BY: Sarit Bendavid
Why is it so common to hear students complain that there is no community at Yeshiva University? That if only one would go to a secular college, then he would find a warm and friendly Hillel house waiting for his presence and urging him to contribute to Jewish life on campus? The underlying principle is obvious but often left assumed: unity is strengthened when there is pressure or hostility from the outside. On a secular college campus, Jews unite by being different from the general population. They might not necessarily share all of the same values or ideas, but they have a bond simply because they share a unique identity. In YU, on the other hand, the student body is much more homogeneous, consisting primarily of Modern Orthodox Jews. It is hard to carve a community out of an entire population because there is virtually nobody to be designated as the “other.”
This phenomenon is also visible in relation to Jewish identity on the larger scale of contemporary American Jewry. The current rate of assimilation is astounding,[i] and there is no doubt that this is related to the fact that Jews are more accepted into general society today than ever before. Ironically, a sense of Jewish identity is weakened because American culture is not pressuring us to repress our uniqueness, but urging us to express it and integrate it into the American mosaic. What becomes clear is that Jewish identity is strengthened when there is something to fight against and resist as a people in an effort to retain a unique identity.[ii]
Ethnic groups are conventionally defined as groups of individuals who share certain values or ideas. Anthropologist Fredrik Barth, however, argues against the conventional view of ethnic groups as “culture-bearing units,”[iii] or groups that share core values which are represented in their material cultures. Instead, he defines them as social organizations that distinguish themselves from others. Archaeologist Avraham Faust, in his work on the ethnicity of the ancient Israelites, similarly asserts that “the ethnic boundaries of a group are not defined by the sum of cultural traits but by the idiosyncratic use of specific material and behavioral symbols as compared with other groups.”[iv] What we can derive from this alternate understanding of ethnicity is that a critical factor in the construction of national identity, a process known by many anthropologists as “ethnogenesis,” is the group’s relationship to its surrounding ethnicities.
National Jewish identity began to form when we were in Egypt and were faced with Egyptian hostility. In line with Barth’s and Faust’s assertions, only when we were somewhere foreign could we realize our uniqueness. The next important step in the creation of our national identity was when we entered the Land of Israel and set up our own system of government. In this period, comprised of Iron Age I (c. 1200-1000 BCE) and Iron Age II (c. 1000-800 BCE), the Philistines were the primary group that stood in contrast to the ancient Israelites. The two groups lived in close proximity, Israel in the central hill country and the Philistines in the coastal plain, such that they constantly had border disputes.[v] According to Peter Machinist, professor of Hebrew Language, the Bible consistently presents the Philistines as “a people centered in coastal Palestine, who remain always different from Israel as a society and culture, and always her foe.”[vi]
The archaeological record seems to suggest that as a result of the close proximity of the two groups, Israel forged an identity that specifically stressed its differentiation from the Philistines.[vii] For instance, pig bones are found at sites in the central hill country where Israel resided before this period in the Bronze Age (c. 3300-1200 BCE), yet they are almost completely absent from Israelite sites during the Iron Age.[viii] For instance, at Tel Beth Shemesh, which was an Israelite settlement, over 6,000 animal bone fragments recovered from the Iron Age I level were analyzed, and less than 1% of them were identified as pig bones.[ix] In contrast, noticeably higher levels of pig bones were found at nearby Philistine sites, such as Ashkelon (19%), Ekron (18%) and Timnah (8%). The different settlements shared the same natural habitat, yet it is clear that the Israelites developed a particularly strong aversion to eating pig in the Iron Age. These figures seem to not only reflect Israel’s adherence to the Bible’s prohibition against eating pig[x] during this period, but also that eating pig became a cultural taboo at this time, not just an arbitrary halakhah, due to the fact that the Philistines specifically ate it in large amounts.
Another example of Israel’s deliberate exaggeration of its ethnicity is the lack of decorated pottery-ware found in Israel that dates to the Iron Age; in contrast, pottery from this period excavated at Philistine sites contains decoration.[xi] It is possible that during Iron Age I, the period of the Shofetim, Israel did not decorate pottery because they had a lower standard of living. However, this seems unlikely by the Iron Age II, the period of the Davidic dynasty, because high levels of decorated pottery were found in the surrounding cultures,[xii] and Israel was at this time a relatively sophisticated society ruled by a monarchy, implying a higher standard of living that could now support such a form of government. Faust explains that during the Iron Age I, “Since the Philistine pottery was highly decorated, it is possible that the Israelites chose not to decorate their pottery as part of their ethnic negotiation with the Philistines, and that this tradition continued into the Iron II.”[xiii]
A third example, although seen through textual as opposed to archaeological analysis, in which Israel seemed to deliberately differentiate itself from its surrounding neighbors is circumcision. While the Torah itself already indicates that circumcision is a defining characteristic of the Israelites, such as when God tells Abraham that circumcision signifies a covenant between Him and Abraham’s descendents,[xiv] other ethnic groups also practiced circumcision during this time.[xv] It is possible to suggest that the Israelites took the halakhah of circumcision and made it into an identifying factor, an even more significant part of their identity than mandated in the Bible, as a result of their confrontation with the Philistines, who did not practice circumcision. This is supported by the fact that the Philistines are consistently labeled in the Bible with the epithet “arelim,” meaning uncircumcised,[xvi] highlighting in an exaggerated fashion their cultural differences. One very telling scene in the Bible is when David kills 200 Philistines and retrieves their foreskins in order to impress Saul and obtain the hand of his daughter Mikhal in marriage, demonstrating that victory over the enemy involves circumcising them.[xvii]
It is clear that throughout Jewish history, our senses of Jewish identity change as we encounter different ethnic groups. Today, for instance, one might say that long skirts and shirt sleeves are ethnic markers for women in our community, not because we necessarily value female modesty laws more than other laws, but because the outside culture so sharply contrasts these practices in its adoption of more liberal modes of dress. Another possible ethnic marker is Shabbat observance. In fact, when referring to people who follow Halakhah in general, we often say that they are shomer Shabbat, not necessarily because Shabbat is the most important mitsvah (although it certainly is high on the list), but, possibly, because it is so hard to keep in our modern world that begs us to turn on our cell phones and computers when we have a day of vacation. These ethnic markers become steadfast parts of our Jewish identities because they are challenged by the “others” around us, thereby strengthening our senses of Jewish identity in general.
While it is true that any ethnic group defines itself in relation to the outside world and identities are formed partly by contrasting one’s self to others, Jews have the ironic added “bonus” of anti-Semitism and a long history of persecution that has helped reinforce the walls that fortify their identities from external penetration. In his attempt to fight against the high rate of Jewish assimilation in America, professor of Law Alan Dershowitz asserts that “we can overcome this new threat to the continuity of American Jewish life and emerge with a more positive Judaism for the twenty-first century – a Judaism that is less dependent on our enemies for its continuity, and that rests more securely on the considerable, but largely untapped, strengths of our own heritage.”[xviii] Jews should explore their heritage, Dershowitz argues, not merely with the siege mentality of a people who have always been persecuted, but as a nation that has distinct qualities and a unique spiritual destiny, independent of the external world.
In Kol Dodi Dofek, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik labels the conventional type of bond between Jews, one based on common experiences of suffering and feelings of isolation from the outside world, a “Berit Goral,” a Covenant of Fate. This covenant was formed in Egypt, where “Israel was elevated to the status of a nation in the sense of a unity from which arises uniqueness as well.”[xix] “Berit Ye’ud, or a Covenant of Destiny, on the other hand, transcends the unity that develops only as a result of outside pressure. This covenant forges a national feeling of unity because we are a “nation forever betrothed to the one God.”[xx] If we heed the words of Dershowitz and R. Soloveitchik and stress our unique heritage and singular connection with the Divine, and not merely our distinct nature in relation to other ethnic groups, then we afford ourselves the possibility, at the very least, of curbing the rapid assimilation rate of American Jewry, and maybe even of creating more of a sense of community at our own Yeshiva University as we all attempt to fulfill the Covenant of Destiny and connect to God together.
Sarit Bendavid is a senior at SCW majoring in History and English Literature and is an Editor-in-Chief for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] For example, see the American Jewish Identity Survey’s Report from 2001 showing that more than 50% of American Jews are married to a non-Jew, available at: http://www.jewishdatabank.org/study.asp?sid=90074&tp=1.
[ii] This does not negate the possibility that the opposite is also true – that it is easier to retain one’s Jewish identity when surrounded by Jews, such as in large Jewish communities. It seems, rather, that outside pressures simultaneously strengthen as well as weaken the Jewish nation. I would like to posit, though, that while outside pressure causes many to leave the fold, it strengthens the ones who consciously decide to remain committed to Judaism.
[iii] Fredrik Barth (ed.), Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1969), p. 11.
[iv] Avraham Faust, Israel’s Ethnogenesis: Settlement, Interaction, Expansion and Resistance (London; Oakville, CT: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2006), p. 15.
[v] For example, see Judges 14-15; I Samuel 17.
[vi] Peter Machinist, “Biblical Traditions: The Philistines and Israelite History,” in Eliezer D. Oren (ed.), The Sea Peoples and Their World: A Reassessment (Philadelphia: The University Museum, U. of Penn., 2000), pp. 53-69, at p. 65.
[vii] See Faust, ibid., and Machinist, ibid., for their detailed analyses of this phenomenon.
[viii] Faust, pp. 35-37; Philip J. King & Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 73.
[ix] Shlomo Bunimovitz & Zvi Lederman, “Beth Shemesh: Culture Conflict on Judah’s Frontier,” Biblical Archaeology Review 23,1 (January/February 1997), available at: http://www.basarchive.org/bswbBrowse.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=23&Issue=1&ArticleID=4&UserID=2369.
[x] Deuteronomy 14:8.
[xi] For a more detailed discussion, see Faust, pp. 41-47.
[xii] Ibid., p. 41.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 47.
[xiv] Genesis 17:9-14.
[xv] Faust, p. 86.
[xvi] For examples, see Judges 14:3, 15:18; I Samuel 14:6, 17:26, 31:4; II Samuel 1:20.
[xvii] I Samuel 18:25,27. This important scene was pointed out by Machinist, ibid.
[xviii] Alan M. Dershowitz, The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1997), p. 1.
[xix] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen – My Beloved Knocks, transl. by David Z. Gordon (New York: Yeshiva University, 2006), p. 53.
[xx] Ibid., p. 66.