Interrogating Jewish Identity

Thursday, Jul 18th, 2013

            Our first session explored the requirements for becoming a Jew, much more a family identity than an ethnic or national marker.  One can become a Jew by birth, by intermarriage, or by conversion.  We spent the morning examining how persons claim the identity that is their birthright or join the winsome story of another religious tradition.

Israeli Flag

            What struck me in the discussion was how similar the concerns about younger Jews appropriating the tradition of their parents to the concerns many Christian parents hold.  The stricter the boundaries of a tradition—such as the ultra-Orthodox wing of Judaism or certain forms of Christianity—the more compelling the sense of identity.  For those under thirty, the role of religion is both more optional and more negligible than ever before.  The prioritization given to individual fulfillment suffocates the communal impulse.

            As we studied the meaning of “image of God” in varied Biblical and Talmudic texts, I recalled N.T. Wright’s foundational assumption that we were “created for one another.”  This truth is threatened by the overweening concern for personal fulfillment.

            Today there are approximately 14 million Jews in the world; six million are in Israel, and six million are in the US.  The other two million are scattered across Europe, South America, Asia, and parts of northern Africa.  In North American alone, about 50% of Jews will marry outside their tradition, and most then will become non-observant as the culture supports a sort of vague “Protestantization.”  No wonder rabbinic thinkers are perplexed about sustaining coherent identity with this generational shift.

Maccabean Games

            Tonight we will attend the opening ceremony of the “Maccabean Games,” as the Jewish Olympics are known.  Nine thousand athletes will compete; the US is fielding a team of 110 to participate.  After some jokes about whether debate and thumb wrestling were events, we learned that the history of these games, named after the famous Jewish heroes, was to promote the idea of the “strong Jew,” one that need not be victimized by culture or circumstance.

            While the lectures yesterday offered a window into the religious pluralism permissible by Judaism, today we will engage boundaries and limits of tolerance.  This is an important quest: to discover whether particularity is essentially immoral.  I believe particularity is a gift, and we must protect our own narrative and that of our neighbor—which surely argues for a two-state solution for this region.

            The mission of the Shalom Hartman Institute encourages one to learn in order to do.  That is my mission, also.

            Molly T. Marshall