Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

As mentioned in an earlier chapter, the meaning of Jewishness as understood by individual Jews, Jewish institutions, and by the State of Israel has far-reaching legal and procedural implications. The already discussed Law of Return, which confers Jews with the right to settle in Israel depends on a particular definition of “Jew.” As we have seen, Dialogue participants were by and large in agreement that the Law should not become more vague because of the changing circumstances in Diaspora communities. On the contrary, many argued that there is ample reason to make it somewhat stricter than it is today to counter trends that could lead it to become too loose for Israel to sustain.

We have also demonstrated how definitions of Jewishness can impact how Jewish institutions assign certain roles (for example, rabbis, members of certain committees, and federation executives) based, among other things, on their understanding of the type of Jewishness required for these roles. Some communities emphasize involvement in Jewish life as the basic sign of Jewishness while others opt for the traditional definitions of lineage (born to a Jewish mother\parent) or conversion. In some communities a job candidate’s Jewishness plays a minor role among all other considerations (professionalism, personality, etc) while in other communities, at least for certain roles, adherence to a particular definition of Jewishness is a precondition for even being considered for the job.

All in all, Jews tend to want their local communities and institutions to define the type of Jewishness that is desirable in different situations. As an ideal, they may agree that it would be advantageous to have a broader understanding of Jewishness, but when it comes to their synagogue’s rabbi, the criteria is more rigorous. “I don’t see the congregation taking orders from a distant authority if they find these orders offensive or inappropriate,” as one rabbi in Dallas put it.238 JPPI’s Dialogue survey also shows that in all countries except Israel, Jews chose the “Jewish community in which s/he lives” as best situated to “determine who is Jewish.”

Based on the research and as a consequence of these sentiments we recommend taking the following points into account:

  1. There is not going to be a single agreed upon definition of Jewishness embraced by all institutions, which means that Jewish institutions have to learn to work alongside each other even when their respective understandings of Jewishness differ markedly.
  2. Local bodies are, indeed, best situated to determine the type of Jewishness they ought to apply to their institutions. However, it would not be unwise to urge local communities and institutions to make their determinations with an eye on the larger Jewish world and its understanding of Jewishness. If gaps between Jewish bodies become very wide, their ability to work jointly for the Jewish future will be impaired.
  3. The same lesson applies to Israel and Diaspora communities. Israel should not further compound the already notable differences between its definition of Jewishness and that of Jews living elsewhere by adopting stricter standards based on Orthodox interpretations of Jewishness. Diaspora communities should also be wary of adopting standards Jewish Israelis would not be able to accept – especially actions that frame assimilationist trends as desirable rather than tolerable.
  4. While connected Jews – represented in the Dialogue – understand that current trends require flexibility and the acceptance of a wide variety of tastes and beliefs with respect to the meaning of Jewishness, they also still seem to want certain norms, vague as they might be, to remain in place. As Jewish communities tackle issues and challenges that involve ascribing Jewishness criteria, it is not mandatory to always choose the least demanding, most equivocal, option.
  5. It is necessary to further investigate what the future holds for the Law of Return. It must not be canceled, as it remains a cornerstone of Israel’s Jewish character. But changing times require fresh thinking about the criteria of Jewishness as defined by Israel today, and their applicability to a Jewish world that evolves over the coming decades.
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