Education should get to grips with Jewish pluralism

  • JonathanWebber
Jewish identity is definable, and probably always has been definable, in at least two quite different ways.
by JONATHAN WEBBER | Jun 20, 2019

One of these is the official, traditional definition: Jews are a unified people who have a spiritual mission, a precisely specified set of laws and customs, and an attachment to Israel, all of which are eternal and can never be changed.

Jewish identity is fixed, stable, coherent, and permanent; it has an intrinsic otherness that separates it from other cultures.

The second approach is what one might call the sociocultural definition: Jewish identity changes all the time because Jews have always had to renegotiate their sense of distinctiveness in the context of the many different languages, cultures, and political environments in which they have lived over two thousand years.

Jewish identity, in this view, is not fixed. On the contrary, it has always been the product of the intense interactions with the culture of the non-Jewish majority society in which Jews found themselves. Therefore it constantly underwent change as local conditions changed in areas including folklore, music, dance, art, food, dress, and synagogue architecture.

Even in Israel, Jewish identity has not remained static.

According to the traditional definition, all Jews have inherited minhag avoteihem. This means they are members of one people, have the same identity (or potential identity), and a shared destiny.

According to the sociocultural definition, however, Jews are primarily conscious of their local minhag hamakom. This refers to their local community, their local circumstances, and a host of local features that differentiate them from local majority society, and Jews living in other places.

But these are not either/or definitions. On the contrary, what characterises Jews, and probably most societies everywhere, is that ordinary people believe in both kinds of identity at the same time.

Jewish identity (the unique, official identity), in the singular, exists alongside Jewish identities in the plural (the range of sociocultural realities in which Jews actually live).

It is certainly a paradox, and the two kinds of identity may seem to have nothing to do with each other, but they are both perfectly real in everyday Jewish life.

Even in the Bible, the Jewish people are described as argumentative. However, they are also shown to have a strong sense of unity as and when the need arises, for example, at Mount Sinai.

Both things are true. G-d says to Jacob, “Pereh ureveh, goi ukehal goyim yihyeh mimeka. [Be fruitful and multiply: a nation and a company of nations shall descend from you].” (Gen. 35: 11). This is a striking phrase, suggesting unity “a nation” and diversity “a company of nations” at the same time.

My suggestion is that what we see before us today is nothing new. The contradiction and the paradox, the theory and the practice, have been with us from the beginning.

A number of things become clear once Jewish identity is understood in this way.

Diaspora rabbis never included local diaspora history and culture as part of the educational curriculum in Jewish schools or yeshivot, and they still don’t. Why?

The rabbis clearly were not interested in the influence of Polish cooking on Jewish food habits, even if it was certainly considered distinctively Jewish for people to enjoy their chopped eggs and pickled herrings.

But the problem runs much deeper. Even today, Orthodox Jews are still mainly interested in the practice of their own Jewishness, and know next to nothing about the actual beliefs and behaviour of reform Jews or American post-denominational Jews – and, most interestingly, vice versa.

The awareness of a pluralist Jewish world has been growing a great deal during this generation, very probably due to the influence of television and the internet; and reform rabbis now know more than just a little about Hasidism. But what about Israeli education? Has that caught up too, or are secular Israelis still astonishingly ignorant about other segments of the Jewish world?

Do the huge masses of secular Israelis who have come to live in London, Berlin, or New York feel a strong sense of cultural curiosity about diaspora forms of Judaism, and the range of local Jewish identities, or are they still stuck in a time-warp whereby any form of Jewishness other than their own secular Israeli identity is of no intrinsic interest?

Strikingly similar to the religious outlook of the classical diaspora Orthodox rabbi, we find a secular fundamentalism today. For example, take the Zionist ideology which offers a theoretical insistence on the fundamental unity and shared destiny of the Jewish people, but in practice enables Zionist Jews to hold such beliefs while at the same time feeling free to ignore those parts of the Jewish community with which they feel they cannot identify.

Orthodox rabbis, of course, don’t recognise the whole concept of a non-halachic Jew. On the contrary, for them it is a contradiction in terms, even if it is also a fact that the Israeli state does recognise them, at least under certain conditions. But throughout the world, especially in post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, non-halachic Jews are everywhere, and in the sincere belief that they do belong to the Jewish people, they frequently partake in many Jewish community activities and in some sense may be treated as members of those communities, if not even becoming the majority of such communities.

Hence the reality of the paradox: a belief both in the idea of a single people with a shared destiny functioning alongside actual Jewish communities or sub-communities which specify their own agendas, their own rules, and their own definitions of Jewish identity. The challenge today is for Jewish education, everywhere, to teach a new discourse of sympathy and understanding to embrace the substantially increased range of Jewish identity which characterise today’s Jewish world.

  • Jonathan Webber is a British anthropologist and Jewish activist living in Kraków, Poland. He will be speaking at Limmud Johannesburg (16-18 August); Limmud Durban (21 August); and Limmud Cape Town (23-25 August).


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