In our opening discussion on this topic (please see Why Be Jewish? - Defining the Question
), we raised the issue that, while defining oneself as Jewish indicates that one is a member of a certain grouping, individuals generally still have their own personal definition of what it means to be Jewish. This then raises the question of what it truly means to be Jewish. If describing oneself as Jewish means that one is a member of this certain group, yet the members of this group may have their own personal definition of the nature of this grouping, what then does such a declaration actually mean? If the nature of the group is unclear, defining oneself as a member of such a group does not really provide much further distinct information about this individual – except that this person defines himself/herself as a member of this group without any clear clarification of what this association actually means. The further question would then be: why do individuals wish to so define themselves?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek presents two explanations for association with the Jewish group: Fate and Destiny. By the term Fate, he maintains that one motivation for why a person describes himself /herself as a member of this group is because one believes oneself to share the same possible consequence as other members of this group. Phrased differently, this argument for group identity would be that one sees oneself as part of this group because of some external factor that connects the person to the group. A concern for antisemitism would be an example of such a factor; one recognizes oneself as Jewish, as a member of the Jewish group, in order to connect with compatriots in the battle against antisemitism. Within this motivation of group identity, the force of connection emerges from without.
By the term Destiny, however, Rabbi Soloveitchik refers to the motivation for group identity that emerges from the self. We wish to connect with others who, we believe, share our visions, share our perception of what we wish for our destiny. This definition of the group, as such, does not necessarily emerge from outside ourselves as it must relate to our perception of what we wish from our connection to this group. Within this motivation of group identity, the force of connection actually emerges from within.
Of course, the nature of Jewish identity is not a this-or-that phenomenon but a result of a dynamic involving both these factors. It is actually thereby that we can better understand the challenge we face today regarding the identity of the Jewish group. There are variant forces outside of ourselves that are factors in the construction of the Jewish group. They are, furthermore, outside our control. We then also have within ourselves -- within our own individual desires of what we may wish from the group -- our own personal perceptions of the resultant definition of the group. Jewish identity is, thus, the result of a multi-dimensional interaction of various forces - within and without - often balanced singularly, and differently, by individuals. Why be Jewish? There may be many, many different reasons why a person may wish to integrate what he/she defines as Jewishness into his/her life. This is because there may be, given the variant possible forces existent in the construction of Jewish identity, numerous ways for one to find an expression of Jewishness to one’s liking – and this is not necessarily negative. It still demands. though, some cohesive structure within the unity of the group.
In regard to our forefather Yaakov’s blessing to his sons recorded at the conclusion of the Book of Bereishit, the commentators note that the overriding message of this blessing was the importance for the brothers, as individuals with distinct talents and strengths, to come together as a unified collective. Jewish identity must be cognizant of the uniqueness of each person but it must also describe some collective understanding of the group. Even as we are all different with our own distinctive understanding of our Jewishness, we still must come together in articulating the essential nature of our group identity. In some collective manner, we still must balance these forces from within and from without. Our study and investigation must, as such, continue as we attempt to arrive at some collective, interactive understanding of what Jewishness is.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
Rabbi Hecht has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
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