Can a Jew legally cancel his Jewishness?

A famous Israeli author's recent court request to be categorized as 'without religion' raises many issues concerning the existential definitions on what it means to be Jewish.

By YEHUDA KURTZER
May 26, 2011 12:07
Author Yoram Kaniuk.

Yoram Kaniuk 311. (photo credit: Courtesy )

 
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The tumult around author Yoram Kaniuk and his eagerness to jettison his Jewishness, as if discarding an inaccurate adjective, stems from realities that he did not create, and begets opportunities that he would never anticipate.

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Growing up with Yoram Kaniuk

Earlier this month, Kaniuk petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court with a demand that
the Interior Ministry change his religion in the Population Registry from "Jewish" to "Without
Religion" (the same status as his 10-month-old grandchild, whose grandmother - Kaniuk's wife - is an American Christian).

On one hand, Kaniuk symbolizes a reality with which every modern Jew has to reckon: that we live in a universe of personal choice unprecedented in Jewish history, both in Israel and especially in other parts of the world. Our Jewishness competes in a marketplace of affiliations and choices; and needless to say, sometimes it wins and sometimes it loses. Kaniuk represents the instinct of many Jews to see their Jewishness as ornamental or - put differently - merely a fragment of an identity much more complicated than belonging to a ‘people’ usually demands. It is disappointing when this happens, and to my mind reflects a misunderstanding of a key - if at times exasperating - feature of Jewishness: being Jewish entails belonging to something more than a set of personal choices.



At the same time, if we are to resist the Kaniuks of the world; if we are to claim that we belong to something bigger than our idiosyncratic selves, to a people whose parameters are more than just a set of religious behaviors; and if we are to allow this big Jewishness to define the cultural and ethnic qualities of a Jewish country; then a separate and surprising challenge emerges.

The people of this people, our communities, must find better ways to tolerate within its parameters a diversity of political and ideological positions, including those we might find completely repugnant. The Jewish nation has always countenanced extraordinary diversity of thinking and behavior; it is just perhaps that at other times in our history the explicit boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘others’ were high enough that we found ways to co-exist by necessity. Now, we find ourselves frustrated on one end by desires to shunt a complex identity into becoming a vestigial adjective; and on the other, by those who stay in our midst but voice ideas and expressions of their Judaism, credibly developed from within the same tradition, that we find problematic.

For about a quarter-century, the American Jewish community has done a decent job at building a culture of pluralism around issues of religion: community day schools have sprouted up, Hillels model the ability of diverse religious communities worshiping under the same roof, fellowship programs bridge denominational divides. Increasingly, pluralism - especially for non-orthodox Jews – is somewhere between ‘taken for granted’ and the defining Jewish identity for many American Jews. Functionally, religious issues like diversity of practice and differences of faith are the underlying reality of Jewish life rather than a challenge that must be overcome.



But we are mistaken if we interpret this as evidence that pluralism is over: rather, the need for pluralism has shifted to a new realm. Pluralism is best tested - and for that matter, is only meaningful - when we seek it out in places of meaningful difference, in contexts defined by intransigent ideologies. Our current condition is that we lack a peoplehood pluralism. We lack the desire for and a set of tools to deal with competing national ideologies among people who take for granted that they belong to the same whole.

If Jewishness is indeed an ethnic or kinship category, it is telling and surprising that our community persists in creating ideological and political boundaries and redlines around participating in communal life, and defines the legitimate discourse of Jewishness in such explicit ways. Aren’t these instincts fundamentally at odds with one another? In this respect, the overlap in the news cycle between the Kaniuk controversy and the Tony Kushner flap is very telling, and hints at the central locus in which the absence of peoplehood pluralism is manifest - in the increasingly crippling Jewish anxiety about Israel that is inclining us to erect internal barriers around ideas about the Jewish state.

Now some of this anxiety is real, rooted in meaningful external and internal threats to the safety and security of the state and people of Israel. It is understandable, to some measure, that we see in some ideas a danger to the sense of kinship or shared ethnicity that lies at the heart of this way of thinking about Jewishness. But anxiety cannot be the ultimate driving force for identity and a communal public policy. Anxiety betrays a loss of confidence in the kind of authenticity about what we believe in, and the instinctual erecting of boundaries around ideas ultimately makes for barriers to participation and stifles a meaningful discourse. Anxiety breeds not growth but constriction. With the genuine challenges facing the Jewish people, constricting growth, creativity, and confidence is entirely backwards.

This, of course, is easier said than done. But here is one metaphor that I hope we will find useful in thinking through this challenge of how we make for a community that can countenance complicated ideas in the interest of preserving that very underlying notion of community: In my own Zionist upbringing, I learned about all the various and diverse ways in which pre-state Zionists expressed their attachment this multifaceted ideology: There were political Zionists, who worked towards achieving sovereignty for the Jewish people; cultural Zionists, oriented towards a revival of Hebrew culture; and religious Zionists, who sought to unite earthly realities with messianic ideals. There were labor Zionists and revisionist Zionists, radical activists and conciliatory diplomats, spiritualists and territorialists.

The eclectic pre-state thinking about Zionism, in other words, manifested in a de facto pluralism of ideas. The absence of a concrete manifestation of these ideas allowed them to cross-pollinate in service of a broader, broadly shared, aspirational goal. In practice, of course, this fight was not always easy and not always pretty; and we are reminded that Judaism has always been better about seeking and going than actually arriving. When we are seeking, when we are out of place, our tradition fosters extraordinary intellectual eclecticism and creativity, and the pluralism comes easy. When these ideas have to become policy, we tend to lose the ability - and more sadly, the momentum - to work on what it will be like to preserve the pluralist ethic.

Would it be possible to find a way to reanimate this kind of aspirational pluralism of ideas - what Zionism once embodied - back into that same difficult conversations about what the Jewish collective really is and what it demands? The American Jewish community has done reasonably well, over the past generation, with the broad pluralism project; its new frontier is with respect to the discourse on Israel. I want to be a Jew and a Zionist in the classical and messy sense, surrounded with swirling and conflicting ideas about what being Jewish in a competitive marketplace entails, about the challenges of multiple identities, prepared to wrestle with the many options of what the State of Israel can be and what it can embody for the Jewish people and for the world.

Of course, it will be intense and heated; pluralism should not be the muting of basically uninteresting and non-polarizing difference. Meaningful pluralism comes from strength and sincerity, not weakness and not anxiety. A Jewish community that wants to see itself as a people had best be prepared for a disparate set of ideas that define that people, and had best start preparing to tolerate and moderate the heated conversation about those ideas among its many committed stakeholders. Like the many challenges we have faced, I think the Jewish people – all of them, in all their differences – can handle this one.

The writer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

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