Replace ‘Who is a Jew?’ with ‘Who is a Jew for What?’

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In a time of fluid identity, Jews understand the need to be pragmatic in defining Jewishness.

Most Jews today consider their Jewishness to be an expression of nationality or peoplehood more than they consider it to be an expression of religion. Most of them also think that “taking care of Jews” is more important for Jews than “keeping the laws of the Torah.”

These are some of the findings from the recently released study of The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), which aimed to explore “the Jewish Spectrum in a time of fluid identity.”

My colleague John Ruskay and I engaged in conversation with hundreds of Jews all over the world as we were trying to figure out how the Jews understand the meaning of their Jewishness, and the criteria of belonging to the Jewish people. One thing we found: Jews are somewhat confused, as the challenges of belonging they face in this era are profound.

Here is one example of such confusion: the Jews who participated in our study see “peoplehood” and “culture” as the most valued “primary aspects of Judaism.” But when we asked them about the criteria of belonging to the Jewish people, many of them turned to religious criteria. As we say in the report: “There is something of a disconnect between how these Jews rank the most important components of Judaism (“religion” and “genealogy\ ancestry” as the least valued), and the way they define criteria for belonging to the group of Jews (Jewish mother or parent, is religious\ancestral criteria).”

Moreover, in our discussions with Jews in America, Israel, Australia, Brazil, Britain and other places, there was a clear discomfort with the notion of describing Jews as a group defined by blood (ancestry) or religion. Many Jews prefer to view the Jewish collective as united by values or culture.

Many place enormous value in self-definition and are reluctant to accept any dictated rules or criteria for belonging to the people.

And yet, confusion sets in as we look at the survey of all study participants.

In the survey, these wide-opened arms are folded, and there is a tendency among Jews to strive for communally- agreed-upon criteria of Jewishness.

It could be ancestral criteria (people who say that a Jew is a person “born to a Jewish parent or mother”). It can be behavioral criteria (people who say that a Jew is a person who has “Jewish engagement”). But there is a criteria.

There is, as we write, a wish “to develop as broad as possible an understanding of what Jewishness means.”

And note: the Jews might want criteria, but they do not want rabbinical authority to determine these criteria. We found in our study that the erosion of rabbinical authority to determine one’s Jewishness is twofold: first, there has been a general erosion among Jews of the belief that rabbis should define Jewishness, and second there is a more specific reluctance of Jews to accept the authority of rabbis other than their own.

So Jews face a highly complicated world of Jewish connectedness, with no clear authority acceptable to everyone to determine who is Jewish.

So what do the Jews suggest we do? Our study found that they suggest – implicitly – that we change the question. Rather than asking, “Who is a Jew?” the Jews now ought to ask, “Who is a Jew for what purpose.”

What do we mean by that? Cognizant of the impossibility of agreeing on what makes a person “Jewish” for all things, our study participants tended to be pragmatic. Rather than look for any general “definition” of Jewishness, they apply different definitions – or different expectations – to different situations. Rather than trying to reach agreement on an entry bar for Jewishness, they negotiate the feasibility of diverse entry bars for a multiplicity of Jewish connections.

How does this work in reality? Following our study, it is possible to paint with a broad brush a certain hierarchy of Jewish expectations and norms that would apply to different situations. The entry bar for inclusion is low, and the expectation of Jews is that the Jewish community be welcoming to those seeking to participate in Jewish life. But Jews would apply a higher standard of Jewish connectedness to their communal leaders, and even a higher one to their religious leaders. They agree that criteria for The Law of Return could be stricter than the one for membership in a Diaspora Jewish community.

Engaged Jews in today’s world would apply certain rules to Israel that do not apply to the Diaspora community, they expect certain things of their communal leaders they do not expect of all participants in Jewish life. They understand that Judaism is many different things to many different people, and would like to be pragmatic about this reality. To be inclusive, and to maintain some norms by which to sustain the sentiment that we are a people.

The author is a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute. This article is an adaptation from JPPI’s recent report: “Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity.”

This article first ran in The Jerusalem Post.