I'm a philosopher of education by training, and one of the things that philosophers of education do is to ask questions about purposes. Other kinds of scholars ask those questions, too, but it's kind of our thing.
So how did I come to start thinking about the concept of "Jewish identity" in particular? It started, actually, with a different (but, I think, related) topic, namely, assimilation. I was thinking in 2008 and 2009 about what "assimilation" actually means, and the ways that we use the term. I gave a talk which led to another talk which led eventually to an article.
The punchline? We should not be educating against assimilation. Instead, we should be educating for assimilation. That is, we should be educating young Jews to navigate their way in the world, drawing on the best of what they encounter (whether that is vegetarianism or feminism or Hegelianism or any of the other good stuff that may be found in contemporary culture) and assimilating those influences into their own Judaism.
That article (my article about assimilation) included the following passage:
There may still be examples of those who reject their Jewish identities, or who acknowledge only biological connections to other Jews present or past. But however much this kind of assimilation was a reality in the past, in the contemporary West, this phenomenon is actually quite rare. Identity is no longer a zero-sum game. No one demands that one abandon one’s status and self-identification as a Jew in order to become a (non-Jewish, or non-ethnic) American… Again, identity is not a zero-sum game, and there is little reason to believe that their passions for chess or yoga or football or Thai food or reggae music or environmental activism are in any substantive sense the causes of the diminishment of their Jewish commitments.
So that, I think, is part of what is at issue here (although only part, and hopefully we'll have the opportunity to surface other issues). We often treat identity as a zero-sum game. We talk about strengthening Jewish identity (against something else), or nurturing Jewish identity (against something else). But that's not how Jews live their lives.
Anyway, the more that I started thinking and talking with colleagues about the concept of "Jewish identity," the more I discovered that others were also uneasy with how the Jewish community uses the term.
Over to you, my esteemed castmates. Does my argument about zero-sum-game thinking resonate with you? Or, you know, ignore that point and tell us why our topic is interesting to you in particular...
PS Sharon, thanks for pointing us towards the JAFI Impact Matrix. Very interesting. I'll have to come back to that at some point later on in the conversation.
My name is Rabbi Julie Roth and I have devoted my life's work to strengthening Jewish identity. And yet, after 13 years as a Hillel professional and six years of rabbinical training, I am hard-pressed to define what I mean exactly.
That's not to say I don't have my own matrix to measure feelings, behavior, and knowledge in the high intensity educational fellowships I run at Princeton, drilled down, with the help of a professional consultant into concrete components that are measurable on a survey-money evaluation, because I do. Rather, at the deepest level I struggle with the philosophical tension between pursuing Jewish identity for its own sake and cultivating Jewish identity so that individual Jews will live meaningful lives and contribute to building a more hopeful and justice-filled world. While I don't see this as an either/or proposition, what we aim to accomplish precisely when we invest in the Jewish identity business impacts what we achieve.
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor in me is satisfied with Jewish identity as an end in of itself, but the campus rabbi in the trenches with millennials knows that meaning-making together with a sense of belonging must permeate Jewish identity for it to continue into the next generation.