Susan A. Glenn & Naomi B. Sokoloff
In 2009, controversy erupted when a publically funded Orthodox Jewish school in London denied admission to a child with a Jewish father and a mother who had converted to Judaism. The Orthodox standard of Jewishness employed by the school favored children born to Jewish mothers, regardless of how religiously observant, over children born to non-Jewish mothers, regardless of how stringently those children and their families observed mitzvot. The school insisted that because the mother’s conversion did not meet those standards, neither she nor her son had a right to call themselves Jews. But that was not the end of the story. As it turns out, while British law permits publicly funded faith schools to use religion as a criterion of admission, it strictly forbids discrimination on the basis of race. And when the British Supreme Court heard the case in December of 2009, the majority opinion declared that “by definition, discrimination that is based upon [the matrilineal] test is discrimination on racial grounds” and therefore illegal. State-funded Jewish schools are now required to adjust their policies so that evidence of faith-based activity, rather than Orthodox halakhic tests, are the criteria for admission. The ruling continues to be contested.
This case provides but one example of how the age-old questions — “Who is a Jew and what is Jewish?” — have taken on myriad, sometimes startling, new manifestations in the rapidly changing world of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. The past decade has posed a wide range of unprecedented conundrums. Some dilemmas, such as the British school admission debate, have to do with the ways Jewish groups interact with the laws governing states and societies in the Diaspora. In Israel, too, perplexities abound: Immigrants without formal ties to religion, Arab citizens, guest workers and their children, and homosexuals who assert their voices, press their cases for full civil rights, and struggle to define their relationship to the predominant culture of a Jewish majority — a culture shaped in significant ways by Jewish religious norms and constituencies. Furthermore, in recent years, awareness has grown regarding shifting and dynamic aspects of modern Jewish identity among Jews around the world — in North America, Israel, Africa, Asia, and Europe. The national media, as well as Jewish-interest periodicals and exhibits such as “The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography” at the Jewish Museum in New York City, vividly call attention to the varieties of cultural expressions and physical appearances among Jews worldwide. Much interest revolves around the changing demographics of Jewish life, as intermarriage, and adoption — along with waves of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Iran, and other countries — have introduced diverse individuals and populations into Jewish communities whose ancestral roots were primarily European.
All these phenomena challenge previous conventional wisdom or assumptions of what is normative, and they have heightened awareness that the conundrums posed by the question “who counts as a Jew?” are ever evolving. Similarly, the movement of women into positions of religious authority has raised intense enthusiasms, intense opposition, and intensely creative discussions about the gendering of the word “Jew” within the practice of Judaism. Moreover, scholars and the wider public alike have avidly followed debates arising over the conflict between Jewish self-identification and established norms of ethnic and religious identity. Such debates have become especially acute as communities that live outside the cultural and social mainstreams of Jewish life (such as the Lemba of southern Africa, the Subbotniks of Ukraine, the Falash-Mura of Ethiopia, the Kuki-Chin-Mizo in India, and the Crypto-Jews of the American Southwest) assert their rights to be recognized as Jews.
One of the most useful ways of understanding today’s contending definitions of “Jewishness” is to encourage cross-disciplinary and comparative perspectives on what might best be described as the various Jewish “epistemologies” — ways of knowing who and what is “Jewish.” Our recent book, Boundaries of Jewish Identity, brings together the work of a diverse group of scholars with insights from the realms of law, anthropology, history, sociology, literature, and popular culture. It sheds light on three overlapping areas of debate: definitions of who and what is “Jewish,” including controversies surrounding conversion, apostasy, and notions of authenticity; images and self-representation of Jews, including those found in scientific and rabbinical discourse; and boundary issues arising out of the interactions among Jews and non-Jews.
We start from the premise that, though Jews have often been defined by their enemies or within the discourse of surrounding majorities, Jews themselves have carried on a rich and sometimes rancorous internal dialogue about how Jewishness should be defined. Contributors examine how those definitions have been established, enforced, challenged, and transformed. We ask: What is considered normative, what is official proclamation, and what is imposed and by whom? The essays in our collection — like many of those in this issue of Sh’ma — take into account divergent views on whether or not Jewishness requires religious belief, practice, and formal institutional affiliation, as well as how individual claims to Jewish identity are measured against biological or physical notions.
Questions about identity generate multiple answers, reflecting the different social, intellectual, and political locations of those who are asking. They reveal that different ways of knowing and determining what is “Jewish” — genetic, cultural, social, religious, physical, legal, linguistic, literary, and others — produce surprisingly diverse and sometimes contested definitions of identity. And they lead to a host of further, specific questions. For example, in Israel, how do lived practices and popular behaviors challenge official categories of Jewish citizenship rights and government policy? How does halakhah respond to advances in genetic testing, assisted reproduction, and other medical progress? What do the ideas and practices of groups at the margins of the Jewish establishment reveal about the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion? In literature, how do stereotypes of Jewishness function? Do they merely demarcate and reconfirm reductive, schematic, and inflexible (hence necessarily flawed) boundaries of identity, or can they be deployed artistically to critique simplistic notions and circumvent or reconfigure conventional boundaries? In popular culture and everyday behavior, if looking for Jews on the basis of their physical qualities is a very Jewish way of knowing who is Jewish, how do we reconcile a century of social scientific thinking that attributes stereotypes of Jewish looks to racist thinking? And what does the continuous and shifting public Jewish discourse about whether Jews look “Jewish” reveal about the complex and contradictory meanings that Jews have attached to the notion of their own physical differences?
In order to understand the sources and dimensions of conflicts — both contemporary and historical — about the definition of Jewish identity, we need to ask how boundaries work. How are they formed, revised, and lived? It is important, today, to illuminate the varied and contingent meanings of Jewish identity across time and space. Regardless of the formal historical, institutional, or national definitions of “who is a Jew,” the experience of identity is layered, shifting, syncretic, and constructed, and it is clear that Jewish identity can be reforged under new circumstances. Yet, at the same time, the social practices through which individuals and communities of Jews in various parts of the world have challenged conventional understandings of the boundaries of Jewish identity have opened up profound debates on questions of cultural and even biological authenticity. Jewishness has always exceeded clear-cut categories of racial, ethnic, and religious identity — hence, the ongoing, continually renewed, and multifaceted debates generated by the question, “Who is a Jew?”email print