The Enigma of Jewish Identity

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Like many Jews of a largely secular persuasion, or like those who oscillate between doubt and belief, I have often wondered what I had to do with other “flavors” of Jewish communicants. Strolling along the streets of Montreal’s Outremont borough, home to a substantial Orthodox society, I feel absolutely no connection to the black-coated, earlocked, fur-hatted inhabitants who hasten by me without so much as a glance, immured in their own sequestered worlds. They may be bent on the preservation of Halachic Judaism and the maintenance of a sacramental community, but they have little interest in the world beyond their exclusionary domain and certainly none in the lives of individuals like me. “Ghetto orthodoxy,” writes James Parkes in A History of the Jewish People, “has no understanding of the moral problems of a modern and independent state.” Or, he might have continued, of modern and independent people.

At the same time, encountering Reformist and Reconstructionist Jews at local events, I feel no affinity with such nominal adherents to a faith they have re-interpreted as little more than a cultural tradition, that is, a set of mores and usages without serious reference to the God of the Hebrew scripture, the Mosaic and Noahide commandments, the poetry of David and Solomon, or the magnificent fulminations of the great prophets. How would they respond if angels appeared at their doors, as before Abraham (Genesis 18), or a divine command resonated in their ears, as in the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Jonah, or a latter-day Elijah descended upon their complacency? Heaven forfend!

Between these two constellations of Jewish postulants, the gap appears unbridgeable. In what way can they be regarded as members of the same extended family? Observing common holidays to which they attribute different meanings on the level of spiritual gravity is not a binding agent but merely a fugitive exercise in consanguinity. I am reminded of a Jewish joke that underlines the problem. An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi find themselves seated side by side at a religious conference. In the process of getting to know one another, the Orthodox rabbi recounts that he has recently officiated at a Bar Mitzvah in which he was informed that the celebrant received the gift of a Harley. Puzzled, he asks his Reform neighbour, “But what is a Harley?” “It’s a motorcycle,” comes the reply, “but what’s a Bar Mitzvah?”

And then, of course, there is the swarm of Jewish antisemites and anti-Zionists (which amounts pretty well to the same thing these days) whose names swell the roll-call of Judaism’s treacherous sons and daughters—a prime example of how a historical community can attack itself like an immune system gone haywire. The prophet Isaiah correctly foretold the future: “Thy destroyers…shall go forth of thee” (49:17). The so-called Jewish S.H.I.T. list (Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening Jews) furnishes the names of nearly 8000 contemporary Jewish tergiversators. These are people who casually court disaster in the remorseless anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist posture they affect, aiming their execrations and weaponizing their prose against their fellows. Living in what I’ve elsewhere called a latter-day Iberian delusion—if one recalls the eventual fate of the Spanish conversos—their only consolation in the ever-possible event of a resurgent and maniacal anti-Jewish national movement is that, like the Jewish Councils in Nazi Europe, they would be among the last to go, once their revisionist services were no longer needed by the demons they have agreed to traffic with.

What is it, then, that ultimately brings us together, that presumably unifies us as a people, and that, in effect, paints the bulls-eye on our backs? The answer should be obvious: it is precisely that which sews the yellow badge upon our lapels. As the great Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl came to believe, the Jew is defined by his enemies. However else he may understand himself, a Jew is also a Jew by default, in the same way that Hans Meyer (a.k.a. Jean Améry), as he recounts in At The Mind’s Limits, discovered he was a Jew with the passing of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935. A Jew remains a Jew even without positive determinants.

What many Jews do not seem to understand about antisemitism is that it is both a ubiquitous and an equal-opportunity pathology. As former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler said recently at the signing of the Ottawa Protocol, a welcome if belated attempt to codify and affirm resistance to this malignant phenomenon, antisemitism is not only the longest known form of hatred in the history of humanity, it is the only form of hatred that is truly global. However we may describe it—as an irrational revulsion, or the need to scapegoat a convenient group for supposedly inexplicable miseries and reverses of which that group is innocent, or classic projection, or, to cite Ruth Wisse writing in The Weekly Standard, “the organization of politics against the Jews” in order to “win rather than assume the allegiance of subjects or citizens”—it eventually strikes Jews everywhere and indiscriminately. For the antisemite, all Jews are alike regardless of their politics, their professions, the degrees of their faith or lack of such, or even their rebellious and venomous denunciations of their own brethren.

There is a passage in Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness that makes this collapsing of distinctions painfully clear. Referring to the Nazi “cleansing operations” in the Polish town of Rovno, he writes: “the Germans opened fire and slaughtered on the edge of pits, in two days, some twenty-five thousand souls…well-to-do and proletarian, pious, assimilated, and baptized, communal leaders, synagogue functionaries, pedlars and drawers of water, Communists and Zionists, intellectuals, artists, and village idiots, and some four thousand babies.”

The message is that we’re all incriminated. As I wrote in The Big Lie, “Warm Jews, lukewarm Jews and cold Jews are equally at risk. At the end of the day, the antisemite never stopped to take their temperature.” Similarly, as the Jerusalem Post commented after the Mumbai massacre in November 2008 in which Chabad House was attacked and its occupants murdered, “the terrorists did not inquire whether their victims were haredi, Orthodox, traditional or secular.” If Noam Chomsky or Jennifer Lowenstein had happened to be on the premises, they, too, would have been tortured and killed. In the minds of Jew-haters, being Jewish is sufficient warrant to disqualify a person from remaining a member of the human race.

It is this perennial hatred, I submit, that forms the peculiar ethnic or historical collagen that binds the Jew to his community, even should he repudiate his people with his whole soul or turn against them with the rancor of the benighted. This vicious odium is the force or substance that constitutes his or her identity. Jewishness obviously has nothing to do with race, as the Nazis believed, since there are Jews of every hue and physical type. To define a Jew according to rabbinic law as someone born to a Jewish mother only begs the question and involves us in a regressus—what makes a Jewish mother Jewish, apart from excessive nagging and the artful manipulation of guilt? Is Jewish identity a function of following the thirteen articles of faith articulated by Maimonides? But not all Jews are capable of abiding by every one of these, and the last article asserting belief in the resurrection of the dead is hardly substantiated in the Old Testament, in which there are, depending on how one counts, only six references to the afterlife. Rabbi Akiva proposed that knowledge of the Torah is the essential touchstone of Jewishness, in which case the majority of the world’s Jews are not really Jewish at all and a certain number of Gentiles are.

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  • Alexander Gofen

    Most of enigma and confusion was added to Jewish identity in the recent 150 years.

    1) Before that Jews were understood as adherents to a particular faith, culture, and philosophy called Judaism (the observance varying).

    2) Then a purely ethnic-racial definitions was elaborated and "applied" to the European Jewry by Nazis and Sovetskih.

    3) Finally, since restoration of Israel, its citizens are called Jews (just as citizens of Denmark are called Danes – but with great deal of hate).

    In the modern times all the three categories do exist in the reality, comprising the generic term Jewry, making it vague, thus facilitating the task of anti-Semites, which now can go after any of the three categories at hand.

    Yet the core of the Jewish identity and the key to survival of Israel and Jewry is in the definition (1), as I tried to prove in an essay

  • Jim

    When the bad guys are out to get you because they think you are a Jew then you are a Jew no matter who thinks otherwise.

  • ziontruth

    "What is it, then, that ultimately brings us together, that presumably unifies us as a people, and that, in effect, paints the bulls-eye on our backs? The answer should be obvious: it is precisely that which sews the yellow badge upon our lapels. As the great Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl came to believe, the Jew is defined by his enemies."

    No, Mr. Solway, no go. "Defining" one's "nationality" by negative characteristics is exactly the sordid pseudohistoric ruse the Arab settler-colonists in Palestine employ, and is the reason why Gingrich so hit the mark with his recent observation about them.

    I'll grant you the Jews' enemies keep many otherwise estranged Jews from straying to other fields—from the Orthodox believer's point of view, that is after all the reason why HaShem won't blow the closing whistle on Jew-hatred until the time of redemption (soon amen). However, that doesn't form an identity. An identity requires positive characteristics. You say the "black-coated, earlocked, fur-hatted" Ultra-Orthodox Jews are hopelessly parochial, and I might even agree on a few points there (though the Ultra-Orthodox of Israel are very much different, and far more involved in the affairs of the society around them—probably because it's a Jewish society despite everything), but Orthodox Judaism has the corner, the monopoly on positive Jewish identity. Even those aspects of Jewish identity that are not immediately connected with the religion, such as the language and the calendar, have been maintained over the centuries only by the force of religious conviction.

    And, of course, there is the very choice of the homeland in the Land of Israel. Surely the Jews didn't set up their state smack in the middle of the Muslim Middle East for the fun of it, right?

  • Moshe Pupick

    M., 12/12/11 common era

    I was raised in the Reform movement but returned to Torah (thank G-d) when I was age 40. Reform "Judaism" was concocted to reduce or even eliminate antisemitism by making Jews' religious practices more closely resemble those of their Protestant Christian neighbors. The Kosher laws, separate seating for men and women, Hebrew prayers, etc. all were rejected as being outdated. And where did this all happen?
    Why, in dear old Deutschland.

    I read that the number of Orthodox Jewish men and women in the I.D.F. has increased exponentially in the past few years and shows no signs of abating, thank G-d!