Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Sunday, 25 October 2009

Nationality vs Identity

One of the interesting developments of secular society in Israel is to create a new identity for the non-religious Jews in the country. Whereas since time immemorial what being Jewish meant and what a Jewish identity was were well defined, since the creation of an official secular Jewish society, all sorts of new ideas have come into existence.
For years, the chilonim would even try to identify themselves as Israelis, not Jews. When I was a student at the University of Toronto, they even insisted on having a group separate from the Jewish Students' Association because the idea of hanging around with us, even the non-religious ones, didn't hold any appeal for them. There were Israelis and we were Canadians. There was no sense of connect.
After Intifada II, a lot of that seemed to change. For one thing, the idea of the Arabs in Israel feeling strongly about the country and putting their loyalty to it above their feelings of belonging to the enemies across the Green Line died with the conflict. They became "Palestinians" first and always (although they insisted they had no interest in actually moving to a future Palestine. Odd that...) Secular Israelis were left noticing an uncomfortable fact: the only people in the country left identifying as Israelis were the Jews so, like before 1948, the notion of the Israeli started to fade and they became Jews again.
Unfortunately decades of living under the assumption of an artificial identity has left them with no idea about what a Jew is. Thus they have come forward and simply taken those values and definitions from their secular Israeli identity and tried to create, like their secular Zionist forbears, the concept of the "new Jew", one who is proudly Jewish but without endorsing anything that remotely resembles Judaism.
Naturally this has been a problem since 15% of the country continues to display their Jewish behaviour and insist that the classic definition is the only definition. And, in opposition to the secular majority, they are correct.
The definition of a Jew is not something that has been vague over the centuries, thus malleable and available to any and all for manipulation. Despite the impression many have that Judaism is a religion, it is actually a nationality and like any other nationality in the world, there are criteria for membership. In the case of Judaism one is a Jew either through birth to a Jewish mother or conversion al pi halacha. This is a rather simple thing to understand.
Unfortunately it has a bothersome implication. As God has no police (despite what some idiots might think) there is no enforcement in This World of halacha. A Jew can freely eat bacon and desecrate the Shabbos without obvious consequences. Further, actions such as this do not threaten a Jew's citizenship in the Jewish nation (converts excepted in certain cases). Just as an American can endorce communism or commit murder (I'm not sure which is worse) but remain an American, so a Jew can violate all the tenets of the Torah yet he remains a Jew.
However, one of the trends of Western society over the last century has been a trend to avoid consequences of one's actions. Over the last few decades this desire for a lack of responsibility has led to a "I'm the real victim" culture. No one commits a misdemeanour and admits "Yeah, I done bad". Instead there are all sorts of justifications or and insistence that society is really at fault.
Jews have not been exempt from this faulty thinking process. As a result, we don't hear about non-religious Jews violating halacha. Instead they call themselves Reformative or secular and announce that the Shulchan Aruch simply doesn't apply to them! They're not bad. They're non-Orthodox.
And so their struggle goes on to discover some identity they can call their own:
On Tuesday the second Israeli Presidential Conference organized by President Peres will begin, one of the topics on the agenda being Jewish identity. I spoke to Prof. Gavison, who was asked to write a position paper ahead of the conference, on the subject. In the paper, Gavison discusses the question of Jewish identity, the nature of Judaism in the present day and the extent of its importance for the existence of the Jewish people, while debating fundamental dilemmas which define the Jewish identity, including the role of religion in shaping Jewish identity, the State's role and even the role of the Holocaust.
Aside from being a legalist of the highest order and one of the leading Israeli public figures on matters of law ethics, the court's role and more (and also my teacher in the Hebrew University's Faculty of Law over a decade ago..), in recent years Gavison has been addressing the issue of the line between state and religion, among others, in the framework of the Gavison-Medan covenant, the editing of Haim Cohen's book on who is a Jew, and more.
I asked her whether she thinks there is such a thing as a Jewish secular identity. She replied an unequivocal yes, but added that it is not a coherent or stable identity and more importantly isn't passed on to future generations in an orderly way.
She believes that the secular society needs to put in great effort into dealing with these questions – how does one form this identity? How does one impart it to future generations? How does one make it dynamic, evolving and relevant?
There is no solution, she says, but to acknowledge the fact that Judaism is a religion + culture + civilization and that, for the sake of the argument, we need to neutralize the element of God from it and in fact develop the cultural aspect - yes, it is possible to disregard the Godly aspect in the bible on the sublime-religious context and remain with the literary, moral, principled, legal, level. This also applies to the Talmud, the answers and questions literature and the entire Jewish religious world.
Obviously the term "to neutralize the God element" bothers me as a religious person, but neither I nor the likes of me are at the center of the issue, and in this context it is also obvious to me that she is right. Didn't the founding fathers of Zionism and the new "Israeliness" do just that – Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion, Brenner and others? Where have they failed? In imparting it onwards.
Today, those figures' third generation has no knowledge and awareness but it does know, as Prof. Gavison said, that "they threw the baby out with the bathwater." When they wanted to eliminate God, pardon me, they eliminated everything and were left without an alternative in the Jewish context.
Therefore, in order to sustain the Jewish-particular identity, alongside a cosmopolitan, democratic and humanist identity, it takes thorough and profound work common to seculars and religious alike who need to understand that our togetherness here cannot be dictated by one side or one opinion.
The conversation with Prof. Gavison dealt with much more that what has been described, it was rich and fascinating and left me with many open questions. I am glad to be part of a community which deals with these questions so intensely and holds deep, piercing and times painful and extremely controversial discussions on it. But as we in our community - on the "micro" level, like Prof. Gavison and the organizers of the Presidential conference - on the "macro" level, believe: We don't have, nor does the Israeli society as a whole has, the privilege of not discussing it, because it concerns us directly.

Professor Gaviscon may be a fine legal mind but her understanding of Judaism is critically faulty. Judaism is the nationality of the av nivchar, the people chosen by God to spread the message of His Torah to this world. One can certainly try to create a secular culture based on felafel and matzoh balls but this is not Judaism and it is dishonest to call it that, no matter how many adjectives you put in front of it.
People need to take an honest stock of themselves. No one is forcing them to observe God's law and if they wish to they are free in This World to avoid their obligations. Inventing ways of denying that this behaviour does not affect their quality of Judaism is a lie.

10 comments:

Chaim B. said...

The substitution of national identity for religious identity is why many of the gedolim originally opposed zionism, e.g. R' Elchanan in Ikvesa d'Meshicha.

SJ said...

Jews are just a nationality. Judaism is answerless.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

People need to take an honest stock of themselves. No one is forcing them to observe God's law and if they wish to they are free in This World to avoid their obligations. Inventing ways of denying that this behaviour does not affect their quality of Judaism is a lie.

Who needs to invent anything? Speaking as someone raised totally unaffiliated, I think much of halacha is bunk and I have no interest in following it outside of what I find to be personally useful, relevant or meaningful. I appreciate that the tradition is there because I like exploring its interesting nooks and crannies, but I don't see it as binding on me past what I choose to take on, and I'd guess that anyone would be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise.

Obviously making choices about how to live your life has an effect on your life; the issue is whether people can objectively demonstrate that non-Orthodox Judaism is bad, wrong or deficient, as opposed to just different relative to OJ. Most non-OJs are not Orthodox because they do not believe in Orthodox Judaism's theology or have an interest in living an Orthodox lifestyle. If the alternative to living as a non-OJ is total assimilation or lack of involvement/affiliation, I for one fail to see what's so detrimental about it. My pet peeve is that I would like non-OJs to be honest with themselves and others about their choices and thoughtful about their reasons. Then again, I'd like to see OJs do that too.

For the record, my take on the identity thing is that the Jews are a people (group identity) with a large body of traditions, both of which people may choose to opt in and out of with relative flexibility, particularly since, to paraphrase your post, we have neither a Pope nor police. The fact that the Orthodox don't see it this way bothers me not one bit.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> My pet peeve is that I would like non-OJs to be honest with themselves and others about their choices and thoughtful about their reasons.

Well that's my point too but that's why I disagree with your final sentence. Orthodoxy sees Judaism as a large body of traditions which are obligatory for those who wish to identify as practising Jews. If you don't want to identify as one, fine. But it's wrong, in my opinion, to announce that you're a good practising Jew, then define existing parameters to accomodate that.

SJ said...

You can be a good Jew in terms of ethics as opposed to being a good Jew in rituals.

Remember, not everyone who are good Jews in rituals are good Jews in ethics.

Off the Derech said...

>Remember, not everyone who are good Jews in rituals are good Jews in ethics.

ya don't say...

Garnel Ironheart said...

Well SJ, I think you do hit upon a good point. Mind you the law of random chances suggests you would have eventually.

A self-identifying Orthodox Jew who steals money but eats only glatt kosher meat is not much different from the non-Orthodox Jew who is scrupulously honest in business but eats at McDonald's. The only real difference is that when the Orthodox Jew eats the kosher meat he is doing it to fulfill the will of God while when the non-Orthodox Jew does it the reason is the more general "it's the right thing to do and I'm sure God would approve".

Ultimately the best path is the one in which people are scrupulous in both ethics and ritual. Unfortunately it seems hard for many to balance the two.

Shalmo said...

"Judaism is the nationality of the av nivchar, the people chosen by God to spread the message of His Torah to this world. "

Aside from the fact that I have utterly annihilated any chance of Torah MiSinai being even remotely tenable.

You say a Jew is one who spreads the message of the Torah to this world. Well thanks for that. Because now under your defintion almost NO JEW really fits that bill. With all the hypocrasy of the OJ world, they most certainly are not a light unto the nations. Nobody looks to Jews as pioneering examples of anything. Nor do any religious Jews spread Torah or monotheism, or the 7 Noachide laws to much of anybody. When in our history have they ever done this? Do you do it?

So Garnel based on your own defintion of a Jew, it seems even you do not make the cut!

Commenter Abbi said...

" But it's wrong, in my opinion, to announce that you're a good practising Jew, then define existing parameters to accomodate that."

I don't think the person announcing that their a good practicing Jew while eating a ham sandwich really cares that you think he's wrong. So your disapproval is really irrelevant.

David said...

Garnel--

In what cultural context do you believe that Shalom Aleichem was writing? What about the Yiddish theater? How about the Bundists? The Zionists? What about Mordechai Kaplan? Heck, what about blintzes? All these, and more, are part of Jewish history and culture.
I don't see why you feel the need to excoriate and belittle people who have a sincere attachment to Judaism but cannot reconcile themselves with every last aspect of the dogma.
Why are you so insistent that the corpus of halakha is "Judaism," and that anything other than that is something else?