Sunday, December 27, 2009

Three Ways of Looking at Being Jewish

My first version of the title of this post was “Three Ways of Looking at a Jew.” The parody held some charm for me (if you don't get the allusion, look here), but I chose to replace it with a title that better reflects the actual content to follow. The three aspects are: belonging to the Jewish people, practicing Judaism, and adhering to Jewish beliefs. Relations among the three are complicated.

Here are three ways in which one might think of what a Jew is:
  1. One who belongs to the Jewish people.
  2. One who practices Judaism.
  3. One who adheres to the Jewish faith.
It would be nice, wouldn’t it—I mean, as far as intellectual comfort is concerned—if these three descriptions invariably coincided. For if they did, then any question of what it means to be a Jew would be, in the end, academic: a potentially interesting matter to think about, but not an urgent or a necessary one, and above all not a troubling one. But I cannot imagine a world in which those three descriptions invariably coincide—other than, I suppose, a world without Jews.

I could not define any of those three items without entangling myself in controversies that would soon take me out of my depth. Nonetheless, I believe that I fit the first description—“one who belongs to the Jewish people”—and that this by itself makes me a Jew. Or perhaps I should say that my being a Jew makes me a member of the Jewish people rather than the other way around. In any case, the fact that I practice almost no Jewish observances and accept none of the theistic and eschatological beliefs of Judaism does not raise any doubt in my mind about my Jewish identity. (I suppose that in the eyes of Orthodox Jews I would be a kind of virtual goy; but, since I was born of a Jewish mother, they would still count me as Jewish under halakhah.)

It may seem, then, that for me the question of what it means to be a Jew should be academic after all. For if I am sure that I am Jewish, regardless of my being without Jewish observances and beliefs, then what need is there for me to perplex myself about these various aspects of being Jewish? Let the believing Jews worry about such things!

But the matter is not so simple. For one thing, although the primary criterion of belonging to the Jewish people, and thus of being a Jew, is that one is born of a Jewish mother, this criterion is itself a product of religious law. So one who takes himself to belong by birth to the Jewish people, as I do, is thereby appealing to religious law, and thus to religious practice and belief. To be sure, one can belong to the Jewish people without believing or practicing Judaism, as one can believe without belonging or practicing, or practice without belonging or believing: the three items can occur independently of one another. But they cannot be conceived independently of one another. So the non-believing, non-practicing Jew who considers himself to belong to the Jewish people is thereby entangled in a problem that is anything but academic: how can I belong to a people defined by a religious law that I do not myself accept? If I don't accept the law—if I neither observe it nor accept the beliefs on which its authority rests—do I in fact belong?

One possible response to this problem is simply to give up the idea that one belongs to the Jewish people. Indeed, to be consistent, one would have to deny that there is any such thing as the Jewish people. One would not deny, of course, that there are Jewish people, that is, persons of Jewish descent, most of whom happen to profess a certain religion called Judaism; but one would have to deny that they constitute a people in any serious sense—a sense weighty enough to generate an obligation to continue the traditions of that people, for instance.

I know that many Jews do take this route. For them, being “Jewish” is purely a matter of descent, like being “Irish” or “Italian” as Americans commonly use those terms, meaning that one has forebears of the nationality in question. Such a way of regarding Jewish identity seems coherent and rationally defensible, at least on its face. That is more than I can say for the option that I have taken, that of regarding myself as a member of the Jewish people without accepting the religious beliefs or, for the most part (more on this qualification later), the practices on which that identification seems to rest.

It may be, for all I know, that my sense of belonging is in fact illusory and superstitious. But it may also be that it is not, and that I have simply been unable to figure out what it does in fact rest on. It could rest on accidents of personal history and emotional association, or it could rest on something immeasurably precious that I have so far failed to comprehend. The best bet for me, in my estimation, is simply to press on with my inquiries. A skeptic, as I use the term, is not simply one who doubts, but one who requires sufficient reason for any proposed conclusion in a matter that admits of reasonable doubt. In the present instance, that includes requiring rational substantiation of my own doubts: they may be founded on insights, or on blind spots. Thus I remain a skeptical Jew.

Next entry: On Being Skeptical


  1. Interesting post.

    I'm curious to know more about what you actually experience when you say you feel a "sense of belonging." Certainly it can't be illusory if you feel something, right? How does your sense of belonging to the Jewish people differ from, say, your sense of being an American? Is there a difference, and if so, what is it?

    By the way, your first thought of how to title the post, "Three Ways of Looking at a Jew" was perhaps even more apt: Is there not a sense in which one is Jewish not because of anything you think, say or do, but because others see you as a Jew? The fourth "way" would then be "One who other Jews says is a Jew."

    I have a good friend, and Israeli, who was born to a Jewish mother but who in no way identifies herself as Jewish. She doesn't have or want to have any personal connection to anything "Jewish." She recognizes that others see her as Jewish, but she takes this in the same way that I recognize that some Christians believe I will go to hell unless I accept Jesus as the Christ.

    She and I have had many (friendly) arguments about this. She could care less how I or anyone else identifies her. I, on the other hand, found something personally troubling about her stance, as if the act of saying "I don't belong" makes it so...because if it does, then what could be the meaning of saying "I do belong"? I now understand much better (not surprisingly) that it was my own questions about the meaning and content of my own identity that her position was so "troubling" to me...but it took being exposed to it (and a lot of reflection) to see that.

  2. I've just discovered your blog, and I'm finding your approach extremely refreshing. I wrote a post on my own blog a while ago on my realization that the feeling of being in a tribe can bring on emotions that are surprisingly strong. Here's the link to that post:

    I also wanted to say that your assertion that you merely feel as though you belong but do not practice is true only if you don't count this blog as a form of practice. I believe that there are few limitations on what you may consider practicing Judaism. Since you are thinking deeply about Judaism (Jewish culture, practice, history, law, identity, beliefs, etc.) I consider that a sort of meditation or study. If you define "Torah" as "Jewish lore" or "teaching" or "thought" then you are a scholar of Torah and therefore a practicing Jew (one of the mitzvahs is to study Torah, after all). I guess you could do that as a non-Jewish academic studying and writing about Judaism, but there's a certain flavor to your writing that imparts an emotional component — because you write not as an outsider but from your identity as a Jew. If you were writing an academic blog, you probably wouldn't write in the first person, for example.