A Jewish Identity, Grounded in Choice

If we are to count on the allegiance of the next generation, being a Jew must be enhanced by persuasive intellectual, moral and cultural significance.

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By David Hartman

As a congregational rabbi, I often met parents who were troubled and shocked by their children's indifference to their Jewish identity. They were shocked because, for them, being a Jew was a natural, self-evident fact of life. Their own identities were formed within more traditional societies, where being like your parents and continuing past traditions was the normal way of living in the world. You didn't question who your family was or where you came from. Your task was to continue the communal identity you received from your parents.

In the contemporary world, however, the multiple intellectual, cultural and social options available to Jewish youth have changed the personal experience of Jewish identity from an unquestioned, inborn claim to a conditional choice. "I am not bound to my parent's tradition unless that tradition has personal meaning for me." In today's world, your children's commitment to the continuity of the Jewish people cannot be taken for granted. If it is to survive and compete with alternative options, Jewish identity must become an expression of conviction, of choice. If we are to count on the allegiance of the next generation, being a Jew must be empowered by persuasive intellectual, moral and cultural significance.

The growing crisis of assimilation in the Western world is not due to the breakdown of authority, as many members of the institutional rabbinate in Israel believe. The problem is not the proliferation of institutional alternatives, such as the Conservative and Reform movements, which threaten the future of Judaism by undermining the monolithic authority of traditional Orthodoxy. Like all of Western civilization, we live in a culturally pluralistic society where the key to securing Jewish identity is not authority but informed choice. For most Jews today, the issue is, "why take the tradition itself seriously?"

The majority of Jews do not feel any need to ask questions about halakhic practice or controversial biblical or Talmudic passages. Their only question is, "why should I take this tradition or this literature seriously? Why should these texts claim my intellectual interest? Why should I participate in this interpretive tradition?" Strengthening normative authority in the Jewish community would only worsen the situation by focusing on an irrelevant language of authority instead of developing a language of reasoned persuasion.

As I explained, the challenge to Jewish life today can only be understood and met if we recognize that continuity is not self-evident and natural. Continuity must be actively nurtured by addressing the need for personal conviction and understanding. Ours is a generation whose Jewishness must be grounded in freedom of choice. There are those who believe the themes of anti-Semitism and animosity toward Jews and Israel can sustain Jewish history. They rely on the shock effect of perennial persecution and victimization to convince Jews they have no real choice. "You can't escape the Jewish people. You can't escape your past because the goyim will eventually make you aware of your Jewishness." The appeal to Jewish suffering to cement Jewish loyalty is fundamentally an expression of despair and hopelessness because its ultimate message is that Jewish identity must be forced upon a person and cannot grow from positive personal convictions.

My rejection of educating Jews to accept a predominantly negative identity also applies to our appreciation of and commitment to the State of Israel. After living through pogroms and the Holocaust, it was natural for Jews to embrace the idea of a Jewish homeland, where Jews would live by right and not by the graces of the governments of the world. Nevertheless, I believe that today the trauma of the Holocaust is not sufficient to motivate the next generation of Jews to feel solidarity with Israel. Solidarity with the Jewish people has to be grounded in a sense of shared values, a shared historical understanding of our destiny, a shared conviction that being a member of this people is a privilege.

Today's generation of Jews must recognize that we face a challenge not faced by our parents and grandparents. In contrast to past generations, we cannot rely on tacit social pressures and influences. We must persuade and we must educate if there is to be continuity. Proclamations by communal leaders at GA conferences calling for Jewish continuity, solidarity and pride will not engender the loyalty, enthusiasm and conviction that we must instill in our children.

I offer the following analysis of Jewish practice and thought as a minimal framework in which the quest for Jewish identity can be nurtured in the modern world.

Relational theology and covenantal consciousness

In contrast to the self-sufficient God of Aristotle, the biblical God was considered philosophically "scandalous" because of the idea of a God who was vulnerable and affected by human history. Aristotle's God was totally unmoved and oblivious to human beings, whereas the biblical God was, as A.J. Heschel wrote, "in search of man," or, as Prof. Saul Lieberman remarked, "the most tragic figure in the Bible."

The idea that divine perfection is a relational category involving interdependence begins in the biblical story of creation. The idyllic description of an omnipotent God whose unbounded will is automatically realized in the material world ("Let there be, and there was") abruptly changes with the creation of human beings who challenge and oppose the divine will. This disruptive event is the beginning of a process that can be described as God's coming to terms with the reality of human freedom and its consequences.

The eventual description of God's entering into a contractual agreement, a covenant (brit), with human beings at Sinai is a far cry from the God of creation who effortlessly creates and manipulates the raw materials of nature. In the Bible, then, the development of the notion of covenantal history is related to the transition in the character of God from an independent, unilateral actor to a God who recognizes that only through human cooperation can the divine plan for history be realized.

Relational theology and intimacy

The God I meet in the Jewish tradition is not an omnipotent, absolute and overwhelming presence that crushes my sense of worth and empowerment. Covenantal consciousness begins with the awareness that God has challenged human beings with the task of being the carriers of God's vision for human history. The law and the commandments express not only God's legislative authority but also, and above all, God's need for human beings. Therefore, in addition to the normative moral content of religious life - the pursuit of justice, love and compassion in our personal and collective lives - the covenant at Sinai expresses the interpersonal intimacy of God's relationship with Israel.

Jewish identity and collective memories

The individual's journey of discovering the meaning of being a Jew begins with being exposed to the collective memories of the foundational events of the Jewish people. By appropriating these memories, the individual becomes part of a Jewish "we" that precedes and shapes the emergence of his or her Jewish "I." How you understand these foundational events determines the meaning of your individual Jewish identity within the collective life of the community. The historical pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, filter how a Jew understands the meaning of being Jewish.

Pesach, or Passover, negates the idea that the ultimate purpose of being Jewish can be realized by an individual "leap of faith" or by exclusively fulfilling the Ten Commandments and the other laws given at Sinai. The conventional notion of religion as private faith and good works is incompatible with the message of Passover, which reminds me, the participant, that I must first identify with my people's struggle for freedom and security before I can pledge covenantal allegiance to God at Sinai. We begin the annual pilgrimage of Jewish self-understanding by recollecting and identifying with the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt. We begin by retelling the story of our people's struggle for liberation: "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt," emphasizing that we participated in the suffering of our people in Egypt.

Empathy and solidarity with the political, social and economic conditions of the Jewish people are necessary conditions for any "leap of faith" or spiritual journey within Judaism. We do not approach the sacred moment of the Sinai revelation as individuals. We hear the word of God and receive the Ten Commandments as "we." The "wicked son" of the Passover Haggadah is he who addresses other Jews as "you" ("you and not him," says the Haggadah about the wicked son's question). Jewish heresy is the state of excluding oneself from the pain and suffering of the Jewish people.

Passover thus begins the yearly cycle of celebrating our collective memories by situating the individual within the historic drama of the Jewish people. Passover leads into Shavuot, the time of receiving the Ten Commandments and the Jewish normative way of life known as Torah and mitzvoth. This festival is essentially a holiday of freedom, the freedom of living a self-disciplined, normative way of life.

While identification with the suffering in Egypt is necessary for developing collective consciousness, the memory of suffering is not in itself constitutive of Jewish identity. Although our oppression in Egypt could have become the predominant motif of our collective identity, the tradition took the experience of victimization and transformed it into a moral impulse. At Sinai the memory of Egypt becomes a compelling reason for aspiring to the collective ideals of justice, love and becoming a holy people. "And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:19; see Exod. 23:9, Lev. 19:34, Lev. 24:17). At Sinai we are challenged by God to take responsibility for the quality of our daily lives and to aspire to the freedom of being claimed by a normative vision of life. We are a people defined by aspiration (mitzvah) rather than by the memory of past victimization.

After Shavuot, the next pilgrimage festival, Sukkot, evokes the desert experience and the yearning to reach the Promised Land. The land adds the dimension of realizing our values and ideals within the total context of community. God desires that the material conditions of history - the social, economic and political realities in which we live - mediate the divine presence. God's command to pursue justice and compassion cannot be fulfilled unless the public frameworks of communal life reflect our normative ideals. The land expands holiness, kedushah, beyond the private realm of the individual or of the enclave into the public marketplace, the factories, the hospitals, the welfare system, the military, that is, the array of social frameworks that make up human society. Without the land, we are a family. With the land, we are a people in the fullest sense of the term. It is there that our family-delimited values, ideals and responsibilities expand to embrace the total way of life of a nation.

The rebirth of Israel in the 20th century can be understood figuratively as a reenactment of the drama of Sinai, where we learned not to define ourselves as victims but to take responsibility for how we live. By becoming a sovereign nation in the land of Israel, the voice of Sinai speaks to Jews, holding them accountable for all aspects of their lives.

In conclusion, the festivals represent a cyclical pattern of concepts and narratives that inform Jewish identity. Through celebrating the festival of Passover I realize that I can never forget the Holocaust or be indifferent to any manifestation of anti-Semitism in the world. Yet, no matter how powerful and compelling the experience of the Holocaust is for Jews today, we must not define ourselves solely as victims but we must move from the memory of Auschwitz to the new hope that Israel represents. In Israel we meet God not only in moments of prayer and ritual celebration but in how we respond to foreign workers and to the needs of the poor and the aged, and in never giving up hope for reaching a peaceful resolution to our conflict with the Palestinians. Like the movement from Egypt to Sinai, we must learn to celebrate our people's yearning to build a new future by taking responsibility for our lives as individuals, as a people and as a country.

The creation narrative and Jewish identity

While the festivals indicate the importance of the historical narratives in organizing Jewish identity, there is another type of narrative, the story of creation, which informs Jewish consciousness every week through the observance of the Sabbath. The Jew's perspective on life is thus nurtured not only by the collective memories of the Jewish people but also by a deep awareness of the shared condition of all human beings.

The creation story is about the common source and condition of all humankind. The biblical depiction of the first human being as a creature was understood as a dramatic enactment of the rabbinic principle, "beloved is every human being for being created in the image of God."

The combination of the historical and creation narratives is a key to building a meaningful Jewish identity both in Israel and in the Diaspora. The historical narrative develops a sense of intimacy with the Jewish people. Through it we become a family and embrace our particular identity with joy and love. But our familial historical narrative is not our only living framework. Every seventh day we interrupt the flow of our busy lives and stand quietly before God, the Creator. The dialectic between our particular and universal identities, between the covenantal God of Sinai and the universal God of creation who created human beings in the image of God, is the burden and challenge of nurturing a Jewish identity grounded in choice and conviction.

Rabbi David Hartman is the founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

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