The Hollow Promise Of Jewish Identity


A couple of weeks ago, leaders of Conservative Judaism caused a stir by reaffirming a ban on interfaith marriage while reiterating the movement’s commitment to welcoming intermarried couples to its congregations. If this bit of legerdemain seems awkward, its stated goal will be familiar: strengthening Jewish identity.

“We believe — and the data confirm,” read a June statement from the Jewish Theological Seminary, “that by far the most effective path toward building a Jewish future is to strengthen Jewish identity, beginning with the Jewish family.”

Sounds plausible enough. For decades now, strengthening Jewish identity has become the brass ring and relatively unquestioned goal of the more progressive Jewish movements.

What better key to Jewish survival?

Then again, with the Conservative movement at historic affiliation lows and 70 percent of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying (as of 2000), color me skeptical that the Conservative Jewish leadership could reliably chart — or even recognize — the “most effective path” toward Jewish survival.

Could emphasis on Jewish identity be part of its problem?

I grew up in a Conservative synagogue and was educated in a pluralistic, predominately Conservative day school. The beat of “strengthening Jewish identity” was often drummed into our heads. Like a lot of Conservative day school graduates, I have also watched a goodly portion of my classmates and cousins intermarry, many while promising to “raise children with a strong Jewish identity.”

The specifics of this aspiration are often left hazy. Maybe they envision a lighting of Chanukah candles, annual trips to synagogue, the perfunctory bar or bat mitzvah. Jewish identity apparently doesn’t entail connection to Israel, a sentiment rapidly weakening among non-Orthodox Jews. Nor, I gather, does it require ongoing participation in any Jewish ritual or observance.

Possessing a Jewish identity seems to mean feeling Jewish. Making statements like: “As a Jew, that offends me.” Having a good sense of humor. Acknowledging one’s Judaism in the next Pew Research Center survey.

The problem with Jewish identity is that it accommodates literally any behavior. One can feel very Jewish doing, well, anything. Marrying a non-Jew can make one feel more Jewish than ever, as revelations of your cultural distinctions abound. In a recent issue of Tablet, editor-at-large Mark Oppenheimer made a case for, in his titular words, “The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein.” Even sexual predation, it seems, can have a robust Jewish identity, at least in the view of that author, who later apologized for the article.

Jewish identity accommodates every behavior because it is a largely vacuous notion. At best, it is insufficiently equipped to impel a good and Jewish life. Jewish identity can encourage trips to the Second Avenue Deli, to synagogue or to the sukkah. Or it can encourage none of those because identity is a highly personal, idiosyncratic aspect. Your Jewish identity may send you to a Black Lives Matter protest. My Jewish identity may lead me to vote or volunteer for causes that diametrically oppose yours. One might be forgiven for wondering whether there is any identity to Jewish identity at all.

Perhaps this is why the Jewish tradition did not — until relatively recently — regard the formation of Jewish identity as a goal. We borrow the concept from social science; Erik Erikson regarded identity as something one worked to achieve over a lifetime through the resolution of psychosocial crises. My own Jewish identity often rears its head in moments of unique discomfort — when confronted by anti-Jewish prejudice or anti-Israel sentiment.

But Jewish tradition has always emphasized conduct — not identity — because it is through action that we fashion a life and fill it with meaning. And unlike Erikson’s notion, Jewish tradition requires remarkably less for identity formation: A Jew is a Jew at the moment of birth. Nothing can undo one’s Judaism and only by conversion can the non-Jew obtain it. No inner crisis is necessary. Nor yet is affirmation.

In this way, our identities are free to shift as we define ourselves differently over the course and contexts of our lives. Judaism need not arbitrate amid the mess and metamorphoses of one’s personal self-perception. But Judaism has literal volumes to say about how we conduct our lives.

None of this is to suggest that possessing a Jewish identity is a bad thing. Only that it is, and has always been, a starting point. The admissions ticket to a Jewish life.

Sometime after college, I did the best thing I could to bolster my own Jewish identity: I became Orthodox. My husband and I now have three children who celebrate Jewish holidays, visit Israel, regularly attend synagogue and attend yeshiva day school. There is so much Jewish stuff to do, it turns out, there is hardly the time to mention identity at all. 

Abigail Shrier (@abigailshrier) is a writer and graduate of Yale Law School living in Los Angeles.