Mitzvat Ahavat Erev Rav: Loving the Complexity of Our Identities

Identity politics hold an increasingly defining role in the American social and political landscape of the 21st century. Jane Litman explores the complexity of holding Jewish identity in relationship to other identities.

“Being our whole selves doesn’t make us less Jewish.” Ilana Kaufman (Bay Area JCRC)

The Cashew in My Living Room

I’m sitting in my living room chatting with a couple who are soon to be married. It’s our first meeting and they are telling me about themselves, how they met, why they are making this commitment, and why they want a rabbi.

Owen,* a very tall, highly verbal screenwriter, says that he grew up in a Reform synagogue in the Valley. He enjoyed leading junior congregation, was involved with Hillel in college, and always felt comfortable being out as queer with his family and Jewish community. About four years ago, he started dating Jacob, a trans man.

We both turn to Jacob, who is a foot shorter than his partner, and much quieter. Jacob takes a sip from his water bottle, and says, “I’m a cashew.”

That wasn’t what I expected.

“What’s a cashew?” I ask. “Could be anything,” I think to myself.

Both the guys laugh.

“Half Catholic, half Jew.” Jacob responds. “My father is Jewish; my mother is Catholic. It wasn’t so easy for them or for us kids. My mother was pretty secular when she married my dad, but my grandparents weren’t happy with the relationship, and that hurt her. They were always great to us kids, but I think she felt like an outsider at Passover and other family occasions. She became more religious, and my sister is also Catholic, but I’m more of an atheist.

Owen says, “No you’re not.”

Jacob says, “Yes, I am.”

Owen says, “You’ve said to me that you’re spiritual, just not religious.”

Jacob says, “That’s true. In my 12-step work, I realized that I believe in a Higher Power, but not God.”

Not Your Parents’ Sense of Self

In the 1950s, psychologist Erik Erikson proposed eight stages of psychosocial development. Individual identity was the core process for adolescents as they differentiated from parents. According to Erikson, healthy adolescents develop a sense of self, an identity, and also an understanding of how the self fits into social roles and structures. James Marcia expanded on Erikson, focusing on four “identity statuses” as part of the developmental process of personal identity creation. Marcia’s statuses range from uncritically accepting the parental value system (foreclosure) through passivity (diffusion), experimentation in different identities (moratorium), and finally clarity (achievement). In sum, individual identity is a sense of self that is constructed by adolescents and then adults in relation to ideas and activities of their families, friends, communities and societies.

Stuck With Grandpa

Historian Philip Gleason (“Identifying Identity: A Semantic History,” Journal of American History 69 (1983): 910–931) notes that the concept of group identity entered into American social and political discourse soon after its use by Erikson and Marcia to describe individual adolescent psychology. However, in terms of intellectual history, the idea of collective identity may be traced to Karl Marx’s understanding of “class consciousness” and Emile Durkheim’s view of “social solidarity.” Marx and Durkheim viewed collective identity as more or less an inherited status, not a form of discretionary choice or self-expression. To this point, Horace Kallen, who originated the theory of cultural pluralism, made the oft quoted remark that “men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies to a greater or lesser extent; they cannot change their grandfathers.” (“Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot,” The Nation, February 1915, 217f.).

Identity politics, the understanding of the relationship of social status to group identity became a fixture of American social theory by the 1960s and 1970s. The civil-rights movement in particular articulated an understanding of status (in this case skin color or race) in terms of privilege and vulnerability. Black Power groups such as the Panthers, feminists, various ethnic coalitions and early gay-rights activists employed group identity as a focus for social and political ideology. This articulation of identity analysis took on a self-fulfilling nature to a certain extent. For members of oppressed groups, expressing communal affiliation and the positive aspects of the group—often known as “pride”—became a hallmark of identity. Identification became a source of both personal and group empowerment.

Or Maybe Not?

However, more recently, David Hollinger has raised questions about the nature of identity and identity politics in America with his ground-breaking work: Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, which challenges whether Durkheim’s understanding of ethnic solidarity or Kallen’s view of inherited ethnicity continues to be operative in the contemporary United States. Hollinger posits a radical “future in which the ethno-racial categories central to identity politics would be more matters of choice than ascription.” (“The Concept of Post-Racial, Daedalus, Winter, 2011)

Hollinger is not a complete outlier. Erikson and Marcia posited that individual identity formation includes finding or choosing roles within collective identities, such as the family and community. There are many kinds of group or collective identities. These collective identities are often transmitted generationally, but also may be affirmed or chosen later in life.

For example, deafness or hearing impairment is a physiological condition. It is usually not inherited. Deaf and hearing-impaired people have existed throughout time. However, only relatively recently have significant numbers of deaf people come together as a collectivity and begun to articulate to one another their own experiences, thus creating a public discourse and a cohesive social grouping. The emergence of native speakers of American and French Sign Language allowed for a particular linguistic cultural flowering heretofore unknown. Deaf Pride is a form of resistance to anti-deaf oppression.

It is less clear whether sexual and gender orientation, such as hearing ability or handedness, are physiological conditions. However, sexual and gender identities are affirmed/chosen. Social theorist Michel Foucault explains that sexual identity is a social construction. Foucault describes how biological forces such as hearing, handedness, skin color and sexual drive are regulated and shaped by human institutions and discourses, so that identities shaped by these discourses cannot be considered “essential” unto themselves, but are all social constructions

Feminist poet Adrienne Rich created the term “compulsory heterosexuality” to clarify a process of social identity construction in which people who present themselves as heterosexual are awarded numerous privileges while those who do not are stigmatized and subjected to social disabilities. Rich hypothesizes that numerous potentially sexually fluid people are coerced into heterosexuality, many without even considering other possibilities, because the social structure works to erase other sexual choices and identity constructions.

Through their deaf and queer children, parents participate to some degree in these group identities; neither deafness nor sexuality is transmitted across generations reliably enough to allow for transgenerational social groupings, as is the case in terms of skin color (race). “Race” as it is commonly understood has little biological or genetic basis, but the justification of political power and lack thereof based on skin color has an extremely significant impact on the modern construction of identity.

In the pre-modern world, economic class or caste (usually based on profession) often served as a source of transgenerational or inherited social identity. However, with the rise of modernity, economic class and caste status lost its fixed position, and different generations—indeed individuals—could change class or caste status, thus disrupting the social order and familial transmission of social identity. In the 17th century, “race” began to replace class/caste as a fixed transgenerational and thus stable system of privilege and oppression. In the Western hemisphere, long-standing economic class or caste systems were disrupted through immigration. In the New World, African slavery, Native American genocide, and the near slavery of Pacific Asians relocated some of the most oppressive aspects of political status away from intra-European economic and social positions to the new pseudo-taxonomy of race. In the Eastern hemisphere, colonialism accomplished a similar task. By the end of the 19th century, race largely replaced class as a transgenerational identity of social privilege and oppression.

Identities are not limited to constructions based on biology or political status. Any grouping of people will eventually set norms and behaviors which shape identity for those who affiliate. Groups as diverse as nerds, gardeners, single parents, theater lovers, veterans, tennis players and recovering alcoholics all construct social identities.

But Is It Good for the Jews?

Historically, Jewish identity—as it is currently understood—was so central to the lives of Jews (Hebrews, Israelites) that it was virtually coextensive with being a Jew. That does not mean there was only one form of Jewish identity: even central biblical characters such as Joseph, Ruth and Moses hold complex Jewish identities shaped by intermarriage, secrecy, personal exile and conversion. However, these are not other identities; the diverse characteristics of biblical figures draw from a central Jewish identity. In the ancient world, being a Jew was at first a tribal identity, then a national identity, almost always socially inherited and reinforced within the family.

As Jews spread into the Diaspora, Jewish identity was not decentered into a dual identity in the Kaplanian sense, but rather subdivided into geographically-based different Jewish identities. There were Greek Jews, Egyptian Jews and Babylonian Jews, but the central identity was the Jewishness of these communities. For instance, the character of Esther emphasizes the core nature of the ancient perception of Jewish identity. Though Esther is the queen of Persia passing as a gentile, she maintains Jewish observance and sense of self. The climactic scene of the story is Esther’s revelation to gentiles (rather than an inner self-discovery) that she is a Jew.

The medieval experience of Jews, both in the Christian and Islamic worlds, was equally centered on Jewishness rather than geographic or other forms of identity. Jews spent their days with other Jews, participating in Jewish culture. Though waves of anti-Jewish persecution caused some Jews to abandon Judaism (how many is difficult to estimate and is subject to considerable debate among scholars); in general, persecution enforced the differences between Jewish and gentile communities, and thus served to support and emphasize Jewish identity.

Jewish emancipation created the first serious opportunity for alternative, even alternative central, identities for Jews. As Judah Leib Gordon wrote: “Be a man in the streets and a Jew in the home.” The streets provided many attractive cultural and social groups that competed with traditional Jewish existence. The Haskalah, the Bund, Reform Judaism and even Zionism were Jewish responses designed to limit the all-encompassing identity of halakhic shtetl or ghetto-based Jewish life. These new forms of Jewish collective life could accommodate other affiliations by redefining the nature of Jewish identity. Jewishness was reclassified, many times by Jews, as a set of political views, a faith commitment, or a membership in a nation yet to be realized. However, some Jews rejected this reclassification. The creation of the Orthodox movement in particular was a backlash against emancipation and its temptations.

Jews were not immune from the rise of race-based hierarchies of privilege. Wilhelm Marr, a German nationalist, popularized the terms “Semite” and “anti-Semite” as a way to fit European Jews into the construction of race. Mizrakhi Jews were equally caught up in the new racism, doubly discriminated against by the European colonialists as “natives,” and by the native population as foreigners.

The mass migration of European Jews to the Western hemisphere disturbed the racial structure, since the primary racial classifications of the New World were based on skin color as identification of geographic origin (Native American, African American, Asian American—“Red,” “Black,” “Yellow”). Jews of European origin were provisionally labeled “White,” and their Jewishness was classified in religious rather than racial terms. The racial classification of Jews continues to disturb categories, since Jews are multi-racial, and White nationalists (as well as many Jews) reject the White identification of light-skinned Jews.

Judaism as an American Religion

For several thousand years, Judaism evolved as an all-encompassing identity, in Kaplan’s terms, a fully functional civilization.  In North America, the reclassification of Judaism as a religious identity among many—similar to liberal Protestantism—has been the most common solution to the structural challenge of defining Judaism since emancipation. Seeking to explain American religious identity in the mid-20th century, Will Herberg wrote a critical sociological essay titled “Protestant-Catholic-Jew.” Contemporary political analyst E. J. Dionne has remarked, “Will Herberg wrote an important piece of religious sociology in 1955 called Protestant-Catholic-Jew. If he were here now, his book would have to be named Protestant-Catholic-Jew-Muslim-Hindu-Sikh-Buddhist-Jain-Confucian. However, Dionne misses a key point. Herberg, a 20th-century Jew, sought to put Judaism on an equal footing with majoritarian Christianity as a privileged mainstream, rather than minority, religious identity.

Herberg’s religious solution may be less than optimal. Many Jews do not experience their Jewish identity in faith terms, as Kaplan correctly noted almost 100 years ago, and rates of religious affiliation are relatively low among Jews. Religious Judaism makes a claim not only for primacy in its category, but for exclusivity. For example, the Reform movement’s conversion ritual requires that the potential Jew affirm that they renounce all other religious affiliations. As the number of multiple-religious-heritage (Jewish and Christian) Jews or potential Jews continues to increase, and as religious alternatives in Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism continue to appeal to Jews, the claim for exclusivity is unrealistic.

Daniel Katz is a Reform rabbi working for a social-justice organization in New York City. Recently, he married a minister who serves a medium-sized UCC congregation. He attends services with her every Sunday, and they attend Jewish services once every month or two. They observe both Christian and Jewish practices at home. “I’m glad I’m not a congregational rabbi,” he tells me when I run into him at a conference and wish him mazel tov on his wedding. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me the marriage won’t work out or that I should stop calling myself a rabbi.”

Annie and Joe are a mixed faith couple. Joe was raised secular, sent to Zionist summer camps and spent three years in Israel. He was planning to make aliyah when his tech company assigned him to a job in the Bay Area. There he met Annie and fell in love. Annie is a Pagan/Buddhist ex-Southern Baptist who holds considerable anger at Evangelical Christianity. They eloped rather than plan a wedding that would fit both of their religious and familial needs. Now, several years married, they have decided they would like the large gathering of friends and family they avoided earlier. They are expecting their first child—fortunately a girl, since Joe is in favor of male circumcision and Annie is opposed—and are planning a big baby party. They have been referred to me for officiating at the naming ritual. In addition to planning a Jewish-Pagan-Buddhist naming ceremony, that will “show how to be inclusive” to Annie’s Evangelical family, Annie has decided to make all the mezuzot in their home “interfaith” by adding Pagan and Buddhist texts to the Jewish scrolls. She wants me to review her mezuzah suggestions to see if I think they are appropriate.

Beyond Religion

As opposed to Herberg, Mordecai Kaplan rejected the reclassification of Jewish identity as limited to religious in nature. He sought to articulate a model that was relatively all-encompassing, yet accommodated, unlike Orthodoxy, the rise of modernity. Kaplan understood Judaism as a civilization—a very big tent that had room for all of the sub-identities created by emancipation, but one in which Jewishness was the central and communal identity. Even Kaplan understood that his overarching vision of immersive Jewish community and culture was somewhat unrealistic, and acknowledged national citizenship as a dual “civilizational” identity. Kaplan also well understood the importance of intergenerational transmission in establishing identity. He emphasized the key value of education in terms of Jewish continuity and significance. Kaplan’s vision was an attempt to create a liberal parallel to Orthodox Judaism. It assumed that there was a significant population of non-Orthodox Jews whose overarching identification was their Jewishness. This has not yet proved to be the case. Though there are groups of non-Orthodox Jews who prioritize their Jewish affiliation above other identities, this population is relatively small. The Havurah movement briefly provided an institutional home for such Jews. Some Reconstructionist congregations also serve this purpose, and are destination synagogues for strongly identified non-Orthodox Jews. In terms of denominational affiliation, it may well be productive for the Reconstructionist movement and its institutions to refocus its mission towards people with primary Jewish identities and their families.

Rather than an all-encompassing sense of belonging, Jewish identity often is associated with one or two elements common to the larger collectivity. These include religious or spiritual practice, sense of belonging to a group, familial heritage, nostalgia, ties to Israel, resistance to anti-Semitism, social activities, etc.

I was working with Claire, a woman in her 30s with thick glasses and a Southern accent, in her process of converting to Judaism. At our second meeting, I asked Claire why she wanted to be a Jew. She told me a horrific story about how, in her teens, she witnessed her father beat her brother to death. Claire looked me in the eyes and said: “At that moment, I vowed that I would survive. Later, I learned about the Holocaust and resistance. I felt an immediate sense of understanding. I’m going to be a Jew because Jews are survivors, and I’m a survivor.”

Surviving trauma can be the foundation of Jewish identity.

Accepting Reality

Synagogues now attempt to support Jews for whom the importance of Jewish spiritual identity varies widely. The Jewish religion requires a certain level of practice in order to be compelling and reinforce identity. In terms of religious practice, Judaism is highly participatory. Most non-Orthodox Jews do not engage in the historic level of participation required to create a vibrant Jewish spiritual identity. This has led to the emergence of audience Judaism in which synagogues provide contemporary-style entertainment to a relatively passive congregation. This form of Jewish practice may well prove successful in accommodating people whose Jewish identities are not primary or even secondary, but it comes at the expense of alienating those with primary Jewish identities.

Institutions and organizations have emerged to support other non-all-encompassing Jewish identities, such as political Jewishness, cultural Jewishness, Jewish identity based on a reaction to anti-Semitism, and Jewish identity based on a tie to Israel. The success of these new structures is not yet clear. Similar to synagogues, attempts to provide institutional support to these forms of limited identity have also often fall prey to a least common denominator approach in order to be accessible to those with non-primary Jewish identities.

Dual identity institutions for people with a primary Jewish and other identity, such as Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, The World Congress of LGBT Jews, Interfaith Family and B’chol Lashon are a noteworthy development. Another change worth noting is the trend towards expanding the limited identity. For example, Jewish Community Centers are increasingly offering quasi or fully religious Jewish programming. In recent years, perhaps the clearest example of success has been in supporting Jewish study as an intellectual identity through college courses and adult-education groups.

Harvey tells me, “About five years ago, I started going to an annual retreat for Jews in recovery. I don’t know why, since I’d never done anything Jewish until then. My sponsor suggested it. After the first one I decided to join a synagogue. After the second year, I started taking classes. That’s how I got here. After the third year, I really got my Jew on. It’s changed my life. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be a Jew if I weren’t an alcoholic.”

Identity Literacy

Multiple identities among Jews is a fact of life. Many Jewish professionals and institutions are still catching up to this reality. Others are in the process of evolving to meet the challenge. Actively welcoming diverse Jews with multiple identities into decision-making positions is a good first step. It is important to stop punishing Jews and their beloveds who are part of mixed heritage families through subtle leadership or ritual exclusions. The key issue is encouraging serious and compelling Jewish identity (whatever form it takes) through active participation in Jewish collectivities, not in competition with other identities but in a complementary partnership.

Jewish professionals and institutions need to develop basic contemporary identity literacy. That means understanding the theory of identity formation in adolescents and adults. Many Jews and potential Jews are from mixed heritage Jewish and Christian extended families. It is important to know something about Christianity and different North American Christian communities. It is also good to know something about American Buddhism and Hinduism. Gender and Race theory are key to identity politics, and the emergence of a significant population of Jews of Color, as well as Jewish feminism makes these two subjects the foundation for understanding complex contemporary Jewish identity. It is also helpful to have an awareness of disability identity, and the recovery or 12-step movement.

Back in My Living Room

I turn to Jacob: “I’m curious—probably because I’m a rabbi—do you identify as Jewish? It’s totally OK with me either way, but it would be helpful to know.”

Jacob answers: “Well, my name is Jacob Steinberg, so most people assume I’m Jewish. I’m OK with it, but I’ve always been put off by the idea that a Jew is someone whose mother is Jewish. My mother isn’t Jewish, so I guess I’m not a Jew.”

I respond: “Many people don’t know it, but both the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements have gone egalitarian on that issue and accept as a Jew a person whose father is Jewish, if that person identifies as a Jew.”

“I knew that,” inserts Owen. “We have a Jewish household and we belong to the gay synagogue.  I’ve always assumed that Jacob was Jewish.”

“That’s up to him, I think.” I turn to Jacob. “This is completely up to you. If you’d like to identify as Jewish, you’re very welcome. But if you don’t, you’re also very welcome as a person who loves a Jew.”

“I want to think it over,” replies Jacob. I shoot Owen a very strong “shut up” look.

“Sounds like a plan,” I affirm. “Perhaps it might make sense for the three of us to talk a bit about Higher Power language in your wedding ceremony.”

They both nod.

*All the names in this article have been changed.

Watch Rabbi Shelly Goldman lead a discussion of this essay.

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