Hybrid Jewish Identity

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.


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2 thoughts on “Hybrid Jewish Identity

  1. rosross

    The concept of a Jewish identity is at source no different to that of a Catholic, Muslim, Hindu or whatever identity. All religions have their own culture and to that degree ‘identity.’
    Where Judaism is different is that the religion speaks in metaphor about Jews as a people, in the same way that many other more primitive spiritual beliefs spoke about themselves, except that the concept has become literalised in Judaism.

    It has become literalised through the same process that the other Judaic metaphor, a State of Israel, became literalised, through the Zionist movement. Turning the concept of a Jewish people into a literal ‘reality’ where people equated with race – although Jews comprise all races through conversion so clearly are not a race – gave the Zionists more ‘substance’ for their argument for a State and the eventual partition of Palestine to achieve that end.

    Given the reality of the Palestinians and the fact that their presence made the Zionist propaganda of ‘a land without people for a people without a land’ a demonstrable lie, it became more important to ‘develop’ the concept that followers of Judaism constituted a ‘people’ or a ‘race.’ And the reason for this is that one suspects even the Zionists knew that religions don’t get homelands; peoples get homelands. In truth if religions did get homelands then Judaism would have a bit of modern-day Iraq, once Mesopotamia, where there religion was founded and the Christians would have Palestine.

    So a great deal of time, money and effort has gone into propagating the myth that followers of Judaism constitute a people or a race in order to attempt to create some sort of legitimacy for the occupation and colonisation of Palestine. Although clearly, the original concept of a religiously defined State, a Jewish State, would have to be, by its nature, racist. Even if Jews did constitute a people or a race, which they do not, it still would have been racist to establish a State purely for them.

    Interestingly, many orthodox Jews were utterly opposed to the creation of Israel because they said such a State was only ever meant to be metaphor and if it were made material, it would run counter to God’s will and bring nothing but suffering. How right they were.

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