Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

Jews of all groups understand that there is growing complexity in defining Jewishness, as a result of fragmentation and secularization, integration, and the establishment of Israel

In JPPI’s 2014-2015 Annual Assessment, it was reported that “at the end of World War II, the global Jewish population was estimated at 11 million, since then, through the beginning of 2015, the Jewish people has grown gradually to 14.3 million.”10  It was also noted that these numbers are based on estimates that “combine objective and subjective definitions of group belonging.” For Israel, “they are based on Halachic criteria.” For Jews elsewhere, they are based on “self-definition.” When it comes to Israel, the numbers are totally reliable – the state keeps a record of the number of Jews. When it comes to other communities, the numbers spring from surveys and studies, estimations that rely on the assumption that people accurately acknowledge their affiliations – these are all voluntary numbers, imprecise by definition. It is not possible to strip them of their inherent subjectivity.

Everything in this enterprise of counting Jews is subject to profound questions of identity and meaning. Even the mere decision to use a term such as “belonging” rather than “connection” (as in “connected to Judaism”), “link” (as in “linked to the Jewish people”), “membership” (as in “member of the tribe”), or “attachment” (as in, “attached to Jews elsewhere”) comes with a particular significance. Some people might not want to “belong” to the Jewish people but are willing to be linked to Judaism. Others might feel that “belonging” could mean that something has been forced upon them and would prefer the more voluntary sounding “attachment.” In the JPPI Dialogue we utilized all these terms interchangeably.

We did not assign strict ideological meanings to any of them in an effort not to impose any single interpretation on discussants.11

Just as JPPI employed specific criteria in determining its own Jewish population estimates, any attempt to count Jews has to grapple with definitional questions and dilemmas. This is because unlike formal and well-defined group signifiers, such as “citizen” or “dues-paying member of a synagogue,” there is no unanimously agreed upon definition of Jewishness and what being a Jew necessarily entails. In the Jewish world today “some see ‘Jewishness’ as voluntary, subject to the decisions and choices of individuals,”12 while others believe that only “those born to a Jewish mother or those, who after declaring the desire to belong to the Jewish people, undergo a lengthy [Orthodox] conversion process” should be considered Jewish. Of course, the conversion process itself is the subject of much debate. No single conversion procedure is accepted by all Jews as the “gold standard” of measurement or authenticity.

Dialogue participants, across the board, concurred that defining Jewishness has become increasingly complex and problematic. “There are many different definitions of what being a Jew means, and who gets to define it,” a discussant in Atlanta said.13 “Being Jewish today is a choice,” a participant in Portland, Oregon, asserted.14

Some participants want clearer definitions, to better know what Jewish means, and are frustrated by their inability to find such definition. “Who is Jewish and who is not almost seems arbitrary…,” said one Atlanta participant.15 “Judaism isn’t like a fad you just pick up,” according to a Leeds seminar participant.16

Jews see complexity of definitions all around them. When the Israeli government counts Jews in Israel it uses a certain definition;17 the Israeli Rabbinate uses another definition.18 In fact, “there is no uniform answer to the question ‘Who is a Jew?’ under Israeli law. Often times, the context determines both the answer as well as the identity of the person providing it,” Prof. Ruth Gavison explains.19 When the Pew Research Center studies American Jews it uses one set of criteria20 (and another when studying Israel and its Jewish community);21 other scholars studying the same communities prefer different criteria.22 In some synagogues, participation in certain ceremonial practices is reserved for people who are, by certain criteria, “Jewish”; in other synagogues, this participation is extended to members of Jewish families.23 In a 2011 study of Australian Jews, the designation “Jewish household” was limited to those in which both parents were Jewish;24 in the 2013 Pew study of American Jews, “Jewish households” included those with one Jewish parent.25 In JPR’s 2013 study of British Jews, the survey sample was self-selected and biased toward membership in the established institutions of the community;26 the 2011 study of Jews in New York was based on “randomly selected Jewish households.”27

At times, definitions reflect a professional understanding of the ways Jews conceptualize their identity (who we are). An Israeli participant complained that “Judaism is not like fans of a basketball team, and anyone who wants to be a fan can join. It is a group with clear categories and rules, for someone to be part of the group it needs to be in accordance with these rules.”28

At other times they reflect ideological criteria for how Jews should conceptualize their identity (who we ought to be). “Boundaries help to provide definition, but even boundaries need a level of permeability for survival. Think about human skin as a metaphor,” a participant in a Portland seminar said.29

At other times still, they are a reflection of pragmatic considerations (what definition is good for the Jews). In a Boston discussion group there was a debate: “Several participants felt strongly that self-identifying as Jewish shouldn’t turn you into a Jew and doesn’t qualify that person for certain leadership positions. However, some disagreed strongly with this and noted that some self-identifying Jews who are welcomed do indeed convert.”30

Identity definitions often derive from compromise and a long process of fine-tuning – such is the case with Israel’s current understanding of who is a Jew.31 In other cases, definitions are based on unambiguous decisions made at a particular point in time – for example, Reform Judaism’s 1983 “patrilineal descent” ruling (“The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people”).32

Why is the definition of Jewishness more complicated today than in the past?33

For many generations, only two paths were open for a person to be considered Jewish: Jewish decent (matrilineal)34 or conversion that included a standardized set of procedures (circumcision, ritual bath, approval by a Beit Din (a Jewish court)).35 Some internal developments disrupted those ancient conditions and made the current understanding of Jewishness much more fluid – but before we specify them it is essential to understand that these developments are first and foremost a result of the Jewish response to developments in the non-Jewish world. As a discussant in Leeds acknowledged: “The outside world plays a large part in how we ourselves regulate our own Judaism”.36

For many generations the only way for a Jew to belong to the general society was through conversion to another religion. This changed with the era of emancipation, nationalism, and secularity – and opened new venues of belonging (or not belonging) for Jews unavailable in the past. So much so, that a participant in a Portland seminar remarked: “What a privilege to be this free, in this era, to ask this question!”37 But this is not just about the freedom to choose, it is also because the daily lives of Jews today are much more integrated into the larger societies in which they live (and into the global non-Jewish society). Hence, they are much affected by the main trend in the general Western society, many of which weaken religious and other group affinities, such as the growing aversion to being categorized in ways formerly acceptable and commonplace.38

“Traditional denominationalism is on the decline and there is a concurrent rise in the number of people unwilling to align with a denomination,” concluded a 2005 survey of young Americans.39 A similar trend exists in all of the Jewish world: Young Jews increasingly reject what they perceive as attempts to “label” them, or box them into discrete categories of identity. “We can do without the labels,” a relatively young participant told his seminar colleagues in Dallas.40 One participant went even further: “Labels are an insult. It is a way to tell people that they are not as good [Jews] as other people.”

“The task of coming up with a definition [of Jewishness] is more complicated today because many folks have ‘plural identities’; they identify as both Jewish and someone else,” a Boston participant said.41 “Everything today is shaky, you can be a non-believing Jew, a Jew who keeps tradition differently,” one young Israeli said.42
It is possible to bundle the main developments of change into three main groups:

Processes of fragmentation and secularization have weakened the identification of many Jews with specific religious components of Judaism, and consequently weakened all specific religious definitions traditionally associated with Judaism.

The integration of Jews into larger Western societies (especially in the United States) has resulted in a sharp rise in the number of mixed (Jews and non-Jews) families.

The establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, in which Jewishness has legal and practical implications beyond religious beliefs and communal belonging.

Let us specify:

The integration of Jews into Western societies has had a practical consequence that cannot be ignored. Since the Haskala, the borders and boundaries between Jews and the broader society have increasingly diminished.43 These boundaries, which had previously been set and enforced by strong social norms (both within Jewish communities themselves and the surrounding societies) and maintained Jewish cohesiveness, “came tumbling down.”44 As a result, young Jews have increasingly married non-Jews, and the number of families in which one parent is Jewish and the other is not has grown dramatically. So much so, that in the United States this year it is estimated that about a half of the new generation of young adult Jews comes from mixed families.45 By Orthodox Halachic criteria, many of these young people are not, in fact, Jewish. However, as we will show in more detail, only about a quarter of this year’s Dialogue participants accept this strictly matrilineal criteria demanded by Halachic orthodoxy. That is to say, it seems that most Jews, for obvious reasons, wish to include those who self-identity as Jews and/or participate in Jewish life. (At the other end of the spectrum, there are many non-Jews born to Jewish parents the community has no intention or ability to coerce into membership unless they express interest in opting back in).46 To do so necessitates a rewriting of the rules of community membership, which, in fact, is taking place. Otherwise, the community of Jews will shrink rapidly – a result very few would find desirable.

A weakening of the religious content of Judaism is reflected in many public opinion polls of Jews.47 Most Jews today do not fully adhere to a set of practices and laws that define them as a coherent group with similar day-to-day behaviors. They do not observe Shabbat in a certain way, they do not observe Jewish dietary laws (two-thirds of Israeli Jews say they keep kosher at home, compared to about a quarter of Jewish Americans),48 and, perhaps more importantly, they do not accept rabbinical authority or Halachic texts as the ultimate arbiters of proper conduct. As an institution of rabbinical authority, the Israeli rabbinate has a meager approval rating – less than 30 percent of Israeli Jews say they trust the rabbinate “much” or “quite a lot.”49 As a component of Judaism, just 19 percent of American Jewish adults say that observing Halacha is “essential to what being Jewish means to them.”50 They do not automatically accept all traditional Halachic definitions of Jewishness (more about this later). And their reasons are emphatically held. A participant in Baltimore argued, “There needs to be a normative definition of being Jewish that will stand the test of time. The Halachic definition is 1800 years old.”51 An example of this departure from previously established criteria is Reform Judaism’s acceptance of patrilineal descent – a decision taken more than 30 years ago.52 Another departure from orthodoxy can also be seen among many Israeli Jews, who believe that an Israeli soldier fighting for his people is fully Jewish, even if, according to Halacha, his father or mother is not.53 That is why a participant in a seminar in Israel asserted, “Sociological conversion should be accepted as a type of conversion.”54

The establishment of the State of Israel introduced further complications to an already complex modern picture of Jewishness. Israel, as a sovereign body, has to have certain well-defined criteria for belonging to the Jewish people (this criteria has the capacity to change over time). This is because Jewishness has legal and practical implications for Israel. It has implications for Israelis themselves – what school they go to, are they under clear obligation to serve in the military, who marries them, etc. It also has implications for Diaspora Jews: Are they eligible to make Aliyah according to the Law of Return? It has implications for the future of the state – keeping Israel a Jewish state is contingent on keeping it a Jewish-majority state. So Israel must have definitions, and these definitions are not (and some would argue, could not be) acceptable to all Jews.

The result of all of these processes is that Jews are found in different shapes and forms, some of which are new, some of which challenge the understanding of other Jews, and some of which break traditions that have existed for many hundreds of years. Obviously, there are still many Jews who conform to at least somewhat traditional definitions: born to a Jewish couple (or mother), raised as Jews, see the value in being Jewish, intending to pass along their “Jewishness” to the next generation, etc. These are the Jews who do not seriously challenge the system. But alongside them, many new types of Jews thrive and enrich the Jewish world.

Jews of no religion: The term “Jews of no religion” originates from the world of sociology. It describes a growing group of Jews – about a quarter of all Jews in the United States – about a third of young Jews – who do not answer affirmatively “Jewish” when asked their religion.55 Although they profess no religion, they still identify as Jewish in some ways. They present unique challenges to the Jewish world, both pragmatic (how does one make a Jew of no religion a more active member of the Jewish community) and conceptual (because these Jews seem to be beyond a certain consciousness pale of belonging). JPPI’s Dr. Shlomo Fischer summarized this challenge succinctly: “This group, Jews of no religion, accepts their Jewishness as a matter of fact, like having blue eyes. It does not enjoin much of a sense of solidarity or any normative commitment to the welfare or continuity of the Jewish people or to Jewish culture.”56

Self-declared Jews: In a 2011 study of the Jews of New York, a very small group of Jews made itself more conspicuous: self-identifying Jews whose parents are not Jewish and who have not undergone any form of official conversion.57 These people usually have a Jewish family member – a spouse or a grandparent – but the path leading them to Judaism is not one the Jewish people has traditionally recognized. These individuals clearly exemplify the belief – very much in line with core liberal values – that the individual should be the one deciding what he or she wants to be. If they say they are Jewish, can the community say otherwise?

Partial Jews: As more and more Jews around the world (Israel is an exception) establish families with non-Jewish spouses, there is a concomitant increase in the number of people declaring themselves to be “partially” Jewish – again, a formulation almost unknown to previous generations of Jews.58 Partial Jews can be Jews brought up with more than one religion (Jewish and something else), they can be Jews with non-Jewish spouses, deciding to exercise two religious affiliations,59 or they can be Jews who identify solely with Judaism, but do not see themselves as “fully” Jewish (generally because they have a non-Jewish parent). For some of these Jews the “partial” is a fact of life; for others, it is an ideology.60 While, generally speaking, Jewish streams and organizations do not encourage partial Jewishness, and in some cases even encourage their members to make a more coherent choice (of one religion), the reality is that there is a growing sector of partial Jews. In fact, most intermarried parents do not tell their children that they are “Jewish.”61 This could definitely motivate Jewish communities to have welcoming policies toward partial Jews and include them as part of the larger Jewish world.

Behavioral Jews: These are individuals who do not necessarily declare themselves to be Jewish, but who live their lives as Jews, among Jews. In many cases they provide their children with Jewish education, and are well integrated into a Jewish community. The phenomenon is most conspicuous in Israel,62 where hundreds of thousands of immigrants, eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, are not Halachically Jewish, but live their lives alongside all the other Jews of Israel.63 Many, but not all, Jewish Israelis would not rule them out as prospective spouses,64 and the limitations they encounter in their daily lives are few, and in the eyes of many too insignificant to justify the long process of rabbinate-authorized conversion.

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