From 'Introspection 5761-2'

Adjective and Non-Adjective Jews

by Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

The declaration is made with intensity and a sense of urgency. Throughout the Jewish world advocates have arisen who proclaim, in the name of Jewish unity, that they do not prescribe to the variant adjectives that accompany Jewish identity. They are not Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or any other type of Jew; they are simply Jews. The adjectives are perceived to be only a cause for disunity; the response is subsequently to eliminate these adjectives. Thus there are synagogues that declare themselves to be without an adjective; they are simply Jewish and open to all Jews. Thus there are Rabbis who declare that they are without an adjective; they are simply Jewish and committed to all Jews. Thus there is a populace that wishes to hear no more about adjectives, about the distinctions within the Jewish world; we are simply Jewish and, sensibly, all Jews must unite. The sad truth may be, however, that rather than foster unity, dropping the adjectives may only create greater dissent and friction. These adjectives actually clarify the challenge that faces us in the name of unity. To ignore the adjective is to ignore the difficult path that must be traversed if unity is actually to be attainable. Furthermore, to ignore the adjective is to shirk our responsibility to understand the nature and significance of our specifically and determinedly defined Jewish identity.
For many, a statement of Jewish identity, a declaration that one is Jewish, is strongly personal. What is often not considered is the exact nature of such a statement. What does it mean to be Jewish? In response, most can present what it means for them, individually, to be Jewish. In fact, in the recent past, ads were placed in major newspapers in the United States featuring prominent individuals describing what it meant to them to be Jewish. The problem is that a statement of Jewish identity is fundamentally a communal statement. It identifies an individual as part of a group, i.e the Jewish group. It is true that an individual can express a personal emotion or response to being part of a group but fundamentally first a person must recognize the nature of the group identity. In declaring oneself Jewish, a person is actually declaring that he/she is part of the Jewish group. The question "what does it mean to be Jewish?" thus ultimately cannot be answered, at its root, by a personal statement descrying one's feelings of Jewish identity. The question must be explored in terms of the group. What is the nature of this group? What are its defining characteristics and parameters? The challenge in explaining the nature of Jewish identity is not to describe one's personal perspective on being a Jew but rather to describe the essential character of the Jewish group.
Yet, personal responses abound. Invariably, our internal and subjective perspectives on Jewishness also become our subsequent definitions of the nature of the group. Rather than the group outlining for the individual the principles of the group and the requirements for group identity and membership, it is the individual who is now describing the group. Herein lies a major difficulty: each individual may have a different definition of the nature of the group. I call myself a Jew and can explain what it means to me to define myself as a Jew. But the term Jew does not define me as an individual but rather as part of a group. I must thus extend my personal definition onto the group. The same is true with another Jew and another Jew. We all use the term, i.e. Jew, but we all may mean something gallactically and distinctively different. Our definitions might overlap or not overlap. It is at this point that the group is in disarray. As individuals, realistically, we can do whatever we wish and define it in any manner we wish.In the context of the group, however, if all that exists are individual definitions, the group has no distinct essence and the bonding force of the group is weakened.
David Ben-Gurion's original idea to define an individual as Jewish, under Israel's Law of Return, based solely upon a personal declaration that one is Jewish was challenged precisely because of this reason. The group no longer defines itself; it is the individual who defines the group. If any individual could declare themselves to be Jewish, there ultimately would be no group definition beyond the tautology of calling oneself Jewish. The group itself has to have established criteria for inclusion in the group; otherwise the group has no true identity or meaning. The group independent of any personal perspective must possess its own definition of its nature. The strength of the group is actually dependent on the membership's recognition of the group's principles and their commitment to uphold them.
Unity is a product of shared vision. Those that argue for the removal of adjectives do so with this in mind. Their argument is that adjectives reflect differences and attack the common perspective.
1 In fact, differences in perspective already exist; they are unfortunately not confronted. Without this confrontation, our views are not sharpened, not evaluated within the greater context. The adjective theoretically forces us to challenge our perspective, confront our inconsistencies and inherent conflicts and articulate our views. It is only within this process that we are able to discuss the possibility of shared vision.
The adjectives associated with Jewish identity inherently reflect objective definitions of the nature of the Jewish group. When one contemplates the adjective in its real sense,
2 one is beginning to investigate one's perspective on Jewish identity. One is challenging the personal and bringing the discussion into the realm of thought and philosophy.
Of course, Halacha does define the nature of Jewish identity and in so doing presents an objective perspective of the group beyond the personal. The criteria for inclusion in the group - born to a Jewish mother or conversion according to Halacha - are parameters that assist in outlining the principles of the Jewish group's character. As outlined in my article Crisis in Jewish Identity, Nishma Journal IV, V, VI, VII, the essential nature of the group according to Halacha is actually quite complex as it reflects a unique symbiosis of nationhood and theology. The matter becomes even more intricate in the discussions of the commentators as they further consider the inherent distinction and purpose of Jewishness. Halacha 's description of the nature of the Jewish group, however, is not the specific issue that concerns us. It is sufficient to say that, while complex, Halacha does present a vision of the Jewish group and that proponents of Halacha, theoretically, do have an understanding of the nature of the group. Not everyone within the modern Jewish group, however, adheres to Halacha and/or is willing to accept the halachic criteria for inclusion in the group and the attached definition of the nature of the group. Within the context of the modern Jewish world with its differing perspectives on Halacha, the reality is that, rightly or wrongly, differing visions of Jewishness abound. The adjective clarifies this reality.
The difficulty that Israel has faced in establishing the criteria for the Law of Return,
3 demonstrates this inherent problem of group identity that is at the source of the modern problem of Jewish identity with its symptoms of assimilation and disunity. The issue is not simply the criteria for inclusion in the group. The criteria we apply in defining who is a Jew reflects a specific understanding of what is a Jew, our understanding of what it means to be a Jew and our understanding of the term Jewish. Definitions and understandings of course may overlap and in fact may greatly overlap. There are. however, also distinctions. The Patrilineal descent decision of Reform Judaism was more than an extension of the criteria for inclusion in the group; it reflected a fundamental change in the understanding of the nature of the group. True, most Jews would still be part of the group both according to the Reform definition and the halachic definition and there are overlaps in the understanding of the group's essential being but what occurred nonetheless was a shift in the understanding of Jewishness by Reform Judaism. The nature of the group is defined differently within Reform Judaism than within Orthodox Judaism.4 While the variant understandings of Jewishness do overlap and there is common ground, there are also differences. To ignore the adjectives of Jewish identity is to ignore this reality. To apply the adjectives is to understand the common ground and the differences and to attempt unity in recognition of the reality.
The argument to ignore adjectives essentially continues the malaise that exists within the Jewish world. While the motivation behind this desire to drop adjectives is understandable - the adjectives do point out distinctions and invariably, prima facie, reinforces separation - the result of such an endeavour will be exactly the opposite. The adjectives do not create the distinctions. The distinctions already exist. We already have differing views of Jewishness. A demand for adjectives would actually demand of us to confront these variant views and to, furthermore, investigate and clarify our own perspectives on Jewishness.
As presented above, most of us already have a personal perspective on Jewishness. This personal perspective usually stays just that - personal. In confronting someone with an adjective, we are effectively asking the individual to indicate within which objective, non-personal definition of Jewishness their personal definition fits. We furthermore are challenging them to analyze and critique their personal perspective. Theological and national constructs are faced. In the pursuit of the proper adjective to define oneself, one is challenged to clarify what one believes, what one thinks about the overall reason for Jewishness. Too often we are afraid to confront individuals about their ideas and perspectives. Dropping the adjectives continues this comfort scenario. Without adjectives no one is confronted. Everyone is perceived as welcome. But the fact is that underneath the lack of adjectives still lie adjectives. Everyone has a vision of Jewishness, be it well thought out or simply a reflection of one's emotions. We just do not bring it to the surface. Furthermore we do not think we have to bring it to the surface because we believe everyone already shares this perspective. We think that what we consider Jewishness to be is what the other considers Jewishness to be. Thus we cannot dialogue. Thus we cannot even deal with the essential issues that face us because we all think that we all think alike. The adjective demands of us to think. The adjective demands of us to truly evaluate the realm of Jewishness before us. Of course, there are times when adjectives are not necessary and the common ground is so clear that the term Jew can stand alone. The mistake we often make, however, is to assume that the common ground is greater than it actually is. We live with assumptions that eventually hinder the ability to work towards the goal. The adjective demands of us to clarify our assumptions and perspectives.
Unity may still be elusive. Because we clarify points of similarity and points of distinction does not mean that we can reach a common bond that overrides all else. In fact, as we pursue ideas and understandings of Jewishness, we may actually question the need for a unity of all groups within the general banner of Jewishness. Alan Dershowitz in his book The Vanishing American Jew presents such an alternative, declaring that certain views of Jewishness do not reconcile with his overall perspective on Jewishness. In fact, this alternative is not as shocking as it may first seem.. In rejecting Messianic Judaism (i.e. Jews for Jesus) as part of the Jewish community, we are effectively declaring that there are criteria for inclusion in the group and that unity at all costs is not acceptable.
5 In excluding "Messianics" we are stating that a unity of all who wish to describe themselves as Jewish is not necessarily the objective. Jewishness represents an ideal. The ideal must be a value that permeates the group. It must be the force that binds. It must also be the force that excludes.
Herein lies what I consider to be the real reason for the importance of adjectives. I do believe that unity is not possible without an understanding of vision and, in the consideration of adjectives, we contemplate vision. But the contemplation of vision is in itself of prime importance. In ignoring the adjectives, we do not challenge ourselves to truly investigate what we mean when we use the term Jewish. We therefore live with inconsistencies and contradictions - especially in the philosophical and theological realm.
Even as an Orthodox Jew, I welcome the investigation of the other branches of Judaism. True, it may strengthen allegiance to another branch - an objective I may not desire. Essentially, though, it creates discussion and promotes thought, study, analysis and investigation. I have always maintained that the ultimate strength of Torah arises from the preeminence of truth and that truth will always prevail. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that such investigation will eventually promote Orthodoxy and its vision of Jewishness. But beyond this personal reflection, such investigation will promote thought in general. We will be thinking about our Jewishness. It is only in such a milieu that we can aspire to be "a wise and understanding people."


1) Sadly, we should also recognize that there are those who attack adjectives because they do not want people analyzing their Jewishness. They wish lack of knowledge in order to maintain confusion so that they can attain their own agenda. In rejecting adjectives, they effectively protect themselves from being challenged; thus they can manipulate the other in reaching their desired objective.
2) As opposed to its colloquial sense. In this regard, I mean, an investigation of philosophical and theological distinctions between the branches rather than a projection of differences defined only in terms of behaviour.
3) See Baruch Litvin, Jewish Identity: Modern Responses and Opinions.
4) See, further, Rabbi J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halachic Problems, Vol. 3, pp. 96-102.
5) There are faint voices within the community who do advocate for inclusion of &127Messianics&127 within the Jewish world thus further diluting any definition of Jewishness. Nonetheless the gauntlet is dropped. An exclusion of Messianics demands a definition of the nature of the group that supports such exclusion, an exclusion that is tied to reason and thought rather than simply personal responses. See, further, Nishma Insight 5760-41,42,43.
6) Devarim 4:16.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma.

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