Thursday, January 19, 2006

Toward Jewish Identity

As a writer, identity is both important and fluid. In journalism, objectivity reigns and the writer’s identity is irrelevant. In editorials and articles that don’t require strict objectivity, the writer’s identity is best portrayed through the article’s perspective. In fiction, the writer takes on the identities of a multitude of characters, and hopefully a good number of those identities are quite different from the writer’s. Being able to see from a perspective not one's own is, for me, essential in fiction.

As a Jew, identity is evolving and occasionally contentious. Within the broader global community, identity simply as a Jew can have life or death consequences. Within American society, it elicits anything from solidarity to exclusion, with a greater frequency of curiosity and caution. Within the Jewish community itself, identity has a sad history of drawing lines, fracturing groups, and creating an I’m-right-you’re-wrong atmosphere.

And the very fact that I would draw attention to the fact that Jews who subscribe to one ideology reject Jews who subscribe to a different ideology would cause some to judge me for “airing dirty laundry” or bringing unwanted attention on what is considered basically an intra-Jewish issue. Yet many of the people who are so quick to judge are the same people who perpetuate those divisions and refuse to dialogue about it, short of stating that they are right and the rest of us are wrong and G-d is on their side, so there.

Truth is, I’d like to move beyond the right versus wrong debate because it’s getting us nowhere. There have always been disagreements over the interpretation of Jewish law and observance, over what it means to live a Jewish life, and thus far, we have taken the stance of determining who’s right by seeing who’s left – the “history will decide” approach.

The Talmud (both Babylonian and Jerusalem) was wise enough to include dissenting opinions, even when the majority or history or innovation or even common sense produced the prevailing opinion. At no point did the holders of the prevailing opinion question the very Jewishness of the dissenters. (Their logic, values, or ability to read, maybe, but not their identities.) I fear the same cannot be said today.

I frequently look to the contributors of the Talmud for inspiration, and I’m reminded that it would not even exist as we know it today were it not for their courage, creativity, humility, and willingness to take an unpopular stand but always continue the dialogue.

Granted, it was a unique and difficult time, in which the very existence of Judaism was in question. Working together was an absolute requirement to avoid the total annihilation of what all involved held sacred. The Romans were setting out to destroy the essence of Judaism, and I suspect everyone knew it was time to set petty disputes aside and focus on what was truly important.

In the present, some will argue that secularism, feminism, individualism, egalitarianism, capitalism, and probably a whole bunch of other –isms are today’s Roman Empire, and that their ideology alone is the only hope for Jewish survival in the future. They will argue that all those who disagree with their ideology, their interpretation of halacha (Jewish law), are today’s version of those Jews whose voices never even made it into the Talmud, who didn’t have the knowledge or credentials or even the right to be heard.

Some few, sadly, may argue that those who don’t share their interpretation might as well be equivalent to the Hellenized Jews, deserving of the same fate, with all the violence that may entail.

It need not be this way, and in fact, I’ve seen more intra-Jewish dialogue, especially as technology has paved the way for otherwise unheard voices to speak. Jewish blogging is thriving, and more Jews are honoring their ancestors’ courage and creativity by speaking up, affirming their identities, respectfully presenting the hows and whys of their practice of Judaism.

Sometimes all that’s needed for successful dialogue is a paradigm shift, and one of the best I’ve read thus far is Mah Rabu’s Taxonomy of Jewish Pluralism. Much of the Jewish blogosphere follows what BZ describes as Stage 1.

(Go ahead and read the post before coming back here. I’ll wait…)

Overloaded yet? No? Great, let’s continue.

My paradigm for the past ten years could largely be described as Stage 1, and I’ve been dissatisfied with it the entire time. I’ve spent time in many different Jewish communities, observed many different practices. (More on that in another post.) I’ve been able to write and dialogue from a different paradigm, but I have not yet been able to describe what that new paradigm is. BZ’s Stage 3 comes awfully close.

I see nothing wrong with visiting blogs whose authors are Orthodox. I respect their views. I’ve been there. We agree on more points than they may give me credit for. But eventually it becomes apparent that the feeling is not always reciprocal, and I have to wonder if it is an issue of propriety. If someone who identified as Orthodox commented on a blog identified as non-Orthodox, might that be construed as condoning the “other” – an act that surely would contradict the authenticity of Orthodoxy? Would it be appropriate only if the commenter made it clear that the views expressed on the blog were contrary to the commenter’s own practice?

Yet what does that say about the authenticity of other interpretations of halacha and Jewish practice? How can we move from authenticity to identity without mutual respect?

I’ve spent much of the past two dozen years trying not to take sides. Again, it’s that writer in me who can see from more than my own perspective. I spent many years fence-sitting, not quite belonging in the Orthodox world and not quite belonging in the Conservative world. And as a friend of mine observed when I told her this, “sitting on the fence can give you splinters.”

BZ writes in the article I linked to earlier (the one you hopefully read), “In order to make this kind of pluralism possible, it is necessary for the various Jewish identities to be robust and confident.” To that end, I’ve decided to get off the fence and attempt to articulate where I do stand, even if there isn’t an existing denominational name for it.

Whether it helps you, the reader, or not, I cannot say. Perhaps it will help other fence-sitters to avoid splinters. Perhaps it will clear up some confusion. Perhaps it will simply (simply?) solidify my own understanding of where I am on the Jewish spectrum and allow me to visit other Jewish blogs without feeling apologetic or fearing a backlash.

And perhaps it will add to the number of Jewish bloggers and visitors who are willing to engage in a respectful exchange of ideas about what it means to be Jewish today, what it means to live in a world that is predominately not Jewish, and what it means to bring our identities together, share them, and then part, all the while knowing we were valued, with our modesty and integrity intact.
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