What Does Jewish Identity Mean to You?

BY: Shlomo Zuckier

The modern era, with its offer of personal autonomy, ushered in a wave of individualism and self-determination in the Western world. Instead of knowing which religion and/or king they were subject to, people could now ask themselves what religion they preferred to associate with and what type of government they favored. In the Jewish sense, this led to a shift from the centralized Jewish community to the multifarious Jewish denominations that today make up the religion’s landscape. On a personal level, too, the modernization of the intellectual world allowed the Jew to choose his religious predilections, to define his Jewish identity. The topic of this issue of Kol Hamevaser has a particularly modern flavor to it, then, though its basic questions transcend time.

One question that has always faced man is the specific identifying question of “Who am I?” Answers can range (both within and without the Jewish context) from “a subject of the King” to “one organism in a pantheistic universe” to “one who simply does what (s)he is told.” In more dichotomist terms, there are the celebrated questions of whether one is an American Jew or a Jewish American, where one’s true fealty lies, or whether one primarily identifies as Israeli or Jewish, to use a different geographical context. The question of “Who am I as a Jew?” is explored in many articles in this issue. In one article, Yaelle Frohlich stresses how we define ourselves by the choices we make, such as whom we choose as marriage partners, as she discusses the topic of intermarriage and the appearance of Jewish identity in other legally proscribed contexts. The other side of that coin is the committed, Halakhah-observant Jew’s response to such marginal figures, which is something Ariel Caplan grapples with in his article.

Of course, if we are talking about Jewish identity, a primary related issue that the phrase engenders is that of conversion. This has been a hot topic over the past couple of years, as different groups in America and Israel have debated the standards for conversions and the question of who should administer conversion programs, many leaving little room for compromise. We were fortunate enough to carry out interviews with R. Hershel Schachter of YU and the RCA and R. Yuval Cherlow of Petah Tikvah and Tzohar, each of whom is a significant player in the field of conversions and each of whom strongly holds halakhic (and conflicting) positions relevant to the issue. This edition of the paper also includes AJ Berkovitz’s peshat analysis of the ger (lit., “stranger”) in the Torah, as well as Dani Lent’s analysis of the interesting case of those who convert out of Judaism and wish to return.

The topic of Jewish chosenness (the Jewish people’s status as the Am ha-Nivhar) is centrally related to Jewish identity as well. What is so special about the Jews that causes us to be chosen by God? The main early opinions on this matter are those of Rambam, who focuses on Avraham’s choosing of God which makes him deserving of God’s choice in turn; R. Yehudah ha-Levi, who stresses the superiority of the Jewish race; and Maharal, who relates to the special metaphysical nature of the Jewish People. This author wrote an article dealing with R. Aharon Kotler and R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s treatments of the issue and their focus on the continued commitment of the chosen party in order to maintain the special bond of chosenness.

Identity achieves continuity through education, and Jake Friedman deals with the question of how exactly to transmit ideas of Jewish identity to the next generation in his first piece. His other article deals with the murky field of interfaith discussions, where one’s religious identity is simultaneously up for challenge and raised on a pedestal for all to see. In a similar vein of looking outward (and simultaneously over one’s shoulder), Yitzhak Bronstein surveys the universalistic and particularistic strands of Judaism and how they view the Israeli enterprise. Last, but not least, Sarit Bendavid explores the construction of identity based on differentiation from surrounding cultures, exemplified by the ancient Israelites and their relation to the Philistines.

We hope these articles provide a window into new perspectives and encourage all readers to consider and rethink their own positions on these issues. In that connection, I would like to take this opportunity to invite all Kol Hamevaser readers, including those outside the immediate Yeshiva University community, to send in articles, either in response to this issue and its topic or apropos of the next issue’s topic, Judaism and its Relationship to Nature. (Please send any submissions to kolhamevaser@gmail.com.) Also, feel free to respond to these issues either on our Facebook page or on our blog-style website, www.kolhamevaser.com. We look forward to reading your contributions.

Shlomo Zuckier is a senior at YC majoring in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and is an Editor-in-Chief for Kol Hamevaser.