as you claim. Indeed, they always "[assume] "real, [duration]" and even "responsibility.

Or in other words, they might be "artificial," but they are never as "arbitrary" as romantic and conservative critics tend to think.

All the best, -Zak
Samuel K M on March 15, 2011 at 1:41 pm (Reply)
While it is fine and dandy to permit individuals to define themselves as they wish ["'identity' today is often used to indicate that individuals are what they will themselves to be, over time and in different ways."] when one leaves the realm of amorphous concepts, and begins to deal in real facts, issues abound. To allow me to decide that I am Jewish today, but want to take tomorrow off is to put a hechsher on the cat that believes that it is a goat.
There are certain hard and fast rules that come with a Jewish identity, and they cannot be ignored for the sake of comfort. If we were a religion that believed that almost was good enough, or that we could compromise on some of the essential tenets of Judaism (like being Jewish), then what is to stop a gorilla from being a gadol ha-dor? or even a kattan from giving testimony? While I do agree that identity in contemporary society has taken on an entirely different nature, I still feel that it is not a change that we can necessarily welcome across the board.
David Aharon on March 16, 2011 at 1:37 am (Reply)
In the spirit of Purim I suggest that the Gorilla is the gadol Ha Dor of the monkeys . . .

After all it is a big sized monkey.

Brett on March 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm (Reply)
I think being--somehow--Jewish should be a very wide and open terminology. Even atheists should be able to identify themselves as at least partly Jewish, in the same way that many people think of themselves as belonging to any ethnic group, even if they are, say, only say 1/8 aborigine, Inuit, or native American "Indian." Identity can be a hugely complicated question. My mother's ancestors had a Jewish name. They seemingly denied practicing the religion, wishing to assimilate into mainstream Christian society. They got married in Christian churches and were buried in the Christian sections of the cemetry. If that means they were not Jews in a strict sense, so be it. Does that make me less a Jew than Jerry Seinfeld or Golda Meir? Of course. But does it mean I shouldn't feel a degree of "Jewishness?" Here, I say no. In the gut or collective memory, though I am suspicious of groupings and group-think, I get a strong sense of being somewhat Jewish when Jews are mocked or belittled. Almost all my closest male friends in the last 10 years or so have been Jewish. I did not know they were Jewish when our friendships formed; I just felt an affinity with them and shared many common interests and abilities and mutual temperaments. I know precious little about the Torah or Jewish religous rites and customs, but I have so many Jewish memes and traits that in ignoring them I would be disregarding clear signs of being fractionally Jewish. And these parts of me, I think, are the best parts.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham