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Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

Jews value Peoplehood and Culture more than Religion and Ancestry – and yet, when asked to consider who is a Jew, most of them turn to definitions based on religion and ancestry

There are at least four prisms through which one can understand the meaning of Jewish belonging: ancestry, sentiment, behavior, and belief. Each of these prisms corresponds to more than one of the four components of Judaism we identified earlier: religion, genealogy, culture, and nationality. For example, religion combines sentiment, behavior, and belief (but not necessarily ancestry), nationality might include ancestry, sentiment, and behavior (but not belief).

Each of these prisms also interacts with many other sub-categories and provides more parsing ground. Here are some examples:

If a connection to Judaism is an expression of a biological fact (or having undergone a conversion), then a person does not have to act in any particular way to be Jewish. He or she just is. Many Jews have ancestry in mind when they think about connection to Judaism, as a participant in Brazil said: “To be a Jew there are, and there must be, only two ways, through the womb or through conversion done by the different denominations.”83 But to say this does not mean they view connection to Judaism as based solely on the ancestral criteria – many still think that additional criteria apply to make this connection vital or meaningful. “As a Jewish community, we are too hung up on someone’s parents rather than the individual’s behaviors regarding and commitment to the Jewish community,” an Atlanta participant said. And he did not necessarily intend to suggest that the “parental” criteria be eliminated, but rather that focusing on the ancestral factor alone does not guarantee active membership in the Jewish community at large.84

If belonging to Judaism rests on self-identification, an ancestral link might not be necessary, nor other manifestations of Judaism. “You can’t deny someone his belief. If they feel connected that is enough, their feeling of self-identity is the most important factor,” a young Dialogue participant contended.85 Another participant was in basic agreement, with reservations. “When talking to people, I go by self-definition, but that is not a practical way to work as a system.”86 The feeling of connection to the Jewish civilization, or one of its elements can vary – it can be a national sense of connection to a people, or a spiritual sense of connection to the Jewish religion, or a personal sense of connection to a Jewish family member that translates into a sentiment of belonging to Judaism or the Jewish people (and it can also be all of the above, and then some).

If belonging to the Jewish people is dependent on particular behaviors – observing rituals, attending a Passover Seder, or supporting Israel – then this is an entirely different matter. And, of course, in the case of behavior, many sub-categories exist. The behavior can be related not only to Mitzvot and support for the Jewish collective, but also to cultural behaviors – studying certain texts, or Israeli folk dancing, or watching a Woody Allen film etc. We also ought to consider if and how a certain action (being actively anti-Israel?; printing anti-Semitic propaganda?) could result in banishment. “Without demonstrating commitment to Judaism, you can feel Jewish in one minute and non-Jewish in another minute,” said a Boston participant, highlighting the importance of behavior.87 But what is the exact nature of “Jewish behavior”? Today, this is not easy to define, as various studies of Jewish behavior have shown. There are Jews who light Shabbat candles, and those who do not. There are Jews who keep Kosher and those who do not. There are Jews who are members of a Jewish community and those who are not. Et cetera. There is no codified list of behavior that makes a person Jewish.

If membership in the “Jewish tribe” requires a person to believe in certain things, for instance, a certain God or the Torah from Sinai, this will raise many questions regarding Jews who do not believe these things. Naturally, the area of belief can be positively framed – Jews believe that Israel is a Holy Land, or “believe in Jewish values and philosophy.”88 It can also be negatively framed – Jews cannot believe that there is no God (rarely argued), or believe that Jesus is the messiah. The Jesus factor was brought up in many community conversations: “Many groups mentioned Jews for Jesus as the limit of who they want to include – they are already clearly out.”89 Whatever it is, if “being Jewish is your belief – it is very personal” – and in that case it cannot be determined by an “objective” definition, as a member of a discussion group of young adults said.90

Of course, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Many Jews believe a person must embody both ancestry and particular behaviors to belong, or behaviors and beliefs, or sentiment and ancestry and behavior – or all other conceivable combinations of these four prisms. It is also well established that, much like the case with questions about the essence of Judaism (culture, religion etc.), Jews also do not always agree on questions regarding belonging criteria. On one hand you have Jews who believe, “The Orthodox Halacha gives strict and clear parameters about who is a Jew, and that is what kept us as a people all this time. Deciding to give up the rules is dangerous,” as one young Israeli Dialogue participant claimed.91 On the other hand you have Jews who believe, “The traditional ways of gauging Jewishness like adherence to Halacha or dues-paying members of synagogue and other organizations is an antiquated idea,” said an Atlanta participant.92

In JPPI’s Dialogue survey, about 15 percent of respondents insisted on a “combination” of answers to the question “whom do you consider to be a Jew?” – even though the instructions were to pick a single criterion. Tellingly, most of these participants chose the category “lives an active Jewish life” as one of the two criteria they chose. That is to say: even if their criteria for Jewishness relies on one of the other options, they still want the Jew to do something with his or her Jewishness – not to be a Jew in name only, or as a fact only. “What is a Jew? is more important than who is a Jew?” a Portland Dialogue participant asserted.93 This means that a portion of the Jewish world (as seen through the lens of the Dialogue)94 might be reluctant to value the inactive Jewishness of the growing share of people that the research calls “Jews of no religion” – who show little inclination to demonstrate any active connection to Jewishness other than a general declaration that they are somehow Jewish.95 Those Jews who have “a sense of ‘ordinary’ or ‘descriptive’ ethnicity…” but do very little or even nothing that is “Jewish” in their lives.96 Jews not by religion “express relatively little interest in any aspect of Jewish life – not in religious ritual, not in national identification, and not in communal engagement.”97

To clarify (this topic will reemerge in a later chapter on “levels of Jewishness” Jews apply to different situations): Jews do not wish to exclude inactive Jews from the Jewish world. In fact, the opposite is true. In almost every community JPPI surveyed, a clear call for inclusion and diversity was heard. “Inclusion is our reality today,” a St. Louis seminar participant said.98 In Australia, a participant argued: “At the entry level of engagement it is important to remain open and inclusive so as not to scare potential members of the community.”99 Another Australian said: “We strengthen the community by being inclusive, not restrictive.”100

The four options JPPI offered Dialogue participants when we asked them determine the criteria the connection of individuals to the Jewish world, correspond with four possible modalities of connection to Judaism:

  1. A person who decides s/he is Jewish (“sentiment”);
  2. A person born to a Jewish mother ( “belief” –see the footnote for clarification);101
  3. A person born to a Jewish parent ( “ancestry”);
  4. A person who lives an active Jewish life ( “behavior”).

Interestingly, the largest portion of JPPI participants believed non-Halachic religious criteria (Jewish parent) to be the definitive determinant of Jewishness, with the second largest group making the Halachic religious criteria (Jewish mother) the key determinant of Jewishness.102 That is to say, there is something of a disconnect between how these Jews rank the most important components of Judaism (“religion” and “genealogy\ancestry” as the least valued), and the way they define criteria for belonging to the group of Jews (Jewish mother or parent, which is religious\ancestral criteria).

Whom do you consider to be a Jew?

This becomes even more confused when we examine what many JPPI Dialogue participants stated emphatically when asked about these issues. There was a clear discomfort with the notion of describing Jews as a group that is defined by blood (ancestry) or religion, and it was clear throughout the discussions that many Jews much prefer to view the Jewish collective as united by values or culture. Many place enormous value in self-definition and are reluctant to accept any dictated “rules” or “criteria” for belonging. And yet, in the survey these tendencies are downplayed, and allow space for a communally-agreed-upon criteria, whether ancestral (born to a Jewish parent or mother) or behavioral (Jewish engagement).

Here is what Jews said in various discussions:

“How does a ceremony change what you believe?”, asked one Detroit participant, professing a preference for personal choice over religious conversion.103 “A feeling of Jewish is essential to being Jewish,” a participant in Zurich argued.104 “We strengthen the community by being inclusive, not restrictive,” a Melbourne participant said, echoing the sentiment of many.105 “We want to grow the community so we should welcome those who self-identify,” a Cleveland seminar discussant said, and in the same seminar another said, “It doesn’t feel like a Jewish value to exclude people.”106 In Australia a participant said: “A Jew is not defined only according to strict a Halachic definition, we should recognize patrilineal descent, and being part of an active Jewish family, and community engagement as critical to the definition of who is a Jew.”107 In Brazil: “If we only accept the genetic heritage, most of the members of the Jewish People wouldn’t prove to be Jews.”108

Yet looking at the survey data, we can see that these statements did not reflect a common understanding by a majority of participants. When choosing the criteria of belonging in our survey, the instinctive tendency of many participants was to revert to the traditional denotations of connection. The answers were more reflective of statements such as, “You can’t self-define as a Jew if the community doesn’t accept you,” heard in Leeds.109 That is to say, the survey answers clearly ranked the “restrictive” options – born to a Jewish parent – above the “inclusive” options – self-definition or being Jewishly active. A participant in Cleveland defined his dilemma with succinctly: “Culture says ‘come join us’; religion says ‘not so fast,’ how do we reconcile the two?”110

Denominations and beliefs matter: secular Jews, more than other Jews, view self-definition as the proper determinant of Jewishness (17 percent, compared to the average of 11 percent among all Jews). A survey of Israeli Jews from a few years ago had shown that secular Jews (at least when it comes to Israeli secular Jews) are less interested in the question “Who is a Jew?” to begin with: “Orthodox respondents expressed the greatest interest, followed by Haredi respondents and Traditional respondents (86, 79, and 72 percent, respectively). Secular and anti-religious respondents were much less concerned by it (47 and 20 percent, respectively).”111 Thus, their preference for “self-definition” can be seen as springing from a general belief in personal choice, rather than a nuanced understanding of the complications of Jewishness.

Geography matters: In Israel, more respondents chose “Jewish mother” (the familiar normative reality), while in America, Australia, and Brazil more chose the non-gender- specific “Jewish parent.” It is interesting to compare the Israeli data from JPPI’s Dialogue to the Guttman-Avichai survey in which 40 percent of Israeli Jews accept as Jewish “the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother,” and 33 percent accept a person who “feels Jewish but his/her parents are not.”112 Brazil was the country with the highest emphasis on active engagement, with 27 percent considering this the deciding factor of Jewishness.

Age matters: The youngest age cohort is most ready to accept self-definition as the deciding factor of Jewishness. “You can’t deny someone his belief. If they feel connected that is enough, their feeling of self-identity is the most important factor,” a young non-Israeli participant said at one of JPPI’s discussions in Israel.113 Still, the percentage of young participants choosing that definition was low (15 percent), compared to 29 percent for a Jewish parent, and 27 percent for a Jewish mother. Also, the trend line is not steady – the frequency of the self-definition answer is not strictly inversely proportionate to age.

Percent of participants who responded that they would consider as Jewish any person who decides that s/he is Jewish

(by age)

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