Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Thinking About Judaism

I blog a lot about Jews and Jewish concerns. But I rarely talk about my Jewishness in the abstract. But Daisy of Dear Diaspora points out that we are getting to the point where my generation has to take responsibility for Judaism writ large. That being said, she asks the following questions, which I'm answering from the hip, and I hope spark further conversation on the topic.

What do you like about Judaism and Jewish culture? What do you dislike?

I like that Judaism is a place of ideas. It is a place where intellect and argument are valued, and more importantly, not valued for their own sake but as a critical tool in the pursuit of social justice.

I dislike Jewish passivity. I think we are too tame in asserting ourselves as an independent perspective worthy of respect and dignity -- on concerns explicitly Jewish and not. For all the talk of Jewish pushiness, there is a definitive keep-your-head down mentality stemming from a desire not to reinforce stereotypes of power and neurosis. I don't fault folks for being cautious, but I don't have to like it either.

Why are Judaism and Jewish culture important? Why is it important to preserve them?

Whenever someone asks me why Judaism is important to me, I always respond first by citing Emil Fackenheim's 614th Commandment. I can't say much more about it except to say that it exhibits a genuine pull on me. I can feel it, as deep in my soul as it can get.

Beyond that, though, I think Judaism offers an important perspective on issues. We've been around awhile. We have a lot to say. It is good that we're here to say it, and it is good that we are still conversant in the history and practices which make our speech intelligible and give it context, nuance, and richness.

What is your relationship with Judaism as a religion? Do you feel connected to Judaism? To a temple community, to a minyan, to a study group? If not, would you like to be?

Are you affiliated with any of the movements? Which one, and why? If not, why not? What do you like and/or dislike about it?


I have home synagogue, which I like a lot, but I don't really go to synagogue that often. Again, my connection with Judaism is far stronger on the ideas side than it is on the ritual side (though that is important to me too). In terms of movements, my synagogue is Conservative, and I like my synagogue, so I'm a Conservative Jew. If I was picking out of the air, though, I'd probably identify closer with Reconstructionist Judaism -- I think they do the best job of taking Judaism seriously while still subjecting it to critical analysis.

How observant are you? How important is observance to you? How observant should others be? Are some kinds of observance more important than others?

I'm strangely observant. As you might have guessed, I care a lot about "thinking Jewishly" -- that is, it matters to me that my broader positions and ideologies cohere with my Jewish identity. In terms of ritualistic observance, I'm more haphazard. I don't keep any sort of strict Kosher, but I do avoid shellfish and pork, and cheeseburgers (but not milk & meat combos more generally). The specific anti-cheeseburger rule is a function of that food being the paradigmatic example of "things my friends could eat but I couldn't because I'm Kosher", so it matters more to me to keep that redline up.

What practices or ideas are most central to your Jewish identity? (i.e. eating bagels, loving books, celebrating the High Holidays, not celebrating Christian holidays, keeping kosher, fighting for justice, etc.)

Bagels are obviously important (and very difficult to find with any quality in the mid-west). I do tend to define a lot my Jewish practice in terms of distinctiveness -- namely, being distinctively not Christian. I don't celebrate Christian holidays with substantially more vigor than I do celebrate Jewish holidays. But that goes back to my desire to assert Jewish independence.

Ideally, what will Judaism and Jewish culture look like in 10 years? In 25 years? In 100 years?

Couldn't say -- I'd like to think it would be still evolving. And same in 1,000 years. Even ideally, things shouldn't be static.

What are most critical issues for the Jewish community to address right now? Israel, intermarriage, declining synagogue attendance, something else entirely?

Anti-Semitism matters a lot, and I do think we need to be vigorous in addressing it. But in general, I think it is critically important for Jews to establish and solidify our right to a positive, independent Jewish identity that is worthy of respect in of itself.

What are the key qualities for Judaism/Jewish culture to embody or functions for it to perform?

Judaism should be welcoming to all Jews, create space for Jews of diverse backgrounds and beliefs to enact their Jewishness in a variety of ways, and promote norms of fairness and justice throughout the Jewish community and the world.

7 comments:

Daisy Bond said...

Great, great, great post -- I agree with every word. Thank you for taking up the topic! Some scattered thoughts...

I can't say much more about it except to say that it exhibits a genuine pull on me. I can feel it, as deep in my soul as it can get.

I know exactly what you mean.

But in general, I think it is critically important for Jews to establish and solidify our right to a positive, independent Jewish identity that is worthy of respect in of itself.

This is a great point.

Judaism should be welcoming to all Jews, create space for Jews of diverse backgrounds and beliefs to enact their Jewishness in a variety of ways, and promote norms of fairness and justice throughout the Jewish community and the world.

Well said.

qutub said...

It is the most corrupt religion which believes in Racial superiority and Heaven is only for JEWS.

David Schraub said...

"It is our belief that the righteous of all nations deserve to go to heaven. There are many mountains, and all of them reach for the stars." -- Jewish religious maxim.

chingona said...

Whenever someone asks me why Judaism is important to me, I always respond first by citing Emil Fackenheim's 614th Commandment. I can't say much more about it except to say that it exhibits a genuine pull on me. I can feel it, as deep in my soul as it can get.

This idea has always had a very strong pull on me as well, but I find myself more and more conflicted about it as I go about trying to raise my son Jewish.

On the one hand, if asked to say why it's important to me to raise my son Jewish, any honest answer is going to include some reference to this idea. I feel a tremendous responsibility not to let it die with me. On the other hand, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with defining Judaism via the attempt to wipe us out.

I feel like a lot of my Jewish identity is or maybe was wrapped up in what I wasn't (not Christian!), and I'm not sure that's a sustainable identity across many generations. I'm trying to shift my own identity into a more positive one (not positive, like don't think about yucky stuff like oppression, but positive as in focusing on what Judaism is, not what it isn't), and I hope that's the kind of Jewish identity my son can have.

I actually hope that the 614th commandment exerts less pull on my son, that his need to be Jewish will come from something else, if that makes any sense. Not that I don't think we need to remember - we absolutely do - but for him, I want more of the "beyond that" from your second paragraph.

Anyway, thanks for bringing Daisy's post to my attention. I might try to answer more of the questions later today after I can give them more thought.

Andrew Selbst said...

This is an excellent post. I so rarely think about what Judaism means to me that it took my Christian ex-girlfriend to really point out how important it is to my character. As a weak atheist (agnostic?) Reconstructionist, I often have to explain my relationship to Judaism, and I've never been able to articulate it well.

I agree with a great deal of your post as it is the openness to ideas that I find unique about Judaism, and that I love. And like you I do find an intrinsic connection in my otherness.

@chingona: You said, "On the other hand, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with defining Judaism via the attempt to wipe us out."

But isn't that the old joke about Jewish holidays? "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat." In all seriousness, I feel like our constant persecution and survival is a great deal of what has defined us as a culture, and the cause of an inherent feeling of togetherness with other Jews. I actually have no problem defining us this way because it's just something of an historical observation rather than any moral quality. And whether we like it or not, it has defined our history.

chingona said...

But isn't that the old joke about Jewish holidays? "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat." In all seriousness, I feel like our constant persecution and survival is a great deal of what has defined us as a culture, and the cause of an inherent feeling of togetherness with other Jews.

Of course, it is. And that's also a big reason why my ideas about social justice are so tied in with my Jewishness.

I just think there's a balance there, and I have concerns quite specifically with the way we handle the Holocaust, that I'm not sure I'm comfortable with where that balance is. I'm really struggling with how to articulate this because what I absolutely DO NOT want to say is that we're too hung up on it or we need to get over it. But I do want my Jewishness to be more than a fuck you to Hitler, and perhaps more importantly, because I'm talking about continuity here, I'm not sure that it's reasonable to assume that our grandchildren will find a Jewish identity centered around denying victory to Hitler compelling in the same way we do.

Having one piece - maybe even a key piece - be that sense of perseverance, that they have tried to destroy us many times but we're still here - yes. Having the key piece be "be Jewish or Hitler wins" - no.

I don't know if I'm making any sense. I don't need to persuade you to see it my way, but I do want to be clear about what I'm actually saying.

Andrew Selbst said...

Ah, well I didn't realize that meant specifically with regard to Hitler. In that sense I do agree, and in seven generations, Nazi Germany will be but one more great evil directed against us like the Inquisition or Egypt.

I more meant that I would be comfortable in a descriptive sense saying that our history or persecution and survival generally is central to our Jewish existence, and is what I will teach my kids eventually about why knowing that they are Jewish is so important. Hell, it's probably why I even want to bring my kids up Jewish at all.

I mean, we tell the story every year at Pesach, so maybe it doesn't need to be stated, but even beyond that, when people ask me why, as a secular Jew, I identify so strongly with Judaism, I believe this is my strongest answer. And obviously it's my answer too, when my Jordanian/Palestinian friends ask me about Israel, friends who have never heard a Jew outside of politics speak of the need for Israel's existence.

Anyway, yeah, I also agree there's more to Jewishness, but once you get past Hitler in particular, the persecution may be the biggest part of who we are.