I almost fainted during my Bar Mitzvah. I remember that clearly, yet I can’t recall more than three words of my Torah portion, I don’t remember the theme of my speech, and the number of people in attendance that day eludes me. However, I can still see thirteen-year-old me, under the heat of the Everlasting Incandescent Light Bulbs, standing in front of my rabbi; I can still feel my legs wobble, my head shrink in on itself, and after 28 minutes (or so it seemed) of my rabbi’s speech the only thought in my head is, “Don’t faint, don’t faint. There are girls watching.”
Such are the pictures that fill my Jewish scrapbook.
I have believed in God, disbelieved in God, believed in God again, believed in multiple Gods, believed in Kirby Puckett, renounced Kirby Puckett, mourned Kirby Puckett, not known what I believed, believed in a version of God, decided that if nothing else I could believe in cheeseburgers; then I stopped eating meat.
I’m an Ashkenazi Jew; I don’t eat bread on Passover, but I eat rice (and can explain why).
I can spell Maneschewitz without looking it up.
I know roughly 200 Hebrew vocabulary words, but not a lick of sentence structure.
I think it’s funny that Hava Nagila is played at baseball games.
I am a Jew.
And on the spectrum of 21st Century Jews, I fall somewhere in the middle—the loosely defined, maddeningly broad middle. Jews on the far right of the spectrum have told me I’m not Jewish. Yet others on the far left have said to me, “Wow, you’re, like, pretty Jewish, huh?” And I try to answer that I am Jewish, but not Pretty Jewish, or Culturally Jewish, or (my favorite) Jew-ish (with an emphasis on the ish); I’m just Jewish. I connect with the rich traditions of Judaism in ways that I’m comfortable with, ways that I’ve thought about, and ways that I’ve decided are right for me. That doesn’t make me more Jewish, or less Jewish than anyone else, just Jewish.
Jewish, Jewish, Jewish; is it just me or does saying that word over and over conjure up images of mushy baby food? It’s the verbal equivalent of splashing in the bath.
And this notion, the idea that I can be a Jew without the religious entanglements, goes back, I believe, to the Enlightenment.
Yes, the Enlightenment. I did go back and forth on this, but in the end I decided that referring to a 300 year old intellectual movement definitely would keep people reading.
In his book, Truth and Method, 1960s philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer says that, “The fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies tradition its power.” In other words: the one universally held belief of Enlightenment thinkers is that all beliefs should be questioned. This idea, revolutionary at the time, still roars contentious today. Nowhere are traditions more dutifully followed than within religions, and Atheism (i.e. the practice of questioning and disregarding religious traditions) is the fastest growing religious identity in America. It’s hip to be an Atheist today, more than it ever has been.
I’m not an Atheist, but I sympathize with many of Atheism’s points. If we didn’t question dogmas we’d still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, that leeches are the best form of medicine, and that presidents should be white. The same principle, furthermore, underlies Agnosticism. I don’t know if God exists, but scientific evidence makes a pretty compelling case to the contrary. Yet scientists will tell you that they just produce theories, that nothing is ever fully knowable, and therefore we must question everything we think we know.
Whenever I follow this train of thought I always fall into a viscous spiral where every decision I’ve ever made comes into question, from the time I tried to burp on command for my preschool friends and ended up barfing all over the Alef-Bet rug (JCC Preschool), to idea to use lengthy parentheticals in this blog post, until I throw my hands in the air and wail that I know nothing; but not in the profound way that Socrates meant it, instead just an admission of futility, a cry for help to the gods (who may or may not even exist! So now, not only am I questioning things I think I know, I’m questioning things I already know that I think I don’t know—which doesn’t make any sense at all, and just leaves me craving a cigarette. But I don’t smoke; so add guilt to my growing list of anxieties because I’ve let down my doctors, my friends, and especially my parents, who all expect great things from me and who don’t want to see me die of lung cancer when I’m forty—and oh! If only there was somewhere I could find some answers and get out of this mess!)
So I question tradition. What does boiling a calf in its mother’s milk have to do with putting cheese on my burger? If I can still feel Jewish, is it ok to eat a bowl of cereal during Passover? What about my morality? Must it come from the Torah? Most people, regardless of religiosity, would likely agree that a person can have exemplary morals without being religious, and plenty has been written (though Aaron Sorkin may have done it best) about the archaism of the bible, but does that mean I should disregard its teachings altogether? That one about not killing my brother seems reasonable, but do I really have to sacrifice an animal in his place?
These are real questions facing 21st Century Jews. Many see the Bible as a hindrance and shun its messages entirely; yet the remarkable thing about Judaism is that one can follow Jewish traditions and still feel Enlightened.
By which I mean not feeling like you’ve forsaken your freedom and the ability to think rationally.
Questioning tradition does not mean forsaking tradition, or discarding the ones that seem inconvenient. Questioning tradition means just that; questioning, evaluating, deciding which ones ultimately give meaning and value to your life.
Judaism, like everything else in life, is ultimately a choice; and I choose to be Jewish. I choose to be Jewish because my parents are Jewish, and their parents were Jewish, and their parents, and so on. I also think of the millions of Jews who have died in tragedies like the Holocaust for no other reason than that they were born as Jews. Because of them, and because of my family, I’m proud to be Jewish. That historical perspective—that generational tradition—provides meaning for me.
Others may value different traditions. I went to Jewish summer camp and made friends with people who connected with Judaism through music—camp songs both Jewish and generic. Still others may see Jon Stewart, or Ralph Lauren, or one of the two Jewish women on the Supreme Court, and feel proud to identify with them. I know of others who define their Judaism through their support for Israel. Maybe you continue to identify as Jewish simply because you can’t imagine a life without mazto ball soup. Matzo ball soup, bagels, kugel, Gefilte fish—they’re all part of Jewish tradition, yet they aren’t even religious symbol; they’re just tasty.
Ok, maybe not Gefilte fish.
Whatever the reason, the great thing about Judaism, and Jewish traditions, is that it can still survive—and even thrive—when questioned, doubted, or transformed. And don’t say you’re a Secular Jew, or a Jew in certain ways. Just say you’re Jewish.
In the immortal words of Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof (you knew it was coming): tradition is what keeps us balanced.
(Image: Maurycy Gottlieb “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur”)
Okay, I will say I’m Jewish. I will now add that I am a practicing Conservative Jew.
Wow. What a piece Bradley. I don’t even know how to respond without writing another post in the comments. Just a few things.
1) Gefilte is awesome. Don’t knock it until you try my bubbe’s.
2) I can’t imagine my life without Judaism, and yet, I’m sure there are many religious Jews who would cringe at my non-kosher eating and rarely shul-going habits. So what does it mean to be Jewish? I can’t always answer that question. It’s everything in my life and yet there are so many parts of my life (food, for ex), where Judaism just doesn’t even exist nearby.
Too tired to write much more now, but will try to pop back in later. B’shalom
I have a question about your statement that “the idea that I can be a Jew without the religious entanglements, goes back, I believe, to the Enlightenment.” Is there a particular thinker that you’ve got in mind here?
I ask because I’m in the middle of a course on Jewish Intellectual History, and, I kind of want to agree with you, but I can’t pinpoint a thinker; I feel like I must be missing something.
If not in the Enlightenment, that idea can be found in post-Enlightenment 19th-century German Jewish philoshers. You could also go back to the 17th century and Spinoza (though, on reflection, that’s probably a real stretch). Or, I guess, you could go all the way back to 16th-century Spanish racial anti-semitism and the idea of “purity of blood” (the idea that desendants of Jewish converts to Christianity were still Jewish even if they are Christians).
So help me out here.
Hey Mike, thanks for the comment.
That line was more a set-up for the Gadamer quote that came after it. While I do think Spinoza lays some seeds for that kind of thinking, in a Jewish context specifically, I wasn’t actually restricting myself to Jewish philosophers. I didn’t have a particular philosopher in mind, but Kant’s Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason is the work that comes to mind most readily. Enlightenment thinkers asked the question, “Why do we believe the things we believe?” In my experience it seems that some Jews ask that question about their religion without following it to its natural conclusion and thus end with the idea of: “Well I don’t really believe in God and all that, so I’m not really all that Jewish,” when they should end with, “Ok, I can question these things, and decide I don’t believe certain things, but I can still as confidently call myself as Jewish as anyone else.”