Thoughtful Revolution

Why Am I Jewish?

The short answer is: I don’t really know.

And, for that matter, neither does anyone else.  The question has been asked, and met with every answer imaginable, since the advent of Judaism itself; it’s a question that, unfortunately, has been deployed by anti-Semites and zealots as well as rabbis and philosophers.  What makes someone Jewish?  Is it one’s genealogy, religious beliefs, ethical values, favorite color?  Can there be such a thing as a “cultural Jew?”  There’s no one opinion on any of these questions — but common answers have popped up persistently throughout the last century or two, none of them necessarily convincing.

The classic definition, of course, is that one is Jewish if his or her mother is Jewish. Okay, problem solved.  But, in a tradition that theoretically places great importance on the embracing of converts, is such an easy — and exclusively genealogy-centric — answer entirely appropriate?  A recent convert to Judaism, who had chosen the religion of his/her own accord and studied the sacred texts and liturgy at great length, would certainly not feel wholly embraced were s/he labeled as “not Jewish” because of the caprices of family history.  And if she were female and “not Jewish,” then her children would have no chance of becoming Jewish, nor her grandchildren — and the hurtful chain continues.  While we’re at it, what about children of interfaith marriages, who have been raised practicing Judaism by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother?  Are they, too, automatically excluded from a supposedly welcoming tradition by a hyperstrict, somewhat arbitrary definition of Jewishness?  No, this traditional restriction is far too narrow to encompass the entire universe of global Judaism.

So another answer has consistently been proposed: all practicing Jews are Jewish.  Which leads us, unfortunately, to a couple of difficulties.  For one thing, how can you possibly define “practicing,” when the meaning of that word is so dependent on one’s location and community.  To a Haredi or Hasidic Jew, Reform Jews are not “practicing;” some Reform Jews, by turn, look down their noses at less observant congregants who attend services for only eight days in the middle of autumn.  Even if we narrow “practicing” down to a belief in a biblical God, many modern (and often observant) worshippers are left by the wayside.  And in a religion with so many global iterations, geography is a factor as well — The Jewish community in Spain has different rituals and practices than the one in El Salvador, which has different rituals and practices than that of Yemen, which in turn has different rituals and practices than that of India or Poland or South Carolina or Ethiopia or Israel.  The word “practicing” bears a highly subjective spectrum of meaning, and as such, it is a definition of Jewishness all too susceptible to the exclusionary interpretations of one community or another.

In the modern era, another idea has been proposed: that you are Jewish if you hold “Jewish values,” commonly pinpointed as rational thought and study, a special love for and openness to “the stranger,” and a commitment to the ethical, kind treatment of fellow human beings.  (The sage Hillel famously quipped, when asked to give a summary of the Torah while standing on one foot, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor — that is the whole Torah.  The rest is commentary; go and learn it.”  This quotation, or various paraphrases, is heavily repeated by proponents of the above theory.)  Of course, there are many problems with this, not the least of which is that it is at best fallacious and at worst discriminatory to claim that only Jews place great emphasis on the values listed above.  These values are not specifically Jewish values — they are human values, cherished by many, that happen to be enumerated in (among other religious texts) Jewish writings.  And if we considered all those Jewish who held these values dear to their hearts, the vast majority of the world would necessarily be Jewish, including many of those who actively practice and consider themselves in a monogamous religious relationship with other faiths.

Along the same lines, there is the increasingly common idea of “a Jewish soul,” which I find both illogical and somewhat dangerous.  Jews who employ this theory rarely define “the Jewish soul” — and when they do, it is often using the values listed above, coupled with similarly general characteristics like “love of music” — but are seemingly always able to (at least in hindsight) pinpoint it.  The idea strikes me as highly disturbing, mostly because the idea of “Jewish characteristics” and a specific, shared “Jewish soul” has been shared, in twisted form, by anti-Semites since anti-Semitism has existed.  True, the characteristics “identified” have been somewhat different, to say the least — but even playing that game, the game of creating and applying shared characteristics for a certain group, intersects with stereotyping far too often for comfort.  Reducing distinct individuals to monochromatic members of a “tribe” is almost uniformly reprehensible, and almost uniformly leads to more harm than good.  And whether that monochromatic shade is an appealing shade or a repugnant, discriminatory one, it still removes the faces of and distinct variations between the individuals — it, shall I say, shapes them into stereotypes.  And all that aside, the idea of a “Jewish soul” discounts individuality even when we put aside the concept of stereotyping: the souls of Jews worldwide have been shaped by so many different influences and traditions that any possible definition of the “Jewish soul” would be too inadequate (and, in the cases of many posited definitions, American-Ashkenazi*-centric) to provide a genuine parameter.  The same is true of “cultural Judaism,” which too often centers around the culture of Woody Allen and bialys without a nod to the concurrent cultural import of Ofra Haza or borekas.

So the obvious modern answer is to say that one is Jewish if he or she self-identifies as such — which, despite its many problems, is likely the best answer we will ever find.  Certainly, this, and not any of the above definitions, is what I feel makes me Jewish.  I haven’t yet been able to figure out why I self-identify as Jewish — all of my claims seem replete with logical fallacies and (in the case of a history/heritage-based model) legitimate ethical problems** — but maybe I never will be able to, and maybe that’s the whole point.  Maybe the point of Jewishness is not that anyone else can categorize it, but that you yourself can — and the category is not “values” or “culture” or “soul,” but your own whole, consciously Jewish self.

*Ashkenazi — A member of the branch of European Jews, historically Yiddish-speaking, who settled in central and northern Europe.

**For more information on the problems with a history-based definition of Judaism, watch the interesting and mostly well-done movie described in the link.


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  1. * Dirty Commie says:

    I think a definition that allows for converts while keeping Judaism somewhat hereditary would be the most precise.

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 9 months ago
  2. * Rebecca E. says:

    This is an interesting question, with a lot of weight to it. The first thing that popped into my head was the episode of “Seinfeld” when Jerry’s dentist converts to Judaism and Jerry suspects that he converted just for the jokes.

    I’m of the opinion that, if you want to be Jewish, than you should be able to be Jewish. And so should your children. I belong to a conservative shul back in Baltimore that is actually pretty progressive. Our Cantor is a convert and our associate Rabbi is a woman. The senior rabbi who was there for most of my life recently passed away and he believed very firmly that the shul should welcome people into the faith instead of testing them to see whether they belong. He was an incredible man and I don’t know if I’ll be able to bring myself to go to a service that he isn’t conducting.

    While both my parents were born and raised Jewish, my dad converted to Bhuddism in later life. I’ve had people question my Jewishness because of it and it pisses me off. I chose Judaism, my mother is Jewish, I’m a Bat Mitzvah for G-d’s sake.

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 8 months ago
    • * thoughtfulrevolution says:

      Word. That’s pretty much what I was trying to get across.

      Thanks for reading!

      | Reply Posted 8 years, 8 months ago

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