Monday, October 26, 2015

The Meaningfulness of Jewish Identity

Is being Jewish meaningful without a belief in Judaism? A conversation I had with a friend over Shabbos got me thinking about this. He said that he's unsure of the validity of many of Judaism's claims,  up to and including the existence of God, but that it's important to him that his kids have strong Jewish feelings and  an attachment to Judaism and being Jewish.

I've often seen frum people claim that without the religious component, being Jewish is meaningless. I can see where they're coming from. What it means to be Jewish has, for most of the history of the Jewish people, been shaped by Judaism. Religious rules shaped our culture, influenced our values,  is a large part of what kept us distinct from the larger non-Jewish populations in which we lived, and even defined who was and wasn't Jewish. But being Jewish is about more than that. It is an identity that is separate from and transcends the religious rules that shaped it.

I'm an American, and I have deep feelings for my country. There's something stirring about seeing Old Glory snapping in the wind, something moving about quintessentially American songs like God Bless America, My Country 'Tis of Thee, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, or even those that have become children's songs, like Yankee Doodle and When Johnny Comes Marching Home. I believe in the Enlightenment principles on which this country was founded and am proud that we were the first nation to form a government on those principles, however poorly we have adhered to them at times.

Despite my being radically different from many Americans in some ways, in others we have much in common. We share many aspects of American culture and many of the same assumptions about the way things should be. Even the most bitter of disagreements about values and policies are framed by those shared assumptions. We share, among other things, a degree of attachment to and pride in our country matched by few other nations around the world.

I'm also a skeptic and a history buff, and I'm well aware that America's founding myths are just that. Myths, often exaggerated and ahistorical stories about our origins that tell of larger-than-life figures doing great deeds. The Pilgrims did not land at Plymouth rock and came here not so much in the pursuit of religious freedom as in the pursuit of the freedom to persecute those who disagreed with their religion. George Washington was a great leader of men who turned down a crown in accordance with his beliefs in the principles of democracy, but he was also ambitious, self-promoting, and a lousy tactician. The colonies went to war with Britain over taxes, but it was triggered as much by the British reducing tariffs, thereby causing the bottom to drop out of the lucrative smuggling business  of some prominent and influential American shipping magnates as it was about the Crown taxing colonists who had no voice in Parliament.

Yet despite my recognition that America's founding myths are not true, despite even recognizing that the United States has many, many flaws, my identity as an American is of great value to me. It informs who I am and connects me to a group of people, past, present, and future, with whom I share values, ideals, and a group identity. It allows me to feel pride in the accomplishments of my countrymen, and motivates me to address my country's flaws. My identity as an American is separate from and transcends the mythos that shaped the American consciousness.

So too my identity as a member of the Jewish people. There's something moving about the Jewish traditions that bind us together as a people. Despite being different from many Jews is some ways, there are cultural constants that we can all relate to. The Jewish people have had a pride in their Jewish identity and a tenacity matched by few others. My identity as a Jew informs who I am, allows me to feel pride in the accomplishments of my fellow Jews, motivates me to address our flaws, connects me to the sorrow of our national tragedies, and  makes me a part of our long, long history.

This all despite my rejection of the truth of the mythology that shaped much of that history.

Being Jewish is meaningful, with or without a belief in Judaism. It is meaningful as an identity. It is meaningful as a shared heritage, as a connection to the past which brought us to where we are today. It is as meaningful as a connection to all the other people who have identified as members of the Jewish people, past, present, and future. Without religion, being Jewish is not meaningful in a metaphysical sense, but so what? Meaning is what we make it, and to me, identifying with other people who share my unique heritage, and with the three-thousand-plus years of Jewish history,  is even more meaningful than being one of God's Chosen People.

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