Jewish Identity and a New Vocabulary

VocabularyBy Rabbi Lee Moore

“Jewish identity” is too vague and ambiguous to be a useful construct as the end-goal of Jewish education and Jewish life. In his eJP piece “Speaking of Jewish Identity” Andres Spokoiny presents this idea and then asks exactly the right question: given that the language of “Jewish identity” is increasingly “limiting us and conditioning us in ways that are detrimental to the objectives we claim” … what words are more specific and effective that can lead us into a constructive discussion about outcomes in Jewish life?

Speaking of words, we have a vocabulary list to offer. It’s not complete, but it starts to approximate a way we might speak about how “Jewish ideas, values, languages, history, rituals, emotions, and behaviors inform particularly Jewish lenses and tools to interpret reality and flourish as human beings” – to address Spokoiny’s challenge.

Over the last two years, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah has been experimenting with a framework that we call Jewish Sensibilities. While not a complete paradigm, we have nevertheless found it very helpful in many contexts to fulfill the desire to provide rich, meaningful Jewish content in the face of some of the challenges many of us encounter in doing so – how to present a Judaism that is absolutely life-relevant, one that shows the particular value of Jewish teachings, but not in a way that categorically excludes non-Jews or that appeals only to those who consider themselves “religious,” a way that addresses the multi-layered dimensions of being human, from emotions and thoughts to behavior and belonging?

My vocabulary list starts with words and phrases like Simcha. Elu v’Elu. B’Tzelem Elohim. Kavod. Each one of these is a Jewish Sensibility that simultaneously evokes the unique contributions of Jewish culture and points toward a life of meaning.

Well-attested in anthropological literature, our use of the term Sensibilities is based on Vanessa Ochs’ 2003 Sh’ma essay “Ten Jewish Sensibilities.” She describes sensibilities as “particularly Jewish ways of thinking about what it means to be human, ways that guide and orient a person’s actions and choices.” In layperson’s terms, a sensibility is “an awareness of and responsiveness toward something.” Sensibilities can be seen as culturally informed mindsets through which the core activities of perceiving the world, processing those perceptions, and responding to them happen – across the realms of knowledge, emotion, valuing, relationships, and behavior. A sensibility gets employed at the moment that a person takes in information about what is happening (like a ‘lens’), and then again when responding to that stimulus. In this way, sensibilities speak to the way in which our cultural predilections impact how we build our awareness of what the world is, and in turn then shape how we respond to it.

Expanding and deepening a learner’s willingness and ability to apply Jewish sensibilities to the situations she encounters is a concrete, assessable educational goal that incorporates both literacy and meaning-making. This can replace talk about “identity.”

How does this work? Take, for example the sensibility we call Elu v’Elu – ‘both these and those.’ Drawn from a Mishnaic narrative (where it is applied to the opposing views of two groups of scholars), the term refers to that particularly Jewish way of approaching the world that suggests there may be two correct answers to a given question. Consider the common joke with many derivatives: “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” To those who know Jewish families, Jewish communities, this is funny because it rings so true. When set against American culture, it is an example of one of the distinguishing characteristics of Jewish culture and points toward not only a specific piece of knowledge or a specific ritual action, but a way of being in the world – one that makes room for diversity, engenders humility and provides a powerful relationship technique, if applied correctly. You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right, as Brad Hirschfield has phrased it. The emotional resilience, genuine curiosity and nuance of thought that a learner can develop by employing this sensibility can surely help them thrive as a human. And, it’s so Jewish.

Sensibilities are also powerful as a framework because they authentically emerge from cultural stories, patterns and habits, while at the same time enabling an individual to autonomously perceive-and-respond as themselves, not echoing a rote response, but rather acting within a range of responses that all represent legitimate interpretations of that sensibility.

One might adopt, e.g., a sensibility that we might call ‘gerim heyitem – you were strangers,’ perceiving and responding to instances of marginalization through a cultural lens that says, “I was once a slave and stranger in the land of Egypt; therefore I attempt to always exercise empathy for any person that is being marginalized.” How exactly such an individual will respond to seeing an act of marginalization will vary according to other factors that make that person unique – including personal style, additional cultural mores, generation, etc. She may choose to protest, to empathetically stand alongside the victim of marginalization, to create a new setting where the marginalized individual will be included with dignity. All these are legitimate expressions of the sensibility ‘you were strangers.’ By witnessing and responding to an act of marginalization in this way, a person can see herself as “acting Jewishly.” But, she will still be acting as herself. Her sense of self may even become even stronger because she is able to root her response in a framework of meaning that connects her to a long history of similar situations and similar responses. A person need not exhibit a specific behavior to be “authentically Jewish” (e.g., refrain from using electricity on Shabbat) – but rather perceive-and-respond in a way that demonstrates awareness of a sensibility that underlies numerous possible behaviors – in this second case, the sensibility of honoring Shabbat as a day for stepping back from routine and marking as special.

We were thrilled to see Spokoiny’s piece because we not only have this vocabulary list to share, but also have two years of testing this framework. Using Sensibilities has begun to give us and others the basic vocabulary for the very conversation I think he seeks. As we discuss which Sensibilities we find in Jewish tradition, which ones we value, why, how they were enacted in the past, how we might enact them today – we’re starting to have that conversation. If anyone would like to join it, we would be equally thrilled to know.

Rabbi Lee Moore is Director of Jewish and Organizational Learning at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. This post presents some of the ideas articulated by Moore and Jonathan Woocher in a chapter titled “Jewish Sensibilities: A Vocabulary for Articulating Educational Goals,” in the forthcoming volume edited by Jon A. Levisohn and Ari Y. Kelman, Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives (Academic Studies Press). The book is a product of the Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education project at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.