Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

Jews see the difficulties and acknowledge the complications, and yet wish for a broader “understanding” of what Jewishness means among Jews

Complications are many, and yet, more than a few Jews would deem it desirable to develop as broad as possible an understanding of what Jewishness means. A broad definition, they believe, “strengthens the community, community growth, including as many people as possible.”180 They also believe “it is problematic to have people be accepted as Jewish by some and not by many others.”181 They worry that “it is hard to be united as Jews when we don’t have boundaries of what is ‘Jewish’.”182

The Dialogue survey demonstrates this instinctive wish for unity with gusto: 57 percent of participants argued that it is “necessary to have a broadly accepted understanding of who is a Jew” because “otherwise we are not a people” (note that the question did not refer to a broadly agreed-upon and strict “definition” of Jewishness, but rather to a much looser notion of “understanding”). Less than a third (29 percent) argued that a “broadly accepted understanding” is not necessary, while fewer participants argued that such an understanding is necessary “only for Israel” or that one is needed “for Israel” and “another one” for Diaspora communities (less than 5 percent each).183

In all countries where seminars were held, except for Brazil, a clear majority opted for an “understanding.”184 In all streams of Judaism, the option of an “understanding” was the most coveted (but for “secular” Jews it was almost on par with the option “no need – it is good to have a variety of options”). As a rule, the more traditional the group, the higher the wish for a single understanding (of course, we can assume that the more traditional the group, the narrower it would like the understanding to be). Thus, Orthodox Jews want an understanding more than Conservative Jews, who want it more than Reform Jews, who in turn want it more than secular Jews. There is something of an irony here because many Jews would argue that the Orthodox insistence on stringent traditional definitions is what makes an “understanding” impossible to achieve. The result of Orthodox perceptions can be detected by looking how Israelis are much less willing to accept all forms of conversions compared to Jews from other countries (this surely further complicates reaching an “understanding”).

To what extent do you agree/disagree: A conversion by a Reform/ Conservative rabbi is legitimate

Strongly agree vs. Strongly disagree, by country

There was resistance to a singular “understanding” in some quarters. “There is no need for a common understanding,” said a participant in Zurich.185 But more than resistance, there was skepticism about the ability of Jews to reach an understanding with respect to the meaning of Jewishness. “We would be in a much better place had we been able to reach an understanding on these issues,” a participant in Pittsburgh said, “but I just don’t see it. I don’t see the Orthodox accepting a Reform convert, and I don’t see the Reform agreeing to strengthen their process of conversion to be more serious. So while I want everybody to agree, I think the divisions will only grow.”186

Some participants were skeptical about the possibility of Jews ever reaching a common understanding for philosophical reasons: “We will never have a common understanding of what is ‘Jewish’ as to be Jewish is to spend your life trying to answer this question.”187 Others named specific obstacles to reaching such an understanding: “Israel is behind in understanding what Judaism is, it has a narrow way of thinking.”188 The survey data reveal that the least enthusiasm for reaching a common understanding was among the youngest and the oldest age cohorts – possibly (but this is speculation) because of the younger participants’ resistance to definitions generally, and the elders’ experience-ignited disbelief. “When Jews try to reach an understanding it often ends up worsening the situation rather than improving it,” an older participant it Detroit said.189