Monday, November 20, 2006

Ties that Bind

In addition to the question, “Who is a Jew,” which alludes to halakhic debates about lineage and parentage, maybe we should ask, “What is a Jew”?

Jews who reject halakha often feel somehow deficient. They choose the non-halakhic life (whether by study or by inaccessibility), but balk at the label, “Bad Jew.” The attitude of the traditionally observant to the non-observant is that if they were truly educated, truly aware of the depth and richness of following halakha, then they would be “Good Jews.” That the choice to opt out of halakha, the intellectual, philosophical, and often emotional choice to live life not by the rabbinic law code, marks them as “other” and even “less then;” in the realm of those to be pitied, along with the goyim. The question is: does being a non-halakhic Jew make a person a Bad Jew? Is a Good Jew primarily defined as a person who follows halakha (which begs the question: which halakha)? In which case, why bother? If I truly believe that I am not bound by halakha, that God did not give those laws, but rather they are man-made, and if I reached this point through extensive study and consideration (I know, I know, I’m young, how much study can I have done so far?), then am I a Bad Jew? Unquestionably Judaism is a struggle. I don’t know a single Jew, even a traditionally observant Jew raised in a traditionally observant household, who doesn’t struggle with his or her religion. I think that struggle is the result of having an inclusive literature and an action based doctrine. It should not matter what you believe, so long as you do (we can discuss the nuances of that claim another time). So what happens when what you believe restricts what you do? When observing halakha without the attendant belief is no longer an option?

Neil Gillman teaches that once our myths are broken, we practice anyway. We choose Judaism, Jewish myth, Jewish ritual. For a myriad of reasons, we place our feet firmly in the stream of Jewish tradition, even if we know that stream to be a human construction. If we fail at this task, then what remains? What is Judaism, if not a system of laws that govern behavior, a call to ritual and prayer?

The Center for Cultural Judaism frames Judaism as “the history, culture, civilization, ethical values and shared experiences of the Jewish people. [Cultural Jews connect] to their heritage [through] languages, literature, art, dance, music, food and celebrations of the Jewish people. It is not religious beliefs that connect them to each other, but the entire civilization of their extended Jewish family.” Okay, that’s one perspective. Culture is certainly compelling at a Weberian level, but is it enough to cohere a people together? Does it provide enough positive content to answer the question, “What is a Jew?”. Nextbook and JVoices have also been attempting to address the question of positive Jewish content beyond halakha through a series of interviews with non-traditional Jews. Both series are worth perusing (although the Nextbook pieces go into greater depth and are in a more formal interview style), particularly because they offer unusual perspectives from:

A writer, who’s encountered her share of tragedy;

A band manager and bar owner, who inherited a questioning cultural identity from his atheist parents;

The product of a Muslim-Jewish union, who’s raising his son Jewish;

A woman who connects to Judaism through activism;

A Reform Progressive Jew;

A gay Jew, who reflects on growing up in a mixed religion household;

A woman who continuously reaffirms her choice to be Jewish;

And an aspiring writer of Yiddish punk songs.

And, lastly (for now), Eric M. Selinger describes the struggle of the non-Halakhic Jew:

Let's strip it down to something practical. I know many, many non-Halakhic Jews, both religiously affiliated and utterly on-their-own, and almost of them feel any real nostalgia for "halakhic certainty." None would trade their misbelief, disbelief, or make-believe-belief for any sort of blessed assurance. Does this mean that they do not feel nostalgia? Not necessarily--but what they miss, or feel they miss, might be better understood in purely social and psychological terms than in religious ones. And even here, they're savvy enough to know that the price of what they feel nostalgia for--some version of "community," I suppose--is far higher (in freedom, in modernity, etc.) than they'd ever be willing to pay. And some don't feel that they're missing anything, really, at all. That may not be a Nietzschean confidence, but it's not loss & rupture, either.
He's close, but I can't say I don't feel like I'm missing something. Sometimes, in choosing one road, you have to pay the price of loss, even if it is of something you cannot quite quantify or in which you cannot quite believe.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but the triple-negative ("I can't say I don't feel like I'm not missing anything") has me confused. That literally means that you can't say you feel like you're missing anything, i.e. that you can say you don't feel like you're missing anything - but that doesn't make that much sense in context. Please clarify.

-The Rooster

harley said...

You're right. I meant a double negative: I can't say that I don't feel like I'm missing something. Meaning, I feel as if I am missing something (contrary to Eric Selinger's assertion). I'll fix the post. Thank you for pointing out my mistake, TR.

Anonymous said...

"I don’t know a single Jew, even a traditionally observant Jew raised in a traditionally observant household, who doesn’t struggle with his or her religion."

As Mobius reminded me recently, "Yisroel" means "He who struggles with God."

I guess when we exclude God from the equation, our struggle is only over identity. The answers remain as elusive, but somehow the questions are less interesting.

I suspect that beyond historical oppression and victimology, I suspect secular Jews focus on anti-Semitism not just out of anger or pain, but also as an implicit existential question -- is there a reason? Is there something to this thing?

BZ said...

Is a Good Jew primarily defined as a person who follows halakha (which begs the question: which halakha)?

I agree that this begs the question (because this leads to a circular definition of halakha), but that's different from raising a question.

babytyrone said...

So what happens when what you believe restricts what you do? When observing halakha without the attendant belief is no longer an option?

Thank you -- I am always trying to figure out ways to say this and have never been able to come up with a formulation this clear. My very religious parents love to engage me in Jewish-philosophical debate on the theme of Orthopraxy: "Fine, so you don't believe what we believe. Why can't you act as we act?" I argue that I do practice insofar as my actions do not contradict what I do believe, which is what I think you are getting at here: I have my own code of ethics, partly but not entirely derived from Judaism, and in some places it contradicts halakhic Judaism as my parents practice it. My folks counter that this code of ethics is in fact derived out of convenience -- I have chosen to do what I want, not what I think is right.

In turn, I can only argue that in my parents' conception, orthopraxy is simply a step on the road to orthodoxy (m'toch she'lo lishma, ba lishma), and so they are at once disingenuous and can never see me and my ethics as anything but disingenuous.

I don't think of myself as a Bad Jew, or as nostalgic for halakha, but if that was really true, then why do I even engage in this argument, which I do constantly? (and why did I feel a need to post it here?)

harley said...


I was using "begs the question" in the sense you meant and correctly. I did not mean to imply that it raised the question.

BZ said...

Great! Sorry to jump on you; i was a bit overzealous this week on my "beg the question" patrol. Anyway, good post.

Anonymous said...

Part of the difficulty in answering these questions is that there are really three streams of inquiry:

1) How do others define me?

2) How do I define myself to others?

3) How do I define myself to myself?

The question of labels - "Good Jew" vs. "Bad Jew"... or even "Jew" to begin with - these questions only have strong relevance for the first two questions. When I'm trying to define myself to myself, does it really matter what terms I use? I am a person - a lost soul, trying to make sense of what I really and truly believe to be the truth. My goal might be to find truth and live by it.

The labels, then, are an almost regrettable byproduct of having to communicate what I am to others. All I can do is recognize that I have no ultimate control of how others choose to see me. Some will give me labels no matter what I try to explain. Others will mean well, but misunderstand.

Boo to labels.