Thursday, December 06, 2007

What's a Jew? A not-Christian.

Is there a positive definition of Judaism? There are plenty, but if we removed all the negative definitions, how many Jews would be left? As Steve points out on Jewlicious, many "American Jews have replaced Judaism and Torah study with a secular obsession with the Holocaust." Being Jewish isn't just about remembering genocide, it's also about not celebrating Christian holidays. From a NYT article on interfaith couples torn between Christmas and Chanukah:

“I grew up in Indiana, with a decent-size Jewish community, but we were a distinct minority,” Mr. Klain said. “Not having a Christmas tree was very much part of our Jewish identity in a place where everyone else did.”

I'd have to say, that's pretty much it for a lot of Jews. A Jew is someone who doesn't celebrate this, who doesn't eat that, and who cannot live in a certain number of countries at any given time. These are all true, and can remain so even for Jews who get nothing positive out of being Jewish. You can choose whether or not to seek out the positive (by which I mean not just fun aspects, but anything that's not just about not doing something), but the negative's there whether you want it or not. And the reality is, if you took away from the 'community' all who are only Jews because they don't eat pork, don't tell their children to believe in Santa, or who continue to identify as Jews to spite anti-Semites, and whose interest in organized religion is zilch, whose interest in worrying more about being Jewish than they already do is nonexistent, it's not clear how many would be left, something those concerned with numbers might want to consider.


Withywindle said...

1) Surely this doesn't apply to the orthodox and the Hassidim? -- their Judaism is not just a negation of Christianity?

2) I think identification-by-negation is not unique to modern American Jews. Swarthmore prof A. J. Levine had a religion seminar ca. 1990 on how Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire formed their group identities by contrast with one another--this whole idea of "othering" even gives you a theoretical principle that identity is formed by negation of someone else. In my bailiwick of early modern England, Peter Lake had a rather nifty article on how anti-Popery cemented English identity in Elizabethan and early Stuart England, while Linda Colley in Britons says anti-Catholicism still annealed British identity in the eighteenth century. American identity has something to do with being not-Indian, not-British, not-Spanish, etc. Bismarck's wavered on whether to build German identity on anti-Socialism or anti-Catholicism. Etc.--even if modern Jewish identity does depend strongly on a negation, it's not unique.

3) All of which builds to a related point--that it's not so much the lack of identity as the variety of identity that makes negativity salient. Englishmen were very divided in their religion--make a fragile unity from anti-Popery. Similar things to say about the tenuous unity, and deep internal diversity, of 18th Century Britain, America forever, Bismarckian Germany. If modern Jewish identity does depend strongly on negation, this simply tells us what we already know--that modern Jews are very diverse, difficult to unify by anything other than negation. There are positives and negatives to the situation, but it shouldn't be treated as unprecedented, nor, unless one has a fetish for ideological uniformity, a nightmare.

4) That said, durable identities do have something positive in addition to the negatives. Some positive appreciation of that Hannukah bush would doubtless do well to complement the distate for the Christmas tree. (Which we prize in my family since my grandmother was of German Jewish ancestry, and German Jews have Christmas trees, naturlich.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

1) Being observant at any level, even Reform, implies a positive definition. Religiosity, Zionism, cultural Judaism, these are all among the ways a person may express an active interest in being Jewish. However, those *raised* Orthodox are well-represented among those whose own definition, as teens or adults, is for the most part negative. Of course, the idea that Judaism is not-Christmas rather than Chanukah, not-pork rather than gefilte fish, etc., is something you find with Jews who, however raised, are secular.

2,3, 4) The negatively-defined identity, the identity based on being not the Other, is clearly not unique to Jews. The question is what, given the specific arguments many Jews are having these days about numbers, are those concerned to make of the many people who identify as Jewish simply because they are aware that they could not possibly be anything else. Is the answer outreach, or is that approach fundamentally misinterpreting what it means to be Jewish? As in, being not-Christian might be as important as observing Shabbat or whatever else. Moments of anti-Semitism have, historically, caused a resurgence of interest in things Jewish among the otherwise uninterested, but in such cases might not cause an increase in religious belief or practice. What I'm getting at is, being Jewish has rarely if ever been about faith in the generic, Americans-of-faith sense of the beautiful mosaic of Judeo-Christian believers. Who's to say whether a Jewish identity based on a right to be different from the majority is any less meaningful than one based around religious observances?

Withywindle said...

Isn't it also relevant that Jewish identity oscillates between religious and ethnic aspects?

Anonymous said...

A lot of us non-Christians are also different from the majority along the same lines as Jews are different from the majority. In an America where Diwali is as important a holiday as Hannukah, and where Muslims abjure Christmas trees as much as Jews, a Jewish identity built on being different from the majority is not meaningfully Jewish.

In other words, this isn't 1955. There are more than just Jews and Christians at this party.

Withywindle said...

No, no ... it just means you're Jewish and haven't realized it yet. Come to Katz's and we can discuss your true nature.