Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

Jews tend to prefer personal decisions and local institutions as the arbiters of Jewish belonging. Thus, global Jewish agreement on this subject would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve

One of the main challenges for those examining the contours of any Jewish community, or of the Jewish people writ large, is that of authority. There is no Jewish body that has the authority, the mandate, or the legitimacy to determine for all Jews what a Jewish “people” entails or means. This – as a participant in an Atlanta seminar put it – creates a situation where “who is Jewish and who is not almost seems arbitrary….”114

JPPI seminar participants were asked: “Who should determine who is Jewish?” more than a third chose the “local community” as the proper arbiter of Jewishness. “Self-definition” – that is, a determination made by the person himself\herself rather than by a larger group – was fairly close behind. Again, this presents a case of confused contradiction: in the previous chapter we saw that fairly few Jews consider “self-definition” a sufficient criterion for Jewishness, but when it comes to authority, the tune changes. Many Jews want that right of self-definition reserved for the individual. They are less inclined to forgo the authority of the autonomous individual to make room, for official authorization by “rabbis” (assuming – probably the wrong assumption – that they could ever agree on a definition) or “Israel.”

Who should determine who is Jewish?

The tension between the two definitional possibilities – individual self-determination on one hand and determinations that conform to some collective authority (a local community, Israel, or rules made by rabbis) on the other – was evident throughout the process. “You can’t self-define as a Jew if the community doesn’t accept you,” said a British participant.115 “In each community the community should decide who to accept – and in Israel, in many ways, the state is the community,” an Israeli participant concurred.116 In contrast, a participant in Cleveland said: “We want to grow the community so we should welcome those who self-identify.”117

The issue of “self-definition” was debated in many communities, and it was not uncommon for participants to change their attitudes and opinions over the course of a discussion session. The practical and philosophical complications that “self-definition” creates became clearer as different scenarios and dilemmas were presented to participants. In a seminar in Tel Aviv, a participant said: “When talking to people I go by self-definition, but that is not a practical way to work as a system.”118 A participant in a New York seminar initially advocated for self-definition by arguing that “I am Jewish because I belong to the Jewish community – that is the only test” – yet he later acknowledged that to belong to the Jewish community means that the community also must accept him. So it is more a communal decision than self-definition.119

As expected, the preference for a rabbis as arbiters of Jewishness was most prevalent among Orthodox participants (more than half), while the preference for self-definition was most prevalent among Reform Jews (41 percent) and secular Jews (37 percent). Obviously, we can assume that many of these Orthodox participants preferred the authority to also be Orthodox. But for Israelis, this preference is wider. Surveys, such as the 2009 Avichai-Guttman survey, asked about Jewishness particularly in the context of conversion. According to what we find in several of them, most Israeli Jews (73 percent) would accept a person that goes through Orthodox conversion, even if he or she does not observe the precepts, as Jewish. Fewer (48 percent) would accept him or her as Jewish if they go through a non-Orthodox conversion.120 According to JPPI’s Dialogue survey, Israelis constitute the only group in which a large portion disagree with the statement: “A conversion by a Reform/Conservative rabbi is legitimate.” Thirty-three percent of Israeli participants “somewhat disagreed” with the statement, and 11 percent “strongly disagreed” with it.

Determining who is Jewish is a matter for rabbis to decide

(percent of respondents who chose this response by religious affiliation)

Israelis also differed from their Diaspora counterparts in responding to the statement: “To what degree do you agree/disagree that a state, including Israel, has no place in deciding one’s Jewishness?” They were the only participants that tended to disagree more than agree with the statement.121 That is to say: they think Israel may have a place in deciding one’s Jewishness (note that we do not know from the survey if their answer refers to Jewish Israelis or all Jews).

If there is a need for a body to determine who is Jewish it should be the State of Israel

(percent of respondents who chose this response by geographical distribution)

Hence, it is not surprising that Israelis were much more willing than participants from other countries to consider Israel an arbiter of Jewishness. But even among Israelis, more consider rabbis or local communities as the proper authorities in determining Jewishness.122

This understanding among Israelis in many ways lines up with Israel’s Law of Return, which makes all Jews eligible for immigration to Israel. The law applies to all Jews, including converts by communities abroad – namely, it recognizes the predominance of communities in determining the Jewishness of people in their localities. Israel, though, insists on its right to hold criteria to which communities must adhere for their converts eligible for Aliyah123 – an insistence that some experts see as an unhealthy imposition “of Israeli will on the Diaspora.”124

The lack of a clear authority in determining an individual’s Jewishness has long characterized Jewish life, because Jews, quite some time ago, ceased living in one monolithic community under a single jurisdiction. However, unlike today, for most of Jewish history of the last millennia the criteria for Jewishness was much clearer, and so were the authorities in charge of preserving each community’s criteria.125 These authorities were rabbis, speaking the language of Halacha. And, of course, they could not always agree on every Halachic detail related to Jewishness (or any other matter), but, for the most part, there was consensus with respect to the grammar of the discussion and its unbreachable boundaries.

The authoritative language lost its power because of Jewish secularization, the fragmentation of Jewish theology, and the genesis of two very different Jewish communal structures in the Diaspora and Israel – both predominantly secular in nature and bound by civil-political processes rather than rabbinical texts and rulings.126 In this atmosphere it is not just difficult to agree on what authority determines and confers Jewishness, it is impossible. “Being Jewish is your belief, it is very personal,” said one young discussant. Being Jewish, he argued, cannot be determined by any “objective definition.”127 “It is quite impossible to have a common definition of Judaism,” a participant in Rio de Janeiro argued. “What is possible is to have common projects as a community and as a people.”128

The lack of clear authority resulted in many forms of hand wringing:

– Less religious and more religious Jews and institutions do not always agree on the type of bodies and activities that offer the most profound manifestation of Jewish belonging (synagogue or AIPAC, Shabbat or Tikkun Olam, living in Israel or wrapping Tefillin etc).

– Jews who belong or identify with different streams (and theological doctrines) of Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox etc.) argue about proper power sharing among denominations. It was common to hear complaints about this issue in Diaspora communities that do not approve of Israel’s share of religious power. “Israel should recognize Reform and Conservative conversions,” a non-Israeli said at a JPPI discussion held in Israel.129

– Jews within the same stream also argue over the authority of this or that rabbi or body in determining the specific criteria of Jewishness (a chief example of this is the power struggle among Orthodox Jews in Israel over conversion. A recent and well publicized incident concerned the legitimacy of Ivanka Trump’s conversion, the daughter of US Presidential candidate Donald Trump).130

– The State of Israel has a concentration of power that impacts the rest of the Jewish world, as by far the most potent and well-resourced institution of the Jewish people. But many Jews (in Israel and the rest of the Jewish world) do not believe that a state is the correct body to hold such sway on issues related to identity and community.

Jewish hand wringing over the meaning of Jewish belonging is not necessarily a problem. It is one way for Jews to share a discourse around one of the core questions of their identity. “It’s okay to disagree as long as there are shared values and there is a common base for the sense of peoplehood,” an Australian participant said.131 And the fact of the matter is that, in recent decades any attempt to reach consensus on the issue of who is a Jew has ended up unresolved. However, it should be recognized that the inability to reach a modicum of common understanding has led to a situation where different practical actions are taken by different communal organizations and underscores a lack of internal cohesion.