Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

A state of confusion can wear away at the health of a person or a nation, and the Jews are clearly going through a phase of confused identity. “Everything today is shaky,” as one young participant put it.239 A condition of vague definitions also has ramifications for Jewish demographics beginning with the fact that it is not always clear which demographic analysis serves policy makers best. That Jews who participated in JPPI’s Dialogue all stressed the need for the community to be welcoming does not mean that they advise a completely loose definition of Jewishness.

Take, for example, one typical expression of this from a seminar in Australia: “A Jew is not defined only according to strict Halachic definitions, we should recognize patrilineal descent, and being part of an active Jewish family and community is critical to the definition of who is a Jew.”240 On one hand, this statement advocates the acceptability of a variety of Jewish types. On the other hand, it lists clear, rather demanding standards: Jewish descent (including patrilineal), and an active Jewish life. Clearly, if only Jews actively engaged in Jewish life were counted as Jews, the demography of the Jewish people would change dramatically.

The most profound change underway, is that world Jewry is shifting from being a “family” in the biological sense, and from being a group who share a faith in the religious sense, to being something else – a “people” with a “culture” (the word “civilization” is often used in such contexts) And the challenge is right here: Biology is easy to define – either people share a lineage or they don’t, either they marry within the larger family, or they opt out. Jewish religious practice was, for most of our history, fairly easy to define, at least from a behavioral standpoint. You either kept Kosher or you didn’t; you either observed the laws of Shabbat or you didn’t; you either fasted on Yom Kippur or you don’t.

Defining “culture” and “people” is much trickier. Surely, there are starting points: Jewish texts; the Jewish calendar; a shared historical narrative; a land and a capital (Jerusalem); a language. And yet the Jews who participated in JPPI’s 2016 Dialogue did not seem to be satisfied with the notion that the Jews are just a group of people who want to share these cultural components. They want to be a people in a deeper sense – that is, even as they say that ancestry and biology matter less to them than before – they seem unwilling to give up on the notion of being a family.

Amid all of these conclusions, and based on the research, we recommend taking the following points into account:

  1. The broader Diaspora community should count as “Jews” only those who have a Jewish parent or have undergone proper conversion (that is, conversion by one of the established denominations). Self-defined Jews should be welcomed and respected but not officially counted as Jews.
  2. Diaspora communities should be clearer in asserting through programs and actions, especially those aimed at intermarried families, that Judaism is not strictly a religion – but rather a civilization, a culture (in a broad sense that includes religion) of a people.
  3. Israel ought to devise more pluralistic policies to encourage the emergence of a non-Orthodox Jewish culture – a culture that has the potential to play a role in the identity of all Jews.
  4. Jewish households – in which as many members as possible are Jewishly connected and committed – should remain the ideal to which the community strives (even while the community recognizes and accepts the fact that many Jews who are important to the larger community marry non-Jewish spouses, and will continue to do so). Jewish communities are advised to take this ideal into consideration in choosing their leaders and role models.
  5. Israel is obliged to make its contribution to clarifying the criteria for Jewishness by serving as an example and offering a clear and easy path for conversion of Israelis who immigrated under the Law of Return and who are not Jewish.