Jewish Identity — what is it?

By Vic Rosenthal

One of the most persistent issues among Jews today, especially non-observant Jews living in the Diaspora, is that of Jewish identity: what is it, do I have it, are we losing it, is that bad?

Orthodox Jews do not generally have a problem explaining Jewish identity; it lies in Judaism. Simple, but obviously inadequate when we consider that more than half the Jewish population of Israel is secular. Some Israelis, A. B. Yehoshua comes to mind, feel that living in Israel is essential to realizing a Jewish identity. Of course, that can’t be sufficient since non-Jews can be Israelis too. Others claim there is a shared Jewish culture; but there’s very little in common between American “lox and bagels” Jews and, say, Ethiopian Jews. Some liberal Jews think that there’s a specifically Jewish way of looking at ethical questions and a need to do ‘tikkun olam’ (for them, social action). But their moral principles are based more on contemporary secular humanism than Jewish sources, which raises the question of exactly how they differ from Unitarians.

So exactly how are the Jewish people a people or a nation? Is it the same sense in which, for example, the Dutch or the French see themselves as a people?

No, it’s not the same. The Dutch or French have lived in the same place for hundreds of years. They speak the same language (or dialects thereof). They do share, more or less, a culture. Maybe if modern Israel can survive Ahmadinijad etc. for a few generations there will begin to be this kind of national culture – in Israel. But it still won’t explain the Jewishness of those in the far-flung Diaspora.

It’s been suggested that Hitler defined the Jews as the set of those that he was prepared to murder just for being Jews. Logically this begs the question, but it shows that although it’s difficult to give a definition composed of necessary and sufficient conditions, we know a Jew when we see one (or at least antisemites do).

Let’s turn for help to another Austrian, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (incidentally, a Catholic who had four Jewish grandparents). Wittgenstein came to understand that the only logic that we can use to understand the world is the logic that is built into our language. But human language is a tool for doing practical things in the world, not a formal structure like mathematics. So the way that we make definitions of practical concepts, like Jew, is not necessarily as neat and closed as the way that we define complicated mathematical concepts in terms of simpler ones. Wittgenstein found it explanatory to talk about family resemblances.

For example, there may not be a single set of facial characteristics common to me and the rest of my family, but in some sense we look alike: a nose here, eyebrows there, etc. A family resemblance may be more or less intense, and the decision to include or exclude a person becomes harder to make as the resemblance weakens. But that doesn’t mean the idea of the family resemblance is meaningless – language is meaningful insofar as it is useful, and a degree of uncertainty is part of life. Wittgenstein thought that concepts like ‘game’, for example, which are notoriously hard to define, are best understood as applying to things having a sort of family resemblance.

So I think it’s not unreasonable – and also quite appealing – to think of the Jewish people as a large family, with family resemblances. Some of the features that we find among Jews are Judaism, certain values (e.g., a respect for learning), certain languages (especially Hebrew, which unites observant and Israeli Jews), certain customs, foods, even a preponderance of certain DNA sequences (interestingly, it’s been suggested that European Jews are closer in this sense to Arabs than to non-Jewish Europeans). No Jew will have all of these characteristics, but all Jews will have some set of them.

All of these things grow stronger when a group lives together geographically, so Jewishness is growing in Israel, Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Having said that, the overall pool of diverse Jewish characteristics is amplified when the group includes a more diverse mix of Jews. In other words, if an Ashkenazi Jew has certain ‘Jewish’ characteristics and a Sephardic Jew has other, different, ones, then the result of mixing them — both in terms of children and of culture — will tend to have more of the overall set of ‘Jewish’ characteristics than we’d get from all Ashkenazim or Sephardim.

Of course, the place in the world where there is the most diverse mix of Jewish people and cultures is Israel. So in another sense, added to the religious and political ones, we see the importance of Israel to the Jewish people. Perhaps A. B. Yehoshua was not entirely wrong when he said that it’s necessary to live in Israel to live a fully Jewish life.

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4 Responses to “Jewish Identity — what is it?”

  1. Vic Rosenthal says:

    Here’s one response, on the Zionism-Israel News site.

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    The Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblance’ idea is I believe a useful tool , I think most especially in cautioning against seeking one single characteristic which all members of the concept in question share. The idea of overlapping characteristics in which there are different sharings by different members makes sense. The real question then is which characteristics would be shared. And a by -no- means less important question is what happens when considerable groups of people who define themselves as Jews ‘differ on the definition of a characteristic’ i.e. the most conspicious example here is the ‘paternal descent’ definition of Reform Jews which is in opposition to the Orthodox and traditional Jewish view of ‘maternal descent’ alone.
    I myself tend to believe one definitional component extremely important i.e. the individual ‘s own identifiication with Jewish history and the ongoing struggle of the Jewish people’. But I know there are problems with this also.
    I don’t think ultimately that there is a perfect way of clarification. A certain vagueness and indeterminacy are to my mind O.K. They are not however O.K. when practical questions, such as marriage, become involved.

  3. Vic Rosenthal says:

    The paradigm case of someone who identified with the struggle of the Jewish people but could not get married in Israel is Hanan Frank, a psychologist whom I knew as a kibbutz member some years ago. He lost both legs in the 1967 war, but was not considered halachically Jewish. I’ve been told recently that he wrote a book about his experiences called ‘Petek’, but I haven’t seen it.

  4. soniabloom says:

    I am a very interesting case on “Who is a Jew?”question. My father’s side of the family has a Jewish background, not my mothers so, by Hallakhah I was not Jewish.

    After many years of working at the Israeli embassy–having a M.A. and a Ph.D. about Jewish questions, I have also lived in Israel, go there every learned Hebrew, send money to Jewish charities, have a very public involvement on behalf of Israel, and against anti-Semitism–I converted under the Conservative Movement in the U.S. This means that I can have Israeli citizenship, on the assumption that I have Jewish nationality (I don’t go due to my age and lack of locally needed skills).

    However, on my own, I decided to be more a few years ago, and recently asked to be converted according to their standards. It is amazing the difficulties I am going through, how hard it is to find someone to guide me, to overcome the uneasiness of the rabbis, even though they know the sincerity of my decision.

    In anthropology we say that religious or ethnic identity is clearly marked on the borders, that is: when someone wants to join, or to leave, the group, what are the exigencies? What makes you X or Z? What makes you a non-X or a non-Z?

    In a recent sad “case study”, I was “thrown out” of Frumster, a dating site for religious Jews, on the premises that I did not convert under Orthodox guidance, i.e. I am not a Jew. I took it as an anthropologist, as an interesting case of study on ethnic identity, but it hurted deeply!

    So, who am I? A goy? A Jew? Any clues?

    Sonia Bloomfield