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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Jewish Identity: The Tension of Definition, Unity and Choice

In my recent Nishmablog post, Thoughts on the video "Acheinu”, I dealt with the issue of Jewish Identity, specifically responding to a challenge I felt was implicit, although not necessarily apparent, in the presentation of this video. Applying ideas of ‘shared fate’ and ‘shared destiny’ developed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, I essentially raised the question of how we are to respond to issues of Jewish Identity when fate and destiny are at odds with each other. What the video was voicing was the importance of recognizing shared fate even in the absence of shared destiny. This is not a stand with which I would necessarily disagree. Beyond the parameters of the video, though, what I then raised was the possibility of a case where a certain lack of shared destiny could even contest such an argument of shared fate. To further complicate this model, there may also be opposing views on the possible effect on shared fate of a problematic view of shared destiny.
What Rabbi Soloveitchik effectively identified is that there may be different types of bonds involved in the formation of a group. As such, it would be important in the process of investigating, analyzing and understanding a group’s identity to clearly recognize the role of these variant factors. To understand the nature of the group, we must thus know how these bonds may interact with each other and what effect these distinctions in definition may have on the group in totum. In specific terms, he maintains that the Jewish group is built upon two definite bonds, that of ‘shared fate’ – that we are grouped together by the way others act towards us – and that of ‘shared destiny’ – that we are grouped together in the goal we seek for our grouping.
What Rabbi Soloveitchik then specifically addressed was the case where a sense of shared fate permeates the group albeit that there is no similar sense of a shared destiny. The issue is not that some have one perception of what the destiny of the group is or should be and that others have an emphatically different one.  What he seems to be describing is a situation whereby, while a strong sense of shared fate permeates throughout the entire group, a similarly strong, clearly defined sense of shared destiny is only felt by a part of the group. while the other part of the group is really not focused on any such sense of shared destiny. It was really such a situation that was also presented in the video – and can explain how shared fate can simply suffice.
What I was thus raising was the issue whereby, while there may be shared fate, a certain distinction in shared destiny could be of such a nature that it actually challenges the bonding of the group only through fate. The example I presented was the case of Edith Stein, the Catholic nun, born Jewish and recognized before her conversion as a leading Jewish philosopher in Germany (important note – Jewish philosopher but not philosopher of Judaism or Jewish thought). As she died in Auschwitz because she was Jewish, she would similarly reflect shared fate as did the elderly man in the video. The problem is that her conversion obviously reflects a view of destiny that most Jews would see as having taken her outside the pale of Jewishness. The famous Brother Daniel case in Israel, in which a Christian monk born Jewish was not granted citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return, would reflect a similar issue in the realm of shared destiny. The video would seem to contend that shared fate is enough to triumph issues in shared destiny, but this is simply not always the case. There are times where we declare that a lack of shared destiny presents a powerful problem even if there is shared fate.
The challenge is then in defining such a yardstick. What we often do is ignore issues of shared destiny in order to avoid the problem. For example, why is a theological belief in Jesus enough to challenge the bond of shared destiny while other deviations in theology, from classical Jewish thought, are not deemed to be a problem? To many, the answer is perceived to be obvious -- that, of course, a belief in Jesus would take one out of the category of Jewish shared destiny while other theological deviations would not – but why would this be so? A resultant conclusion is that atheism – a total lack of belief in God -- is, as such, not a theological problem of the same magnitude. Why, though, would this be so? If the realm of shared destiny involves a commitment to God and Torah -- as Rabbi Soloveitchik, indeed, essentially defines shared destiny – why would atheism not be seen as a challenge to a Jewish bond even fostered mostly by shared fate while a belief in Jesus would? Answers may abound within the colloquial expression of the Jewish People but this does not mean that the underlying issue has truly been confronted and analyzed. What this question is really demanding of us to truly consider the very nature of Jewishness. It is difficult to just declare that being Jewish has, as a major component in the realm of theology, the sole fact that it does not include a belief in Jesus. Think about it: in the theology of broad, generic Judaism you don’t have to believe in God but if you do have some belief, it can’t include Jesus?
The point is that we do have to confront the question of what it means to define oneself as a Jew and, while it is important to recognize that we must include the fact that ‘shared fate’ is a critical factor, we do also have to consider ‘shared destiny’. The challenge is, though, that as we progress in our world in developing positive expressions of Jewish identity – reflections of destiny – we must also confront a reality that these various expressions may, if not fully at odds with each other, raise questions in regard to how these different views are then shared within the greater group. Take Israel as an example. There are many who would describe a commitment to the State of Israel as a modern reflection of ‘shared destiny’. How are we then to relate to Jews who strongly identify as Jews who have a negative attitude to this State? Our attitude may be based on how strong this negative feeling towards the State may be – obviously more of a problem exists with those who directly act contrary to the interests of the State – but the further issue concerns how we look at Jewish Identity. As different understandings of our ‘shared destiny’ emerge, the question of what bonds us becomes more and more of an issue.
To fully understand the nature of this problem, it then becomes important to recognize that the substituted perception of Jewish destiny which may take the place of commitment to Israel may also have easily identifiable Jewish roots. The simplest example of this is obviously the Orthodox individuals who have such perspectives. It is hard to define such an individual as outside the parameters of Jewishness when so much of his/her behaviour and attitude clearly reflects another Jewish perspective which is within the general definition ‘shared destiny’. How does one relate to the Shomer Shabbos individual who is anti the State of Israel? The further question is – how do you define Jewishness?
This becomes an even more difficult question in the present milieu in which we find more individuals on the left, not truly observant of Jewish Law, who nonetheless maintain that their views regarding Israel also reflect the values of Jewish destiny. The fact is that many of the values which they are describing as reflecting the ‘shared destiny’ of Jewishness may actually reflect such values to some extent. In many ways, of course, their conclusions in regard to Israel and the promotion of these values may be the result of mistakes in fact and reason, which reflects a different type of problem. But a challenge may also be that this difficulty actually reflects a misunderstanding of the shared destiny of Jewishness in the first place. Subtly, different perceptions of the destiny-values of Jewishness have developed over the years, in many ways in a vacuum without consideration of the full picture of what the overall destiny of Jewishness may be. What occurred was that rather than dealing with the complexity of this aspect of Jewish Identity – the question of how these different values come together in a whole – we started to define each particular perspective as the solitary reflection of Jewishness as perceived by the individual. The result is that one can perceive himself/herself as sharing the destiny of the Jewish group through a choice of one perspective without consideration of the whole.
Think in terms of the various perspectives on shared destiny just mentioned. One is Israel and Jewish nationalism. Another is Torah and observance of Halacha. Another is classic liberal values in that the Jew cares for others. The traditional view of Jewish ‘shared destiny’ would clearly involve a process of understanding how these different elements come together to create the shared destiny of the group. What is now occurring, though, is that these different elements are no longer seen as part of the whole but are now being defined independently (to different extents) as the essence of Jewish Identity. This is becoming more and more of a problem on many levels.
It is true, though, that as these different elements may become more and more clarified, there may be a reaction that actually fosters Jewish unity and the development of a stronger gestalt in our understanding of Jewish destiny. This is reflected, for example, in the further development of appreciation and gratitude in the Charedi community towards the IDF. In directly confronting what the actions of the IDF have reflected in regard to ‘shared destiny’, there has been pressure to include this perspective within the gestalt of this concept. Yet, as we confront these variant elements as reflections of independent and even perhaps as all-inclusive perspectives of shared destiny, there is also the possibility of other problems.
An example of this may be the effect of all this within what is described as the ‘Off the Derech Movement’. It may be that as the perception of Torah is presented as an element of Jewish destiny and the perception of Israel and nationalism is presented as another element of Jewish destiny, what a person may conclude is that to be a part of the Jewish collective one need only choose one element and not necessarily determine how to combine them. In a certain way, while letting one with a singular element of ‘shared destiny’ into the collective fosters Jewish unity, it also allows for a choice of this singular element. This is an extension of the problem whereby shared fate is accepted solo in the interest of Jewish unity. A concentration of the issue of ‘shared destiny’ can be ignored.
The purpose of this post is not to answer all these questions. It is to raise the issues, hopefully bringing you the reader into the discussion as we intend in future posts to investigate them further. ‘Definition, Unity Choice’ In our world today, one really must choose to be Jewish; the banner of Jewish identity is truly a matter of free choice. Our call of Jewish Identity is really for one to choose to identify as a Jew – and this can only be accomplished if one sees value, dignity and pride is such a choice. The challenge is that such a choice truly demands intense thought. It demands an understanding of what this choice actually means. As the allegiance to Jewish Identity must thus demand a thoughtful choice, it is truly important for us to recognize the depth of investigation necessary in positively making such a choice. Such an undertaking is one of the ongoing policy projects within Nishma and we look forward to your participation in this endeavour through your comments, responses, declarations and inquiries.

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