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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thoughts on Jewish identity

Today's conversation at the monthly Lunch and Learn meeting was on the topic of convenant.  We read a Torah commentary on parasha Behar (Leviticus 25:1) by Rabbi Marc Wolf from the JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary).  In it, he includes several topics around the relationship between God and the Jews.  He also mentions comments by Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, who has asserted that Diaspora Judaism does not cover the "full spectrum of Jewish reality" and only Jews in Israel are living a full Jewish life.

I have a whole bunch of thoughts from our discussion and from several conversations that I've had recently.

My favorite comment during today's discussion came from one of the members, who said that their choices of Jewish behavior, like worship and keeping kosher, are a reflection of their convenant with the Jewish people more than with God - more of a "horizontal" convenant rather than a "vertical" one.  I really liked that imagery and it applies to me as well.  [The rabbi noted that her choices come from God's words in Leviticus 11:44 -  "be holy because I am holy," Which is probably the best "religious" explanation I've ever heard.]

Another thought I had is a response to Yehoshua's assertion in the commentary we read.  Back on May 1, I wrote about an Israeli speaker whose presentation generated a rather heated interaction regarding American Jewish support for Israel.  The next night, I attended another presentation, by that speaker's spouse.  He gave a totally boilerplate Powerpoint, sort of Israel 101, the kind of thing you would show teenagers before their first trip to Israel.  (The guy is a tour guide in Israel and works for Birthrite, Israel tours for teens.)  I was a little surprised at the presentation because it was so unsophisticated.  I also noticed that it contained several tossed off, purely PR lines like "We always have our hand extended for peace." (meaning, as opposed to the Palestinians). Whatever.  He also said that Israeli Jews completely accept American Jews, which I know is not true, partly because of the presentation that accompanied the movie about marriage in Israel wherein it's clear from several people in the movie that not all Israeli Jews see American Jews as their equals (see my post on October 7, 2010).  So my point is that when I read this reference to Yehoshua's comments, it reminded me of the Israeli speaker and confirmed that what he said is basically bunk (though to be fair, his comment is part of a PR effort to promote Israel to Americans, and is not a statement of fact, might not even be an accuate statement of his own feelings).

Another thing I found myself thinking about was a recent conversation about Jewish practice (in the context of bar mitzvahs - there's been lots of conversations about that lately), when one of my friends, who was raised Orthodox but now attends the Reform synagogue, said that she considers us (Reform Jews) to be secular Jews (the same way we would be considered if we were in Israel). And I have to admint that her comment bugged the crap out of me and stuck in my craw for weeks afterward.  I made the point at the time that it's all relative - my brother, who affiliates with no religion and provides his children with no religious instruction at all, considers me almost a fanatic, because I attend services and send my kids to Sunday school.  But more to the point, in a country where the majority of people do not affiliate with any religious institution, and provide no religious instruction to their children, I just cannot accept the label of "secular" when I put so much of my time and energy into exactly those things.  It almost seems bizarre to me - if I'm secular, what's my brother?  Because we're not the same thing, not at all.  It similarly irritates me when Conservative Jews and other Jews imply that I'm "less Jewish" than they are, because I'm less observant of certain rules and rituals.  The fact that I live a Jewish life and raise my children Jewish makes me all the Jewish I need to be.  And the fact that I've had to explain Judaism and defend Judaism my entire life also means I've earned a label other than "secular"!

Which brings me to another weird situation - several times over the last few years I've had non-Jewish people ask me if I keep kosher, when the topic of me being Jewish comes up.  And of course I say "no, we're not that kind of Jews."  And no matter what I say after that, you can see that they don't really believe me, and don't put me in their category "Jewish" because apparently a necessary condition for that category is keeping kosher, I assume because that's the only thing they know about Jews.  I can talk about what Jews believe, or our holidays, or other things that make me "Jewish," but I don't think it changes their perception that I'm not really a Jew.  It's kind of sad, because I'm left with the feeling that Jews have done a very bad job of communicating to the rest of America what we're really about - it's a whole lot more than what we eat.  Certainly for me, it's absolutely nothing about what I eat, partly because I'm a Reform Jew and my spiritual life does not depend on my diet, and partly because what I eat comes from a totally different aspect of my identity - that of having Celiac disease.



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