Over at the LA Review of Books, Jacob Silverman smartly interrogates the thorny issue of Jewish identity. The occasion is Jews and Words by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, in which the authors contend that Jewishness is primarily a matter of storytelling and texts.
Identity is of course always a matter of storytelling, so the former claim is hardly unique to Jews. Granted, Jewishness may entail larger numbers of potentially conflicting stories, but all identities are constructed around stories. The latter claim — that texts comprise the heart and soul of Judaism — strikes me as more dubious, if only because intellectuals usually overestimate the power and primacy of written words. It’s an occupational hazard.
These quibbles aside, Silverman puts his finger right on the identity pulse in this passage:
[The authors] argue that the appeal of traditional Judaism remains, in part, that one can “live in a timeless realm,” before embarking on a savvy critique of ultra-Orthodox Jews who
walk the world in the clothing of Polish nobility of the seventeenth century, sing beautiful Hasidic songs based on typical Ukrainian melodies, and dance ecstatic Ukrainian folk dances. They argue with us seculars, at best, according to Maimonides’ logic, drawn from Aristotle, or — alternatively — attack the weakness of our national loyalty on the basis of Hegelian arguments, courtesy of Rabbi Kook. But of us, they demand faithfulness to the original fountainhead.
Against this rigid, anachronistic position, the authors of Jews and Words insist on Judaism’s ultimate hybridity, its incorporation of many outside influences.
It is somewhat ironic that Oz and Oz-Salzberger argue for a particular kind of identity — and are authors of its construction — while simultaneously claiming that Jewish identity is fundamentally hybrid. This strikes me as walking either a fine line or straddling a razor’s edge, depending on one’s proclivities.