Jewish identity and the Jewish People

I’ve written several posts on this subject. This page is an attempt to put my thoughts together.

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: a Jew must have a Jewish mother or be converted according to halacha. Simple, but it does not include many individuals who consider themselves Jewish and are considered Jewish by others.

Religious observance is also 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?

Not quite. 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. There is already beginning 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.

The idea of a people is that sort of concept. I see membership in a people as determined by a list of ‘family’ characteristics. To be a member, someone does not need to have all of the characteristics on the list, but he/she must have some of them. The more that apply, the more certain it is that the person belongs.

It’s important to understand that just because there may be fuzzy boundaries — that is, that there may be cases in which it is hard to decide whether a particular individual belongs to a given people — it does not imply that the concept is ill-defined.

Here is a list of what I have in mind, in no particular order:

1. Common ancestry
2. Language
3. Religion
4. Self-identification
5. Identification by others
6. Acceptance of a particular ideology or ideologies
7. Common history, especially of trauma
8. Geographical location
9. Historical persistence

No deep thought went into this list, but you get the idea. Fill in the blanks for any particular people.

Many 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 Mizrachi 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 Mizrachim.

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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