What makes what Jewish, you ask? You know – “it” – when people say, “That’s not Jewish.” Or, “This is Jewish.” Anything. A work of art, a wardrobe, a practice, a theology, a political opinion. What is Jewish? For the Orthodox, it is anything part of an Orthodox lifestyle, and excludes what is not part of an Orthodox lifestyle. For a secular Jew, maybe it’s education and achievement, or familiar holidays, or donating to Greenpeace. For many it is reverence for Israel, although increasingly Jews on the Left don’t share that feeling.
What is “Jewish culture”? Because obviously, there are many cultures that identify as Jewish, each with their own communities, languages, food, rituals, customs, and priorities. What do they have in common? Is it looking at life in the context of an historical continuum? Is it about being part of an extended family tribe? Is it a perspective based on shared trauma? Is it a collection of stories and traditions that form a value system? How do you know it when you see it, other than that the participants themselves call it Jewish? Is anything a Jew does automatically Jewish by definition?
I can see how the Orthodox can gain market share simply by having a clear answer to this question, by being consistent, and by knowing where they stand. Their existence is evidence that a definition of Jewishness is possible. Whether is it one I can agree with is another issue. The other denominations strike me as somewhat vague. Secular Jewish identity is even more so.
When I was a child and was told that by Jewish law I’m Jewish, that meant something. What exactly it meant I didn’t know, but clearly it had significance. In the move toward inclusiveness, the definition of “Jewish” has been expanded to include interfaith families, children of Jewish fathers, and converts. I support this change while recognizing that chaos is an unavoidable part of shifting boundaries. Why do I support it? If certain ideas benefit me, there is no good reason why those ideas should not be made available to others who could also be helped by them. I believe Judaism is about the values we seek to embody, not our ancestry.
I used to think I was the only one who was confused, but the more I witness, the more I realize most Jews identify as Jewish because it’s how they grew up. Conversion, therefore, strikes me as both difficult and miraculous. How can anyone leave behind huge chunks of life experience? Or do they? How much does any of us change over the course of a lifetime?
Update (May 12): Amazing article in Moment for which I am grateful, answering this very question!