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Who is a Jew: Re-evaluating the Boundaries of Jewish Identity

Israel Democracy Institute, Pinsker 4, Jerusalem More details will be announced at a later date.

On Thursday, December 1, IDI held a seminar on the 'Boundaries of Jewish Identity' that discussed questions related to identity, conversion and solidarity, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

The roundtable featured notable rabbis, public figures and academics from Israel and around the world, including sociologist, Professor Steven M. Cohen, Professor Michael Walzer, Author Leon Wieseltier, Professor Shira Wolosky, Rabbi David Stav, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Rabbi Yaaqov Medan.

 Related Op-eds:

Panel 1: Jewish Identity and its Influence on Israeli Culture

According to playwright Joshua Sobol, "We are living through a time when people around the world are increasingly self-identifying based on nationalism, which is creating barriers between people and leading to increased intolerance of different cultures. In Israel, something called 'insular identification' exists, whereby society's 'peel' is being made thicker, at the expense of enriching its cultural content."

Professor Haviva Pedaya: "Today, Judaism is undergoing a scaling down process, similar to the European model of nationalism. It's actually secular people who are attempting to impose this singular model, which is based on a single, accepted truth."

Rabbi Yaaqov Medan: "The President of Israel recently mixed up the concepts of tribes and nations. In Israel, there are four 'tribes' – secular, national religious, ultra-Orthodox and Jews from the Diaspora. Arabs comprise an entirely different nation." Medan added that "Jewish identity must be strengthened, based on us being the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by virtue of the brit milah [circumcision ceremony] and the ascent onto Mount Moriah. If we only go in the direction of modern Jewish culture, I am very worried about the continuity of Jewish identity into the future."

Panel 2: Jewish Identity from a Personal Perspective

This session was moderated by Jeremy Sharon, Religious Affairs Reporter for the Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi David Stav: "There is a gap between the halachic and societal definitions of Judaism. According to the Law of Return, we define a Jew based on the Nuremberg Laws, not the halacha. Today, we must ask every Jew what he is willing to do on behalf of his Judaism."
Judaism must be comprised of a set of values, affiliations and content, so that a person can develop an understanding of what he is willing to do for it. This sense of obligation can be acted upon by moving to Israel, donating, going to synagogue or not marrying a non-Jew. Without these definitions as to what it means to be Jewish, there's no point to Judaism and it will eventually disappear into history."

Professor Shira Wolosky: "We are not dealing with questions related to DNA, but to issues of identity: where you grew up and what you believe. Today, people around the world are not usually affiliated with just one group. Historically, Jews have always lived among non-Jews, while maintaining ties to Jewish communities. In today's globalized world, only the most fundamentalist religious sects are closed to people from outside a defined community. As such, defining 'who is a Jew?' today is just one more personal struggle, among various competing identities, in an individual's ongoing efforts to develop a concept of self."

Panel 3: Methods of Becoming a Member of the Jewish People

According to noted Jewish sociologist Professors Steven M. Cohen: "Today, there are 200,000 Jews who do not have Jewish parents. Out of these, 120,000 have not undergone conversions, but see themselves and their children as Jewish. As such, we need to welcome all these 'non Jews'."
Cohen added that "young Jews today do not approve of certain definitions of Judaism, especially those that imply a privileged status to being Jewish. Therefore, we need to develop more ideological and societal-based definitions of belonging."

Shmuel Rosner from the Jewish People Policy Institute: "Our research finds that when you ask a Jew to define his/her Jewishness, you are likely to be asked a question in response: 'is this Jewishness meant to serve primarily as a connection to a community? Expedite the process of getting married by the Rabbinate? A way to identify with the state of Israel?' As such, there should not be only one kind of conversion, but rather a series of conversion options that are in sync with the variety of contexts in which people who identify themselves as Jewish define 'Jewishness'."

Reform Rabbi Dalia Marx: "We must develop a conversion process in Israel that makes it easier for people who grow up here, celebrate the [Jewish] holidays and serve in the army. This is a matter of Klal Yisrael, not of justice. Is this not better than a conversion process in which people must be religiously disingenuous? Such a gateway to Judaism is offensive and harmful. Ultimately, anyone forced to live this way cannot create. With regards to Diaspora Jewry, the goal is not to marry a Jewish man or woman, but to raise Jewish children." 

Concluding Panel: Jewish Solidarity in an Age of Pluralism

According to Natan Sharansky, Jewish Agency Chairman: "The foundation of solidarity is based on communities' feeling that they are a part of a historical process. While Jews around the world are fighting the attempts to delegitimize Israel, we refuse to legitimize these people's ways of life. The absence of dialogue with Diaspora Jewry is a serious threat to Israel and it is the state's responsibility to engage in dialogue with all groups. It's amazing to me that we've managed to maintain a relationship with non-Orthodox Jews until now. This relationship will not continue indefinitely." 

Professor Michael Walzer of Princeton University: "Jews never had a political body that separated religion from the people. Today, religion is disputed more than ever, and we continue to debate the boundaries of what it means to be a religious Jew, as well as the obligations that come with being a member of the Jewish faith. What unites all the French people in France is what must unite all the Jews in Israel. Today, most people around the world view the Jewish state as a 'Catholic state.' In other words, Israel is regarded as a religious state, not a nation. This perception is a failure of Zionism. After all, the aim of Zionism was to establish a new Jewish nation that would include minorities who identify, to a greater or lesser extent, with the Zionist enterprise. Therefore, Zionism should have created a clear separation between Israel's national identity as a Jewish state and Judaism."

Professor Yedidia Stern, Vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, summed up the discussions that took place during the 'Boundaries of Jewish Identity' roundtable: "The problem is that a large number of Jews in the Diaspora do not define their Jewish identity based on Jewish history and Jewish tradition. If we do not dedicate ourselves to preserving Jewish tradition, something that we are not doing today, it will cease to exist. First, this tragedy will befall the Diaspora. Then, it will be experienced in Israel. As such, we must initiate projects, such as uploading the entire cannon of Jewish written tradition onto the Internet, and the development of a user friendly index to increase interest and accessibility. In addition, forums for the weekly discussion of current events, as viewed from a uniquely Jewish lens, should be implemented. Also, projects that deal with human rights issues around the world from the perspective of Jewish tradition should be established.

Such ideas, if implemented, will serve to connect Jews of all denominations to their Jewish past and preserve Jewish solidarity."

9:30 a.m.: Welcome Reception

9:45 a.m.: Opening Remarks
Prof. Yedidia Stern, Israel Democracy Institute

10:00-11:00 a.m.: Panel 1
Moderated by Yair Sheleg, Israel Democracy Institute

  • 10:00: Author Leon Wieseltier: Jewish Identity from a Personal Perspective
  • 10:30: Rabbi Yaaqov Medan: The Essence of Jewish Identity and its Implication on Boundary Types

11:00 a.m.: Panel 2 - Jewish Identity and its Influence on Israeli Culture
Moderated by Efrat Shapiro Rosenberg
Participants: Dr. Meir Buzaglo, Prof. Haviva Pedaya and Playwright Joshua Sobol 

12:00 p.m.: Lunch Break

12:45 p.m.: Panel 3 - Methods for Becoming a Member of the Jewish people
Moderated by Liat Collins, International Edition Editor, Jerusalem Post
Participants: Rabbi Moshe Grylak, Rabba Dalia Marx, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Israeli Columnist Shmuel Rosner

1:45 p.m.: Panel 4 -  Attitudes Toward Mixed Marriages
Moderated by Seth Frantzman, Op-ed Editor, Jerusalem Post
Participants: Rabba Sivan Malkin Maas, Dr. Avinoam Rosenak, and Prof. Shalom Rosenberg

2:45: Break

3 p.m.: Panel 5 - The Question of Jewish Identity Via "Personal Choice"
Moderated by Jeremy Sharon, Religious Affairs Correspondent, Jerusalem Post
Participants: Prof. Steven M. Cohen, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, Rabbi David Stav, and Prof. Shira Wolosky

4 p.m.: Concluding Panel - Jewish Solidarity in an Age of Pluralism 
Moderated by Dr. Shuki Friedman, Israel Democracy Institute
Participants: Natan Sharansky, Prof. Yedidia Stern, Prof. Michael Walzer, and Dr. Einat Wilf 

5:30 p.m.: Event Ends