Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reply to Comment on Jewish Identity

There is more to belonging than just a sense of belonging: the entity to which you feel that you belong must really exist, and you must really be included in it. I belong to the Jewish people even though I do not accept Jewish beliefs, but only because of a practice that rests on those beliefs—which leaves me in an uneasy position.

A few days ago, Rogueregime posted some comments on my first three blog entries to which I think any adequate reply would have to be somewhat lengthy. So here, as another entry rather than a mere comment, is my reply to one of them—his comment on my first entry, “Three Ways of Looking at Being Jewish.” (I expect to reply to his other comments in subsequent entries.)

Responding to my having written, “It may be, for all I know, that my sense of belonging is in fact illusory and superstitious,” Rogueregime asks me:
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?
I will answer the rhetorical question in the second sentence first, because I think that it will clarify the other matters. Perhaps my expression was not as clear as it could have been, but I take it that someone may have a sense of belonging to some larger entity when in fact he does not, either because the entity does not include him or because it does not exist. Such a possibility is what I meant by an illusory sense of belonging: it is a sense of belonging that does not rest on an actual fact of belonging.

The application to my own case is that I feel that I belong to the Jewish people, but the veracity of that feeling is problematic for me because of my religious doubts. If the grammatically singular term “Jewish people” merely signifies the totality of those who are Jewish by either matrilineal descent or conversion to Judaism, then my belonging to that totality is a natural fact of which I may be assured, but it is hardly a matter of life-shaping importance. Why should it matter that I belong to a group that is defined in such an oddly disjunct manner? Why should a group be so defined?

The only kind of belonging to the Jewish people that could have what I called life-shaping importance, as far as I can make out, is one that derives from religious tradition. For instance, if I accepted the doctrine that the Jewish people (or the nation of Israel, of which the Jews of today are the surviving remnant) is constituted by a covenant with God made at Mount Sinai, then I would have no difficulty attributing a real basis to my sense of belonging, and explaining why and how my belonging matters to the conduct of my life. But I don’t accept that doctrine, and it seems to me unlikely that I shall ever do so.

What actually obtains is the following rather complicated arrangement: I am counted, by a Jewish tradition founded on beliefs that I do not share, as belonging, by virtue of a natural fact of descent, to a people constituted by a hereditary supernatural bond. The fact of my descent provides me, so to speak, with my membership; experience provides me with my sense of belonging; but in what way I actually do belong, and to what exactly I belong, are questions that I have not been able to answer. If this convoluted reasoning gives you a headache, I am sorry, but I can tell you that it is no easier to be the source and object of it!

Rogueregime also asks me what experiences I have in mind when I speak of this “sense of belonging,” and how it differs from my sense of being American. Well, in both cases I regard certain chapters of history to be in some sense “my” history, because they concern an entity to which I belong; in both cases, though there are things in that history that appall me, I tend to prickle when outsiders find fault with my “people”; in both cases, I recognize that my membership conditions my ways of thinking, feeling, and acting; so there are a lot of similarities. But, for one thing, I can imagine circumstances in which I might trade the political part of my American identity, that is, my citizenship, for another national identity, while I cannot imagine circumstances in which I would trade the religious part of my Jewish identity—even though it remains largely, so to speak, unused—for some other religious identity. I don’t know that I can honestly say that I would sooner die, but the feeling seems to me to come pretty close to that. More of that on another occasion, perhaps. The main point is that the Jewish identity, by my subjective estimate, goes deeper.

Finally, Rogueregime posed this question about my proposed three ways of looking at what it is to be Jewish:
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."
Well, the definition (if it can be called that) has an obvious circularity, though an analogous circularity has not deterred some philosophers of recent times from using similar tactics in formulating so-called conventionalist definitions of art. In my estimate, though, this way of looking at Jewish identity, like those definitions, achieves a tidy outcome by trivializing the question that it purports to answer. You illustrate the application of the definition with the case of an Israeli-born friend who recognizes that she counts as Jewish because her mother is Jewish, but to whom the identification has no value or significance. The proposed definition is well suited to the outlook of such a person, but it evades the question of why “other Jews” call someone Jewish. To say that they do so because the person’s mother is Jewish takes us to the question: why do they do that? The answer then must be in terms of Jewish tradition and Jewish law. And then we have to ask what kind of authority such tradition and law have. So if we are seriously trying to explain what a Jew is or what makes someone Jewish, we can’t avoid those difficult questions.

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