Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

The meaning of Jewishness today is, of course, a subject of great intellectual interest and cultural curiosity. But its implications for the practical world of Jewish communities, organizations, philanthropists, and the State of Israel could be significant. These implications could arise in four possible forms:

Implications for the allocation of resources by communities and philanthropists. The Jewish world today is invested in a great variety of programs aimed at strengthening the Jewish identity of young and old alike. Some of these programs are large and highly ambitious, others are more modest. Some of these programs have a clear ideological bent and, hence, a specific constituency. Others are more pluralistic in nature. But almost all of them are aimed at Jews, or at people close enough to Jewishness to be considered appropriate for Jewish identity building. In whom should Jewish communities (or Israel) invest?

Of course, there are many different answers to this question. They depend on how Jewish leaders and professionals understand the current situation as well as on their beliefs and ideologies. For example, the initiators of a program aimed at Jews of no religion might ask if there is a viable path for strengthening their Jewish identity? And they might also ask if they wish to strengthen a stream of no religion within the Jewish tent? Whatever the answers to these questions, they have to take into account the meaning of Jewishness as a starting point for the process of determining where resources are best directed, and for whom funded programs should be designed. It could be argued, that a clearer definition that is acceptable to most institutions could improve the way the Jewish world invests in its future – because it would make investments and goals more coherent. But one could also make a counter argument: A broadly accepted definition could inhibit the ability and inclination of Jewish institutions to invest in a variety of programs aimed at a variety of people.

Legal consequences for Israel and voluntary Jewish organizations. In Israel, Jewishness has practical meaning – for example, the state-sanctioned religious authority under which couples can marry (there is no civil marriage in Israel).65 As mentioned above, a (different, non-halachic) definition of Jewishness has practical meaning not just to Jewish Israelis but also to non-Israeli Jews – as in the definition at the heart of the Law of Return.66

Legal definitions are not usually associated with Jewish institutions outside Israel. However, in the case of determining Jewishness they could be considered, in a broader sense, to also have consequences. For example, there are Jewish institutions in which certain roles (for example, members of certain synagogue committees) are reserved for Jews. Or the fact that only Jews by a certain definition are eligible to become rabbis in all institutions currently conferring ordination. And again, these institutions are making their own determinations about whom they consider “Jewish,” and these determinations vary greatly from one institution to the other. Still, the starting point for all of these institutions is similar to the one underlining JPPI’s study: They need to decide what they consider to be “Jewish” in this time of fluid identity.

Psychological consequences: Jews count. And we do so continually. To be sure, this is understandable for a people that lost a third of its members just 70 years ago, and a people that constitutes a tiny minority in all places except Israel. In addition, demographers agree that the arithmetic is clear: as a percentage of world population the Jewish people is in numerical decline, which is likely to continue.

These facts impact the Jewish state of mind. In Diaspora communities Jews worry about maintaining their status as a valued and significant minority, and in Israel Jews want their state to remain Jewish, not in name only but also as a numerical majority. There are Jews for whom a definitional loosening would have disheartening consequences, and, conversely, there are those for whom stricter definitions might have dire consequences. Obviously, if the number of Jews is important, the definitions under which these numbers are determined are also important. Hence we count. But after we count, there are often fierce debates among policy makers and demographers over the efficacy of the various demographic studies. And more often than not, these debates are about the criteria for determining who is eligible to be counted as a Jew.

Implications for “peoplehood.” The group with whom one identifies, and the sense of responsibility felt as a result, is framed by who is (or is not) considered to be part of the Jewish people. Most Jews understand that finding a single, strict, and binding definition of Jewishness in today’s world may be impossible. Then again, many still hope that a certain level of understanding and agreement is within reach. One possible motivation for reaching a consensus understanding is the realization that if the Jewish world becomes so fragmented that one Jewish group can no longer recognize another Jewish group as “Jewish,” the result will be an irreparable schism of the Jewish people (they are those who would argue that this already happened to some degree).

Such splits have occurred in Jewish history, and could occur again. They could be of even greater consequence if the definition acceptable to the Jewish state becomes too remote from what is acceptable to non-Israeli Jews. This could amount to an unbridgeable conceptual gap between the Jewish state and half of the Jewish people (that is, of course, unless most Diaspora Jews become Israelis – and then again, even in this unlikely scenario it would be asked: Which “Jews”?).

Our aim for the 2016 Dialogue was to try and clarify some of the implications on policy that current trends have, and to generate recommendations based on the exploration of this topic with groups of engaged Jews all over the world. Specific chapters dedicated to the implications on each of the above mentioned fields appear later in this report.