Who are North American Jews today? How has identity changed or shifted over time? How does this affect our work?
By Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, Ph.D.
The Meaning of Identity
When asked about their identity, most people respond with the words “I am…” followed by a signifier from a chosen identity category (“Trans,” “Jewish,” “Feminist,” etc.). By answering the question this way, people indicate that they think of identity as describing their essence, or their very nature. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that this is a mistaken understanding of identity.
In the 1960s, the linguist D. David Bourland devised E-Prime, which is a version of the English language that removes all forms of the verb “to be.” Without going too far down the rabbit hole with E-Prime, I will just point out that a more accurate understanding of identity leads to the conclusion that the verb “to be” (as in, “I am…”) should be abandoned. Identity is not a psychological category that describes who one “is,” but rather it is a sociological category that describes one’s affiliations, or encounters.
Beginning with the great migration that brought more than 20 million immigrants to American shores between 1880 and 1924, and continuing on through to the present day, the United States has become one of the most diverse countries in the history of the world. This has meant that Americans have had an unprecedented opportunity to interact with large numbers of individuals who are different (ethnically, religious, culturally, etc.) from themselves. So, if identity is the product of social interactions, it should be no surprise that the identity construction of many Americans has undergone significant changes over the course of the same period of time.
Today, in what is sometimes referred to as the era of postethnicity, Americans are able to choose freely from a wide array of overlapping identity categories (Culture, Ethnicity, Gender, Religion, Sexuality, etc.) that reflect their various affiliations. Moreover, we are not limited to just one identity; in fact, as David Hollinger has noted, “most individuals live in many circles simultaneously,” and thus can, and often times do, claim multiple identities.
If identity is the product of our social interactions, beginning with the family and continuing on through a lifetime of encounters, then it follows that, as those interactions become more complex, so too does our identity. This understanding of identity is best described as “hybrid,” and is crucial to understanding the state of contemporary American Jewry.
By hybrid, I mean to say that American Judaism is, in large part, “derived from heterogeneous sources, or composed of different or incongruous elements” (Oxford English Dictionary). The same also can be said for the rest of American society. Just as Jews have incorporated various other identities into their own complex mix, so too have non-Jews, with some incorporating aspects of Judaism into their own identities.
Given this reality, it is fair to state that the binary distinction between Jew and non-Jew is an increasingly ineffective way to describe those people found in and outside of the American Jewish community. A better approach would be to describe people in terms their affiliations. In this sense, affiliation doesn’t refer narrowly to organizational membership (although that too can be a part of affiliation) but rather to any number of expressions of Jewish life.
Identity to Affiliation
What does this shift from identity to affiliation mean for contemporary American Jewish life? The rise of Hybrid Judaism is not only something that we need not fear but also something we should embrace and advance whenever and wherever possible. While some will surely lament these developments, they hold within them the potential for a transformation of messianic proportions. To help us better understand this transformative potential, we now move from sociology to theology, and the writings of Rabbi Dr. Irving “Yitz” Greenberg.
As Greenberg has written, the diverse and open society in which we live means that citizens can encounter one another freely and recognize “the other as no longer other but as the image of God.” For Greenberg, being in the image of God means that all human beings are endowed with three fundamental dignities: infinite value, equality, and uniqueness. If we try to imagine what reality would look and feel like if we all encountered one another informed by these three dignities, it would quickly become clear that we would be living in a perfected world.
An open and democratic society holds the greatest opportunity to appreciate the infinite value, equality and uniqueness of other human beings. To achieve this fully, we must be open to the possibility that we, too, will be transformed by the encounter. In Greenberg’s words, encounter means that “…while I may come to refute or reject some contradictories, I may also learn from others’ insights and may even integrate them, thus improving my own system.” In this statement, it is clear that Greenberg’s vision is one that welcomes and embraces the transformative power of encounter.
The humility to recognize the limitations of our own worldview, along with the openness to the possibility that others may possess some insight that could improve our own understanding, are precisely what are needed so badly today.
Up until now, much of Hybrid Judaism has happened unintentionally. It is now time to become more intentional about the opportunities that lie ahead.
Here are a few suggestions for what it will take to commit to a program of transformative encounters:
1. Three thousand years of Jewish wisdom and values have a great deal to offer to all people in contemporary American life. Unfortunately, precious few American Jews appreciate this fact. We need to cultivate more educational leaders and institutions that will prioritize a wide array of programs intended to expose Jews and non-Jews alike to the very best of Jewish wisdom and values.
2. Transformative encounters should be prioritized throughout Jewish organizations. Here are some examples of how to achieve this goal.
- Community Jewish schools (at all grade levels) should seriously consider changing their enrollment policies and begin to serve the entire community. To be clear, schools should consider changing their enrollment policies to allow for the admission of non-Jews and should re-think their Jewish studies curricula to serve as a guide for all of humanity, and not just the Jewish people. Put another way, we should share the best of Jewish education with all comers and also learn how to translate Jewish wisdom and values into a more universal language.
- Synagogues that aren’t bound by Jewish law (Halacha) should remove all distinctions among participants. If people are coming to participate in the community, they should be welcomed wholeheartedly and indiscriminately. This means, for example, that those who do not self-identify as Jewish but affiliate with the Jewish community through a synagogue (for example, a non-Jewish spouse) should have full access to all ritual and leadership opportunities.
- Jewish Community Centers need to do a better job of serving their non-Jewish members and also create opportunities for Jews and non-Jews to encounter one another. After all, every JCC member is affiliated with Jewish life, so let’s do a better job of serving them all.
- Jewish advocacy and political organizations need to reignite the best of the Catholic- and Christian-Jewish dialogue movement of the 1960s and ’70s by investing resources in Jewish-Muslim dialogue. The Second Vatican Council’s decision in 1965 to abandon the charge that all Jews are guilty of deicide (i.e. killing Jesus) makes clear the potential of such encounters.
These are just some of the very practical changes that could take place in American Jewish life if we are to begin to realize the messianic potential of the postethnic era in which we live.
The increasingly hybrid nature of American Jewish identity should lead us to the conclusion that what matters is whether people wish to be affiliated with the Jewish community, not how, or to what extent, they choose to identify themselves – after all, affiliation is identity. If we are able to do this, our Jewish communities will grow, even as their constitution will likely undergo significant change. The result will be a Jewish community that, rather than remaining self-absorbed with its own survival, can turn its focus to the perfection of humanity through transformative encounters.
To be clear, the result of such changes will necessarily be a transformation of identity. As people enter into encounters with others that they consider to be of infinite and equal value, and that are unique, how could they not be transformed as a result? But, surely, the greatest act of idolatry we can commit is ensuring the continuity of our particular group in its current (or imagined) form at the expense of the perfection of humanity.
This is the opportunity. Who’s with me?
Darren Kleinberg was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2005 (full disclosure: he is no longer Orthodox) and received his Ph.D. in religious studies from Arizona State University in 2014. He is the author of Hybrid Judaism: Irving Greenberg, Encounter, and the Changing Nature of American Jewish Identity (Academic Studies Press, 2016), which can be purchased here, and currently serves as Head of School of Kehillah Jewish High School, in Palo Alto, California. You can reach Darren at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post first appeared on Ideas in Jewish Education and Engagement.