Jewish Ideas Daily: Identity = ?

In discussions of Jewishness, few terms have become so ubiquitous, and as a consequence so elusive, as ‘Jewish identity.’

1/2 Jewish T-Shit 311 (photo credit: Blast-O-Tees/ CafePress)
1/2 Jewish T-Shit 311
(photo credit: Blast-O-Tees/ CafePress)
In discussions of that elusive entity known as Jewishness, few terms have become so ubiquitous, and as a consequence so elusive, as “Jewish identity.” The phrase regularly serves to describe a communal dream: The wished-for end product that vast apparatuses of education, institution-building and programming aim to instill and perpetuate.
But what is it? What is its relation to classical terms like Torah and mitzvot? What quality does it try to capture? A symposium in the latest issue of Sh’ma approaches the question in the context of contemporary America, increasingly characterized as “post-ethnic” and therefore, presumably, in quest of new forms of personal identity. And we have indeed come to quite a historical pass when the happiest man in the US, at least according to Gallup and The New York Times, is an Asian-American observant Jew – and when a ranting Charlie Sheen seeks refuge from his own Jew-baiting in the protective shade of a Jewish mother.
More prosaically, and much more poignantly, growing numbers of the children of intermarried parents now identify themselves as Jews, and a significant proportion do so without either converting or relinquishing their other religious affiliations. To the contrary, this very personal mixing-and-matching, by reference to no traditional formula or dogma, is for many exactly what makes their Jewish identity meaningful.
In this they partake of one contemporary sense of the word “identity.”
Instead of signifying that individuals are what they are in any fixed sense, identity today is often used to indicate that individuals are what they will themselves to be. Resistant to classification by any external standard, one’s identity is a complex truth that emerges from within.
INTERESTINGLY, THIS sense of identity as self-constructed is at odds with another sense that only yesterday seized center stage through the “identity politics” of the 1990s and its adjunct – multiculturalism. (Which was itself a shift from the early idea of identity as personal integration, a psychological concept injected into American discourse in the 1950s.)
The two contrasting senses of self have been characterized by British social theorist Steven Lukes as “the communitarian ‘embedded’ self, whose identity is there to be discovered or rediscovered, and [the] postmodern ‘self-inventing’ self, whose identity is yet to be created and re-created a new from an increasing variety of cultural elements.”
The embedded self is still very much alive in European debates about multiculturalism. But the postmodern self holds sway in the globalizing, information-society elites in which many educated Americans hold membership.
An emblematic figure here is surely Barack Obama, the man from everywhere and nowhere. That this very quality is no small part of his appeal to younger Americans (Jews very much included) is indirectly attested in the essay introducing the Sh’ma symposium. There, Susan Glenn and Naomi Sokoloff write that “regardless of the formal, historical, institutional or national definitions of ‘who is a Jew,’ the experience of identity [today] is layered, shifting, syncretic and constructed, and it is clear that Jewish identity can be reforged under new circumstances.”
Of course, as Glenn and Sokoloff go on to note, such a definition opens “profound debates.”
The depth of those debates is made clear in the pithy comment of participant Yehiel Poupko: “My grandfather had no Jewish identity; he was just Jewish. In traditional society, one is as one is born.”
In other words, to assert one’s Jewish identity was once to assert one’s continuity with a community whose history, teachings and beliefs came into being in times and places in which the very terms of modern identity would have been unintelligible. That, however, was then, and now is now.
But is it indeed just a matter of ancient history? Well into modern times, Jewishness was felt as what philosopher Charles Taylor called an “inescapable framework.”
And it is still felt as such by many. In this connection, we cannot remind ourselves often enough of the distinction between Diaspora Jewry – a complex network of voluntary communities – and Israel.
Through the Law of Return, Israel, for better or worse, links Jewishness to citizenship; and through its (deeply dysfunctional) coalition politics also links the conferral of citizenship to the most reactionary elements of the Orthodox rabbinate. This does not mean that Jewishness in Israel is not chosen (though the choices are more limited, and dramatically more so for haredim). But it is chosen differently, and the results of that choice look different – less ambient, “hybrid,” and open-ended – than is the case with its American cousin.
Yet even in America, and until quite recently, as Lila Corwin Berman points out in the Sh’ma symposium, ethnic identity remained normal and strong among Jews, even as religious distinctiveness fell away. And still today, as Noam Pianko cautions, one ought not draw too bright a line between descent and consent. It may indeed be the case, Pianko writes, that “descent is not destiny”; nevertheless, “descent-based ties provide a natural home for individuals linked through family and history to opt into communities of meaning.”
One may go further. If “opting-in” is to be at all meaningful, it involves not just trying out, or trying on, a random set of “shifting, syncretic and constructed” accoutrements that “can be reforged under new circumstances,” but assuming real, durable responsibilities. True, the language of “Jewish identity” is at best a pale substitute for the robust God-talk whose place it tries to fill.
But with the dissolution of traditional structures, it may be, for now, the least coercive and thus the most defensible common denominator available.
“Identity” will only serve, however, if it involves thinking through, and affirming, the foundational commitments that ground our choices. And that great fact of our choosing, as conscious and responsible beings, entails at least a trace of transcendence. It is an assertion, amid the fluidities and banalities of “identity,” that we are not quite self-constructed all the way up, nor are we “socially constructed” all the way down.
The writer is a member of the Board of Yerushalmim, a fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing editor at Jewish Ideas Daily ( where this article was first published. He is currently writing a biography of Rav Kook.