Let me begin
by thanking the Beth Tzedec Men’s Club for inviting me back to speak at this
celebration. In particular, thank you to Hersh and Cheryl Rosenthal and their
family for your commitment and dedication to the Men’s Club, our congregation and these scholarship awards.
One of the most often used buzzwords in Jewish circles for the past couple of decades has been Jewish Identity. We see and hear it everywhere. Jewish Day School will give your child a strong Jewish identity. Jewish camping fosters identity-building in a relaxed and immersive atmosphere. Supplementary schools build Jewish identity through Jewish engagement. Birthright, synagogue attendance, volunteering for Jewish causes, youth groups, take your pick. We all know this language, and we all inherently think we know what it means. But this morning, in the presence of these impressive scholarship recipients who are striving to make their mark on the Jewish world, their families and all of you, I want you to ask yourself. What is Jewish identity? And for that matter, what is identity at all?
Identity, to me, means who we are. How we self-define and self-categorize. Our gender; our citizenship; our religious or cultural connection; the languages we speak; whether we are parents, grandparents, partners; our professions; our interests and hobbies; our political leanings. All of these inputs craft individual identities that, as you can imagine, are becoming increasingly complex and increasingly personalized.
For Jews, until about 150 years ago, our identity was Jewish. It was all-encompassing, partly because we wanted it to be – self-preservation being important – and partly because it was imposed on us from the outside – herding of a minority group being important policy for the broader communities in which we lived. Because this was our state of affairs in most places we lived for most of the time from 1700 to 150 years ago, we now look back on this period through a lens of fallacy that, in my opinion, is to the detriment of our community today. To quote from American author and thinker Leon Wieseltier’s 2009 article entitled Language, Identity and the Scandal of American Jewry, the fallacy was an assumption that a Jew in 16th century Fez, Morocco had more in common with a Jew in 16th century Krakow, Poland than with a non-Jew in 16th century Fez.
This assumption – both the specific example and the broader perspectives it represents – have, in some cases, served the Jewish people well. Many of us feel connected in some special, and even unexplainable, way to Jews around the world. This assumption surely helped establish the State of Israel and free oppressed Soviet Jewry. It likely helped grow the Hebrew language into the language of the modern Jewish people. But how does this idea for me, a 32 year old Jewish professional, help define my identity.
The honest answer is that it doesn’t. The circumstances of our community life in 21st century Canada are completely different from anything Jews knew only 200 years ago. We are free to fully engage in the society around us. We are free to publicly declare our Judaism without fear of any repercussion – with legal protection and very little fear of overt anti-Semitism. And, most importantly, we are free to shape our identities using a wide range of inputs. So I can stand here and say that my identity includes being a husband, a father, a Jew, an analytical person, a golfer, a political junkie, a Zionist, a teacher, a Jewish professional, a scotch drinker, someone who is tracking his Torah reading in the hopes of eventually having read the entire Torah, and I can’t really tell you which is most important. It changes by the day, by the hour.
My sense of Jewish self is in many ways a pushback against our community’s mainstream understanding that Jewish identity will win the day. Both for me, and in my opinion for others, Jewish identity is not enough. To me, when I hear the term Jewish identity, it represents again, to me, a watered-down connection to other Jews and some loosely lived aspects of Jewish religion, history and culture.
Now, let me unpack this rather accusatory and inflammatory statement.
Wieseltier has called us “the luckiest Jews who ever lived – indeed…we are the spoiled brats of Jewish history. To a degree unprecedented in the history of our people”, he writes, “our own experience is discontinuous with the experience of our ancestors: not only our ancient ancestors, but also our recent ones. Their experience, particularly their experience of persecution, is increasingly unrecognizable to us. We do not possess a natural knowledge of their pains and their pressures. In order to acquire such a knowledge, we rely more and more upon commemorations – so much that we are in danger of transforming [North] American Jewish culture into an essentially commemorative culture.”
Through all of this, remember how lucky we are to live in a Western Democratic setting, with personal freedoms and protections that have allowed us, as individuals and as a community, to spread our wings wider and farther than our great-grandparents could have possibly imagined. Almost all Diaspora Jews now live in similar circumstances, and to one degree or another, are facing the same challenges as we are.
So what does Jewish identity consist of? For many Jews around us, it includes Jewish food, Jewish lingo, Friday night dinners at Bubby’s house, going to synagogue on the High Holidays, and having a lot of Jewish friends who can understand the ingrained cultural touchpoints that we have. Maybe it also includes a connection to Israel, though likely a shallow one, and a conection to the Shoah. Please excuse my Ashke-normativeness, as the Sephardic community is quite different, but Jews of Ashkenazi background are by far the majority of the Jewish community in Toronto, Canada and North America.
For this same group, however, Jewish identity likely does not include regular Jewish study, Jewish prayer, a deep understanding of Jewish history, the ability to speak, read and understand Hebrew, living life either according to or with deference to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, observing Kashrut, marking Shabbat as a distinct and unique day in the week, and so on.
These things are waning or absent for a whole host of reasons: a lack of personal connection or meaning – sometimes an internal exercise, but more often the result of an external force, either a negative experience or the absence of a positive one; a desire to not feel constrained or restricted in one’s actions and behaviour – the pinnacle of Western self-determination; a lack of knowledge followed by self-doubt about admitting said lack of knowledge; or just the busy-ness of modern life – with more opportunities come more obligations, commitments, wants and desires.
And now we get to the crux of Wieseltier’s problem, or issue, or challenge with Jewish identity, something echoed by Yehuda Kurtzer from the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. How long can Judaism in a Diaspora context sustain itself on food, friends and values (which, by the way, have significant overlap with Western democratic values, because, of course, they got them from us) and continue to remain distinct, as both a religion, a civilization and an identity? In my estimation, two to three generations max.
If you’re not fully depressed yet, I want to illustrate this phenomenon through a Talmudic story. Our Rabbis taught – and this is from Talmud Brachot, 61b – that the Roman government issued a decree forbidding the Jewish people to study Torah and engage in Jewish ritual practice. A Jewish man named Pappus ben Judah – note the Greek first name and the name of his father, taken another way this man’s identity is Assimilated Jew, son of non-assimilated Jew – finds Rabbi Akiva gathering students and teaching Torah. Pappus says to Akiva, ‘Avika, aren’t you afraid of the government?’ Akiva replies ‘Let me explain with a parable:
‘A fox was walking along river, and he saw fish swimming in swarms from one bank to the other. The fox said, ‘What are you fleeing from?’ The fish answered, ‘from the nets cast for us by people.’ The fox then said, ‘Would you like to come up on dry land to escape the nets?’ The fish replied, ‘You are foolish! If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more in the element in which we would die!’” Akiva then continued to say to Pappus, ‘So it is with us. Our environment is studying Torah, which is now dangerous; but it will be even more dangerous to not study and teach’.
Soon afterwards, Akiva is arrested and imprisoned, and lo and behold, so is Pappus. Akiva asks Pappus, ‘Pappus, what are you doing here?’ Pappus replies by saying, ‘Happy are you, Rabbi Akiva, that you have been arrested for busying yourself with Torah! Alas for Pappus who has been seized for busying himself with idle things.’
If we’re going down, Rabbi Akiva believes, let’s go down with a bang, not with a whimper.
But – and here’s where we’ve bottomed out and begin to come back up again – I don’t think it is inevitable that we are going down. Unlike Rabbi Akiva, who knew full well that Jews were being persecuted whether they taught Torah or were highly assimilated like Pappus, we are not doomed to a predestined result. Our blaze of glory is not one that we will go down in, but instead one that will raise us up.
What does this blaze need to look like? For one, it looks like the scholarship recipients in this room, people who are making a commitment to meaningful Jewish learning and relevant Jewish teaching.
In Wieseltier’s article, he believes the biggest challenge to the Jewish future is an erosion of Jewish literacy. He notes that there are two ways to educate: conviction and competence. Conviction, says Wieseltier, cannot and will not be enough. He writes:
“We cannot teach our children what to believe; or rather, we can try to teach them what to believe, but we can never be certain of the success of our effort. They will believe what they wish to believe. We cannot control their belief. Indeed, we must be grateful for their freedom of mind. But it is not an illusion of control to think that we can permanently arrange matters so that our children will never be shut out of their own tradition, out of their own books. If we cannot make sure that we will be followed by believing Jews, we certainly can be sure that we will be followed by competent Jews. Indeed, competence leaves a Jew favourably disposed to conviction. A competent Jew is not destroyed by his questions, because he can look for the answer himself. He or she has the tools. Ignorance, I think, is much more damaging than heresy.”
Helping Jews discover, or re-discover, their Jewish competency is the fire that fuels my work, and I’m sure in one way or another it fuels the work and passion of our scholarship recipients. Imagine a liberal Jewish world where children and adults regularly engage in Jewish learning, more Jewish practice, and see it as an important part of who they are. Where Friday night dinners become Shabbat dinners. Where prayer is not a rote activity but a personal expression of one’s thankfulness and gratitude. Where more Jews speak Hebrew, read Hebrew, and understand and appreciate our ancient texts in their original language. Where we live by Jewish values – that just so happen to have influenced the development of Western democratic values – and structure our time if not by the Jewish calendar, then at least in consideration of the Jewish calendar.
If we believe that the continuation of the Jewish people as more than an ethno-cultural group is the goal, and if we can’t convince the next generation what to do or how to think, then knowledge and skills, discipline and practice is not only our best bet, but our only hope. This, coupled with dynamic, energetic, enthusiastic community leaders who are free to think progressively and innovatively, will no doubt secure for our children and grandchildren a Jewish future where we are no longer speaking about creating and shaping a person’s Jewish identity, but instead creating and shaping a person’s Jewishness.
Make time for Jewishness in your life. Make space for Jewishness in your life. Allow for Jewishness to create meaning in your life. Lastly and most importantly, take that fire, that blaze of glory, and light others’ candles with it. If we commit to this – and it takes both committed leadership and committed followers – then there will be no need to speak about Jewish identity, as if it is one component of who we are. We instead will speak of Jewish people, who are committed to their religious and ethno-cultural past, present and future.