Here is Dr.Gerstenfeld’s major essay on Jewish identity which has been published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and republished here with the author’s consent.
Jewish Identities in Postmodern Societies
- Jewish identity is determined in three ways. How do Jews see themselves? How are they viewed by other Jews? And how are Jews seen by the outside world?
- Several methods can be used to analyze contemporary Jewish identities. One is to collect information about what people write regarding Jewish identities, either in general or with respect to their own. A second, more scientific method is to analyze sociological and demographic studies of Jewish communities. A third method is to examine various examples of Jewish outreach.
- Elements of Jewish bonding can include religion, holidays and customs, ancestry, secular Jewish culture, ties with the Jewish community, reactions to anti-Semitism, experiences of the Second World War, and attitudes toward the state of Israel.
- Studies by the Pew Research Center show that self-identification by American Jews differs significantly from generation to generation as well as that Israelis and American Jews differ on several issues concerning what they see as essential to their Jewishness.
If one searches “Jewish identity” on Google, many millions of entries appear. Is being Jewish a matter of culture, religion, belonging to a nation or to a community? Or is it also something else? For most of the past three millennia, it was relatively simple for Jews to define their identity. Nowadays it has become more difficult than ever before. One among many reasons is the fragmentation of Jewish identities, insofar as Jews define themselves.
We live in an age that cannot be defined properly. The term postmodernity indicates that the current period is described by referring to the one before, which was called “modern.” This inability of definition is one among many manifestations of the overall contemporary crisis. Yet, if one cannot define postmodernity, one can at least explain its main features. Fragmentation is a prime one. Another characteristic is globalization.
This major fragmentation includes the breakdown of structures and the dissipation of authority. With this also comes the disintegration of norms and values. All these lead to increased individualism. Other features of postmodernity are relativism, subjectivism, and pluralism. Political correctness is an effort to establish – often distorting – norms for conduct in a postmodern society. Two characteristics of globalization are the growth of international mass communication and an overload of frequently distorted information. In such a complex and opaque reality, doubts about one’s identity flourish. Many contemporary Western societies are now undergoing an identity crisis. This heavily influences individuals, who, in turn, influence the societal reality.
Jews in Postmodern Societies
This overall environment affects Jewish identities. The main characteristics of postmodernity are also significantly present in the Jewish world.
However, one should first define what identity means. Views on this vary. For the Cambridge Dictionary, identity comprises “the qualities of a person or group which make them different from others.”1
But Steven Cohen, a leading sociologist of American Jewry, says, “There is no accurate word for the complex of Jewish belief, behavior, and belonging. As a result, we employ the term identity for lack of a better one.”2 Those features – “belief, behavior, and belonging” – are the ones mainly used in this analysis.
What does it mean to be a Jew in postmodern society? Jewish identity is determined in three ways. How do Jews see themselves? How are they viewed by other Jews? And how are Jews seen by the outside world?
In the past, answers to these questions came relatively easy. Jewish identity was derived from beliefs, behaviors, and belonging that were distinctly different from those of surrounding societies. Jews practiced specific religious commandments. They were frequently physically separated from others and lived mainly – forced to or not – in Jewish neighborhoods. They were often voluntarily or involuntarily identifiable by their clothing.
In the Middle Ages and until the Enlightenment, the Jewish leadership usually had the authority to enforce a well-defined behavior. In the autonomous Jewish communities, Jews were under the control and law of their religious and lay leaders. This mainly resulted from the policies and attitudes of the external Christian or Muslim world toward Jews. One relevant example of how Jewish law determined Jews’ expected attitude in extreme situations was how they had to behave toward mortal threats. The most common Jewish-law opinion was that at such times a Jew could transgress all commandments except three – the prohibitions on idol worship, murder, and incest.
As an example of a frequent Jewish position toward belief, Maimonides maintained that in order to be a Jew one had to believe in 13 principles of faith. Before the autonomy of Jewish communities ended in the 19th century, it was thus relatively simple to define how Jews behaved and what most of them believed.