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Distinguishing Ourselves

This morning I started reading a book called:


In the introduction, Thompson mentions that,

a 2010 study found that Jews were the most broadly popular group in America (Putnam and Campbell) suggesting that they no longer needed to band together as strongly against antis emotion as they had in the past.

But what distinguished Jews from non-Jews if not external constraints such as antisemitism?

Thompson asked.

This question strikes me as one of the most central questions for contemporary Jewish rabbis, leaders and thinkers in North America, especially in the liberal streams of Judaism where we and our constituents are more visibly assimilated and integrated into the Christian/secular/non-Jewish world(s).

In a post “crisis narrative” world (to borrow a phrase from the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage curriculum), what distinguishes us (Jews) from others?

Actually, come to think of it, this isn’t a new question for Jews. Not remotely. In rabbinical school, my teacher, Lenny Kravitz (the rabbi, not the musician) used to rail at us in our medieval philosophy class about Jews throughout time needing to navigate having one foot in the Jewish world and the other foot without. We Jews are in a constant process of figuring ourselves out in relation to the other. You could argue (and I guess I am) that it is a fundamental part of being Jewish – distinguishing ourselves against the backdrop of “other”.

And yet, Thompson’s point about contemporary Judaism’s lack of a pervading fear of antisemitism, points to the fact that we are (once again) in an age where we find ourselves redefining our otherness.

Still, it is strikingly untrue and unfair to suggest that the bond created through oppression, antisemitism and the crisis narrative is the only thing that has distinguished Jews from others. And while I do see Thompson’s question as one that we often struggle with today, I also think we need only to look backward and inward for the answers in order to see that they are readily available. They are ancient answers: millennia old.

Torah. Mitzvot. Brit.

Jews are distinguished from others because we have a unique (not better just different) relationship with God. (That’s Brit, covenant)

Jews are distinguished from others because our God gave us this amazing book of wisdom, stories, laws and teachings called the Torah, to guide us in our lives. Torah is the gift that affirms the specialness of the covenant.

Jews are distinguished from others because when we value Torah, we structure our lives (even our assimilated and secular lives, in some ways) around its Mitzvot, it’s laws and it’s values. Even Jews who don’t feel religiously Jewish internalize the values of Judaism, which, for the record, are NOT universal (one need only to look to the Christian Right, or to an Islamic fundamentalist State, to see that this is so. If the whole world shared the same values-set, it would be a very different place).

And even without a continuing sense of fear hanging over us, Jews are still distinguished by a shared history and heritage of pain and oppression. We are still a tiny minority of the world’s population. And we still share a cultural identity rooted in humor, food, and the Yiddish phrases we only sort of understand.

So really, there’s a whole lot that still sets us apart. Which is a good thing. Because when Jews no longer engage in the question of what distinguishes us from the other, and when we no longer live with (and recognize and appreciate) the tension of having one foot in the Jewish world and one foot without, then we really start to loose the essence of Jewishness. Which may have been what Thompson was driving at. It may be that as we continue to blend into North American society, and as Jews continue to marry those who are not Jewish, that it may seem there is less and less that distinguishes “Jew” from “other”. But this is simply not true.

As long as we value our special relationship with God; as long as we keep Torah at the center of our lives; as long as we continues to live in ways that affirm our Jewish values; and as long as we continue to feel a connection to our fellow Jews, we will never be a fully assimilated people. We will never be other than what we are: Jewish


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