Crisis in Jewish Identity

Part I

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

In this article, Rabbi Hecht contends that the modern problems facing us as Jews - assimilation, intermarriage, internal rifts - are but symptoms of a greater ill. He argues that it is the lack of definition of Jewishness and Jewish identity that is the core weakness in our society. We cannot hope to maintain strength in Jewish commitment without presenting an intellectual reason for individuals to declare themselves solidly Jewish. Rabbi Hecht presents his reasons why the complex question of 'what is a Jew' has been ignored, explains why this question is difficult and complex and gives his own solution to this problem.

Rabbi Hecht is the Founding Director of NISHMA.

We all know the problems: intermarriage is on the increase; the assimilation rate will yield less Jews in the next decade rather than more; the internal rifts among our people are breeding animosity; and there are more. Yet I feel that these terrible problems are in reality only symptoms of a much greater problem, a problem that many of us do not even see. We, generally, cannot intellectually define why being Jewish is important. In fact, we would be hard pressed to clearly define what Jewishness is. We have a crisis in Jewish identity and until that is solved, the answers we present for assimilation will only be cosmetic.


The question of what is Jewishness is a difficult, complex one and should not be treated lightly. How does national identity and religious belief merge? Are we a religion? Are we a nation or ethnic-cultural grouping? How are we both? The solution to these questions, and others, must be well thought out yet the search for an answer must be undertaken. How can we argue for someone to remain Jewish if we cannot define what Jewishness is?

Amazingly, our society has attempted to do just that. So much of the response to our problems has been based on the re-enforcing of emotional pride and the rhetoric of ethnic identification. We are told to feel pride in being Jewish, to feel good about our heritage, to continue the identification. The various methods of marketing these goals, and I fully agree with the goals (we should feel Jewish pride) include the right pictures, the right music - but no answers. It is almost as if we are talking to the converted. If you have an emotion of Jewishness, if you feel pride in being a Jew then these tools will touch you, but if you do not feel the emotions, will they create them? Being Jewish becomes more like identification with a sport. The advertisements for the N.B.A. for example, may bring you out to a game if you like basketball but do they argue that someone should like basketball? The answer to why someone should identify as a Jew cannot be found in simply sparking the emotions but must be found through reason.

There are additional problems when we only respond with and through the emotions. In the early 1970's, the television situation comedy Bridget Loves Bernie centered around a marriage between a Catholic and a Jew. While the program infuriated many, one of the reasons it worked was because Bernie maintained a Jewish presence. The program implied that one can remain proudly Jewish though intermarried - and why not, if Jewishness is simply an emotional feeling of ethnic pride? Encouraging positive feelings may strengthen someone'sJewish identification in the short run but what are the long run effects. So many Jewish youth groups are only Jewish because those involved feel Jewish; aside from that, they are exactly the same as any other group. You can feel pride and still intermarry. Feeling Jewish doesn't have to change your behaviour at all. How can we expect the maintaining of this intangible link to be the solution?

Furthermore, if the motivation for Jewishness is simply emotional, then it is subject to defeat at the hands of a stronger emotion. If someone is forced to choose between love and Jewish pride, unless we make it an intellectual decision through analysis of what each concept means and offers, we leave it to simply which emotion is stronger - and within western culture that usually is love. In fact, a feeling of Jewishness that would only support Jews marrying Jews could even be seen as a negative. Supporting Jewish identification solely through the emotions of ethnic pride may not only not work, but may create a backlash in a reaction to ethnocentricity. Jews may not feel Jewish; they may wonder what is this Jewishness, is it different; they may react negatively to having this ethnic diversity. So why has our response only been marketed or channelled through the emotions? Why have we not asked, studied, taught, discussed the true definition of Jewishness?

In Part II, we will begin the investigation.


Chabura Topics


1) The Jewish Feeling - Rabbi Hecht, while clearly stating that Jewish pride and feelings are important, believes that their existence in a vacuum without knowledge can be more of a problem than a solution. Do you agree or disagree? Rav Kuk and other Torah minds have maintained the position that feeling Jewish is an expression of the soul. How can Rabbi Hecht's position be reconciled with theirs? or must weconclude that it cannot? Is there value in only having a feeling? Is the feeling necessary as accompaniment for the trip that reason ventures? Does the investigation of reason reach greater heights if prompted by a feeling?


2) Jewish Identity - What questions would you ask? How do you define Jewishness? Begin the investigation.[--- Unable To Translate Graphic ---]



NISHMA-Torah articles broadly cover the complete spectrum of Torah study - from Halacha to Tanach, from Gemara to Hashkafa, from Rationalism to Mysticism. Their objective is not only to increase Torah knowledge, but to encourage us to think about Torah issues and to draw us into the Torah discussion.

Suggested Chabura Topics follow each article, providing issues and questions intended to spark further intense Torah investigation and discussion.

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