Puzzle of Jewish identity: A people, faith, nation? Judaism in America seeks definition, while resisting extinction by assimilation.


June 07, 1998|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,Special to the sun

For American Jews, fear of assimilation and the enormous differences among Jews, who range from ultra-Orthodox to Reform, from practicing to non-practicing, and from believers to what is known as "secular" Jews, have exacerbated intense inner questioning about Jewish identity. Who is a Jew? Who has the authority to make a definition stick? In this period of ethnic soul searching, other ethnic groups have asked questions similar to those Jews are asking of themselves - but none as poignantly introspective as are Jews.

There is no answer to these questions. They must be asked of each person who calls himself or herself a Jew. In the United States, no one group or leader has the authority to define a Jew. We are stuck, for better or worse, with the intense voluntarism which is the basis of American democracy. This means that Jews have here what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once called a "family resemblance": A is like B, and B like C, but A may hardly be like C at all. We are all part of the same endearing but perhaps disfunctional family.

One of the causes of concern over the future of American Jewry may be this country's "blessings of liberty." In Europe, during the Holocaust, many Jews who hardly thought of themselves as Jews became defined as Jews by the Nazi state. German Jewish resistance fighter Lisa Fittko, for example, recently honored for rescuing political leaders and Jews from the Nazis, reflected, "It was the Holocaust which made us feel Jewish."

But in America, a relative lack of anti-Semitism is not always an unmitigated blessing. Arnold M. Eisen, chairman of Religious Studies at Stanford University, in "Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America" (Indiana University Press, 186 pages, $24.95), cites a recent study that shows American Judaism in a precarious position. "At any given moment only a quarter of American Jews are in any way active in Jewish life, religious or secular, while perhaps another 35 percent are marginally connected to it and fully 40 percent seem totally alienated. More Jews now marry Gentiles than marry other Jews, and the vast majority of those intermarried couples are not raising Jewish children." Many Jewish leaders, like Eisen, are worried that freedom may succeed in wiping out American Jewry as effectively as the Nazis annihilated the Jews of Europe.

What is particularly confusing for Jews attempting to define ourselves is that Jews can be considered a people, members of a religion and a nationality. Each category gives rise to bitterly held differences. As a people, Jews have a storied past that reaches back four millennia to Abraham. Thomas Cahill's "The Gifts of the Jews" (Doubleday, 291 pages, $23.50) lyrically recounts the early phases of this history that make up the Old Testament. Cahill declares exuberantly, "The Jews started it all - and by 'it' I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and atheist, tick."

Arthur Hertzberg, president of the American Jewish Congress, has recently dictated to his co-author, Aron Hirt-Manheimer, a fascinating series of vignettes in Jews: "The Essence and Character of a People" (HarperSanFrancisco. 294 pages, $25), which covers the whole range of Jewish history from Abraham to Woody Allen.

Hertzberg speaks of the Jews as "the chosen, the factious, and the outsider." In a telling passage, Hertzberg summarizes the view of the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, leader of the Reconstructionist movement, as saying that in America, "Judaism could no longer be summarized in the phrase 'I must' . . . If Judaism was to survive in a free environment . . . the only phrase that could be used is 'I ought.'" But how then, Hertzberg asked Kaplan, could Jews stay Jews? "Kaplan's response was that the Jewish experience had to be made so rich and compelling that Jews would choose to live at least part of their lives within it and not go elsewhere."

One result of this thinking has been an intense Jewish renewal movement in the United States, a decisive pulling back from full assimilation, with greater involvement in Jewish communities, Hebrew studies and formalized religious practice. While many have stopped short of a full commitment to halakah, the body of Jewish law regulating all aspects of life, many Jews of the baby boom generation have become more observant and more involved in Jewish communal life than were their parents.

While both Hertzberg and Arnold Eisen seem to embrace the pluralistic forms this return to observance is taking, including the strong influence of feminism, Eisen insists that Jews must be preoccupied with "God-wrestling," involved in Jewish communities, and committed to detailed ritualistic observance.

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