Understanding Jewish Identity

One subject on the agenda at last week’s ‘Conference on the Future of the Jewish People’ in Jerusalem was Jewish Identity and Identification, probably one of the most discussed issues in the Jewish world today.

In preparation for the Conference, a working paper, Jewish Identity and Identification-New Paterns, Meanings, and Networks by Shlomo Fischer and Suzanne Last Stone was distributed.

An excerpt:

Jewish identity in the Diaspora consists of voluntary religious and ethnic identification and solidarity. Alternatively, in Israel, while Jewish identity is of core importance, it is largely automatic…

Contemporary Challenges to Mainstream Jewish Civil Religion: Too Much Religion or Too Little?

One major challenge to the mainstream civil religion is from the Haredim. The increasingly visible growth of the Haredi community has given this challenge a revived importance. Haredim do accept the Jewish identity of individual non-Haredi Jews, provided that such Jews fulfill the criteria of the halacha. However, they do not accept the sacred value of the Jewish civil religion. Jewish political and socio-economic flourishing do not really interest the Haredim. Even their interest in defending against anti-Semitism is minimal. They don’t participate in the Jewish civil religion. Very few of them donate money to these causes or are members of the federations or self-defense organizations. What interests the Haredim is punctilious observance of the halacha and Haredi lifestyle, and financial support for Haredi religious and educational projects. For mainstream Jewish civil religion, sacredness is a function of ethnic solidarity. For Haredim, the opposite is true. Ethnic solidarity is a function of the halacha or the sacred dimension enjoining one to express or practice such solidarity (e.g. saving Jewish lives.) While the Haredim are not fully sectarian – they do not claim that they are the only true Jews – they do claim that their collective endeavors are the only legitimate Jewish collective endeavors.

What, if anything, could be done to mitigate this sort of sectarianism? If intervention is not possible or desirable, should participants in the mainstream form of Jewish identity, nonetheless, continue a relationship that is asymmetric?