Reflections on Jewish Identity

Rabbi Janet Burden
12 December 2006
The New Statesman

How Jews are not simply a race or a religion – they are an extended family with all that implies.

The word used for people who change their religions is ‘convert.’ I prefer the term ‘Jew-by-choice’ to describe my own identity. It acknowledges that my personal history is different from those who were born Jewish, but the end result is the same: I am a Jew – a Liberal Jew.

I am part of a community of 13,254,100 souls world-wide (according to the Jewish Agency for Israel). My life is bound up with that of the Jewish people all over the world. It’s like belonging to an extended family, with all that the metaphor implies.

I don’t like some of my family’s political views. I often disagree deeply with their theology. What they do affects me, sometimes in ways I don’t like. Nonetheless, I stand in a relationship of particular responsibility to them.

This does not oblige me to give unquestioning support to everything that is done in the name of our people, nor does it limit my concern to my co-religionists. Both suggestions would be abhorrent to me. Nonetheless, the familial bond between us calls on me to support my fellow Jews when and how I can and to exercise wisdom and restraint in any rebuke I offer.

Over 6,000,000 Jews live in North America; the vast majority of these in the United States. Many claim, however, that Israel’s Jewish population will exceed that of the USA during 2006.

In Europe and the rest of the world, the Jewish population is shrinking, largely due to assimilation and low birth rates, and partly due to emigration to Israel. Thus, world Jewry has come to have two ‘centres of gravity’: America and Israel.

A substantial majority of the Jews in both of these population centres are largely or completely secular; that is, their Jewish identity is based on cultural identification, not on religious belief.

It is this phenomenon that makes being Jewish different than, say, being Christian or Muslim. We are not simply a religion, nor are we a race: we are a people.

Judaism is, as Mordechai Kaplan put it, a religious civilisation. Through countless generations of our people, our religion has shaped us: not just through our ways of thinking and acting, but also through our food, our music – even our sense of humour. Thus, even those Jews who proudly claim to be atheists do so in response to this shared history and heritage.

This, then, is something that unites all Jews: we share unique reference points on the maps of our consciousness.

Whether a Jew scrupulously observes kashrut (the Jewish dietary code) or rejects it as a barrier to social integration, s/he will have an opinion on the subject.

We also share the Jewish festivals that punctuate our year, such as Passover in the spring and Rosh Hashanah (New Year) in the autumn.

These give Jews a kind of dual consciousness: we live by both the Jewish and the Gregorian calendars; we are both of the wider society and slightly apart from it.

Some have said that to be Jewish is inherently to be ‘inside-out.’

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