Jewish Self-Definition: One Size No Longer Fits All



Jewish assimilation — the loss of followers through attrition, absorption into other faiths, or the practice of no faith — harkens back to Joseph, the first Israelite to live in a diaspora. In Mikeitz, we read how Joseph adopted Egyptian customs and clothes, took an Egyptian wife, and was given the Egyptian name Zaphenath-paneah (Genesis 41:45), a sign of acceptance into Egyptian society. Joseph gave his firstborn son the name Manasseh, meaning,“God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father’s house” (Genesis 41:51), and his second son the name Ephraim, meaning,“God has made me fruitful … ” (Genesis 41:52). Joseph’s children could informally be called “Amnesia” and “Success.” Their identities highlight the struggle of living at the intersection of two cultures — one uniquely Jewish and one that competes for a Jew’s loyalty and allegiance. In the case of Joseph, once established in Egypt, there is no record of any attempt of his to stay in touch with his father and siblings in Canaan. It was only decades later when Joseph’s brothers appeared before a thoroughly Egyptianized Joseph that there was renewed association with his clan that stirred Joseph’s deep connection to his family of origin.

A keen observer of modern Jewish life will find a polarization between Jews who abandon religious and cultural origins, and Jews who remain connected to Jewish communal life, whether or not they are particularly observant. Today’s broad spectrum of Jewish affiliation and practice provides new classifications for post-denominational Jews. A snapshot of such Jewish self-definition is key to understanding the changing modern religious landscape, as follows:

1. Not-very-Jewish Jews are often called “psychological Jews” or “post-religious Jews.” These are Jews with few if any passionate attachments or connections to community; they are marginal and generally keep a safe distance from the organized Jewish community; most often they are defined by pure ignorance of rites, rituals, and history.

2. No-longer-Jewish Jews are converts to other religions and their offspring who toss their Judaism aside. Heinrich Marx is a stinging example of a Jew who became a Lutheran in 1818 in order to avoid disbarment under a Prussian law that forbade Jews to practice law. He also converted all of his children including six-year-old Karl who, although the grandson of two Orthodox rabbis, grew up to become a rabid Jew-hater. These former Jews offer little hope of being drawn back into the fold even though not all “no longer Jewish Jews” are lost to the Jewish future.

3. Suddenly Jewish Jews, likened to a tiny oven pilot light that waits to be fueled into a blazing flame, discover hidden Jewish ancestry that results in a resurgence of Jewish participation. Not infrequently, when such an individual reemerges in the Jewish community, it is to the approbation of other Jews. Stephen Dubner1, author of Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family, for example, grew up in a devoutly Catholic home where he said the rosary every night. Dubner interviewed distant relatives and rummaged through archives and discovered his Jewish roots that brought him back to Judaism.

4. Very-Jewish Jews are Jews whose lives are infused with Jewish culture and religious practice. They unquestioningly affiliate, support, and often participate in synagogues and other Jewish cultural, educational, and social action programs and institutions, choices frequently dictated by family and childhood experiences. They often want more than synagogues that cater to the “mean” Jewish population. A subset of very-Jewish Jews is the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way Jews — Jews who believe that their ritual practice and worship comprise “tradition” and any deviation from that is met with distain.

5. Half-Jewish Jews, the progeny of Jews married to non-Jews, is the most controversial category, one that the Jewish world is extraordinarily uncomfortable with and generally denigrates or ignores in the hope that they quietly will go away. With approximately half of all Jews marrying non-Jews, the number of children born of such marriages may very well exceed the number of children born of two Jewish parents. The Jewish community often is silent about how to encourage strong faith-based lives in children who parents practice the different religious traditions. This act of blending two halves into a single hybrid, called by one half-Jewish woman “a dazzling act of existential virtuosity,” defines the tension inherent in blending two cultures where a so-called half-Jewish child often becomes the consummate outsider/insider, ashamed of his or her “neitherness.”

6. Broad-spectrum Jews are LGBTQ, reconstituted families, and interracial groupings that come with special needs and the hope that congregations will be open and embracing, even though they may feel shunned by “establishment” congregations.

7. Non-Jewish Jews are individuals who technically are not Jewish but are typically in relationships with Jews where they are supportive and participate in rituals, holidays, and life-cycle events of family members. They may have their own religious affiliation or no religious affiliation or interest in becoming Jewish, and promote Jewish households and children.

8. Spiritual, but not religious, is the mantra for Jews who are almost never found in synagogue, where they feel alienated or at a Passover seder that they find to be painfully insipid. Although many spiritual-but-not-religious Jews avoid faith labels, the vast majority believe in God and more than half report that they pray daily. Instead of “brands” defined by communally organized bureaucratic religious structure, spiritual-but-not-religious Jews are looking for what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung termed synchronicity, “meaningful coincidence, events so timely and moving that they are considered to be beyond mere chance,” or what theologian Rudolph Otto termed numinosity, “the irresistible, undeniable, unforgettable feeling of being in the presence of the Divine.”

9. Unconventional Jews are sometimes referred to as “hipster Jews,” “unorthodox Jews,” or “emergent Jews.” Typically they are young, fiercely independent Jews who think it is “cool” to be Jewish, but distance themselves from organized religious life, shun institutional organizations, and find clergy increasingly irrelevant.

10. Absent-male Jews comprise disengaged and vanished male teenagers and adult worshipers, learners, Torah students, and religious education instructors. Making them feel comfortable in Jewish religious and communal institutions is a significant challenge.

11. Alimony Jews are Jews who support Judaism but are unwilling to live with it. Often this group includes the wealthiest echelons of a congregation or community. They engage in so few Jewish practices at home that synagogues have become, in effect, homeless shelters — homes for Jews without Jewish homes. They expect the synagogue to be a surrogate Jewish parent and a rabbi to be their “Shabbos Jew” — the one who does it all so that they can sit back and do nothing.

12. Excess-baggage/disaffected Jews are Jewish — with reservations. These reservations frequently play themselves out in synagogues in a variety of scenarios as excess-baggage Jews unpack their baggage in board and committee meetings, offices, schools, and sanctuaries, often with a large dose of angst, anger, and at times, self-hatred.

A Pew study2 applied the judgmental terms ”religious promiscuity,” and “religious infidelity” to people who move with ease and without guilt from religious and communal institutions in order to sample religious beliefs and practices other than their own. Such “swingers” and “switchers” (also Pew terminology) are defining new forms of worship and spiritual life.

The variety of Jewish religious expression has grown in scope and complexity, since the days when Joseph and his family made the first recorded move to diaspora living. While not as black and white as in the days of the matriarchs and patriarchs, it is hoped that the opportunities for religious self-definition ultimately result is a deeper connection to Jewish living.

1.Stephen Dubner, Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family. New York: William Marrow, 1998.

2. Cited in Stephen Prothero, “A Hint of This, a Pinch of That,” The Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2009

(A more expansive form of this d’var Torah may be found in “Shifting Landscapes: The Response of Modernity to Faith, Social Advocacy, and Demographic Change” by Stephen S. Pearce found in the Spring 2011 (Vol LVII, No 2) issue of the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly.)

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D. is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco, and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.