A personal taxonomy of jewishness

Months before my bar mitzvah I realized I was agnostic about god, and by the time I was 35 my jewishness was honed to Passover and tzedakah. Then some things happened, normal things, that brought jewishness to the front of my mind: moving in with my now-wife Leah who has kept a kosher kitchen, watching anti-semitism move into the White House, and planning (and then having, but really the planning) a Jewish wedding.

There is no answer to what it means to be a Jew — if you’re Jewish, you likely already know this. Yet there are also endless answers. It’s hard to keep them all straight, and I am new to this. This is my attempt to make sense of all of the ways of being Jewish, or at least what I’ve found so far, and as it applies to me, but maybe also to you. (Scroll down please…)

Leah’s and my wedding. Credit: Roman Grinev Photography.

Belief in the theology of Judaism is not how Jews decide who is and isn’t a Jew —it is not even a little bit relevant. It’s not relevant to American Jews, in Israel, or anywhere else. It’s especially not relevant in post-Soviet countries where religion had long ago been eliminated but Jewish identity remained strong.

Jews generally consider other people Jewish if they are biological children of Jewish women (and depending on who you ask, Jewish fathers may also count, or other rules entirely). With some effort, you can also join through conversion. Being Jewish is being in a membership organization or tribe (more on that below) or a nation (after all, this resembles how citizenship in nations often works) which has rules for admission, including automatic admission for the children of members.

But because conversion is relatively rare and people often think of white, European, Ashkenazi Jews as the only Jews (10% of American Jews are people of color), Jews also appear to constitute a race. Biological continuity from the patriarch Abraham is important to the religion, and heredity is the basis for a special role in the religion for one particular familial line, so this racial view of Judaism is built into the religion. But it is not required for being considered a Jew, so more accurately Jews form an ethnicity.

You can make a personal choice about your belief in god, but you can’t choose whether your mother (or parent) was Jewish when you were born. Being a Jew is therefore also something other people tell you you are. Jews who follow Jewish law (more on that later) will have an opinion on whether or not you are a Jew regardless of your belief about it.

Nor can you choose whether racial or ethnic anti-Semitism exists in the world. Regardless of whether Jews objectively form a race (if race is even objective), Jews are targets of anti-Semitism because of their biological ancestry and stereotypical physical appearance and ethnic identity and practices. Racial (not religious) anti-Semitism was of course a source of the horror of the Holocaust but also persecution in Soviet countries for most of the rest of the 20th Century. Pictures of family members killed in the Holocaust hang on walls in my parents’ house — they could have been at my parents’ wedding, maybe even my wedding, it isn’t ancient history. So it’s not up to me whether I am a Jew so long as others believe it and might target me. For this reason I have to consider the racial and ethnic aspect of jewishness in my identity and any other criteria that others might use against me. Hannah Arendt wrote of European persecution, “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew,” and, “A man attacked as a Jew cannot defend himself as an Englishman or a Frenchman.”

Given humanity’s poor track record with heredity, I’m inclined to not put too much significance into DNA when it comes to my own jewishness — especially as a white Ashkenazi Jew. But I don’t dismiss heredity as an important aspect of jewishness for others (in particular because I don’t know whether that would erase a real struggle Jews of color have faced in being recognized as Jewish).

The popular (but incorrect) American understanding of Judaism is that it is a world religion, rather than more accurately an ethnicity, and so whether a shared concept of god is what brings Jews together is something else to consider. Judaism has a canonical answer for what is God, which my rough understanding is: There is one, it and the Jews have an exclusive commitment to each other (the “covenant”), and it has not and will not manifest as a person on earth. This concept of God is central to Judaism as a religion and holds across observant and god-believing Jews, but what does that mean for the ~30% of Jews in America who don’t believe God exists?

It seems that more important than what Jews know God is is what we know God isn’t: multiple, uncommitted, or having been human already. This is a shoe-in for atheists. Not multiple? Not even one. Not having been human? Not having been anything. On the other hand, believing there is more than one god, or that God has already manifested as a person (e.g., Jesus), is disqualifying: This ‘anti-’concept is the hard line that adjacent religions like Messianic Judaism (and the other obvious ones) has crossed.

But, within these lines, there is space for flexible thinking about what the thing called God can be, if anything. When I go with Leah to synagogue these days, wherever I read or hear “God” I replace it in my head with “justice” and that works for me. Praise justice, let us hope for justice’s hand, and so on. It’s a strategy to make it through services without feeling alienated by theology. Importantly, I haven’t noticed anyone caring about what I do in my head during services — showing up is important enough — and no one has ever asked me what I believe or don’t believe. And whether I’m thinking about God or tikkun olam, it’s still perfectly Jewish, it turns out. Maybe justice is what the prayers were about all along anyway.

Let’s be honest, though: The popular religious or, worse, “faith”-based conception of being Jewish probably came about because of Christian people trying to fit Jews into Christian structures. Let’s reject that starting point.

To be clear, I started with God and mothers not because I think they are defining aspects of jewishness — they are certainly not exclusively so— but because they are easy aspects to identify. I personally believe that neither a belief in God nor a Jewish parent is a required aspect of Jewish identity, and I think many Jews would agree. Below I’ve got five other aspects of jewishness that I’ve found which I think are at least as important as God and mothers.

My best man David explained to me many years ago that Jews are a tribe. I was familiar with the expression “in the tribe” (Jews use this indirect expression to talk about whether someone is a Jew), but I hadn’t really thought about what that meant —that there is something beyond religious belief that brings Jews together.

Tradition, religious practices, and rituals are a part of it, but Jews’ practices go well beyond that — many have no religious significance. There are culinary practices, languages (Yiddish and Judaeo-Spanish once, now Hebrew), a sense of humor, and uniquely Jewish political movements and institutions (more on that later). They are of course not all universal, and many are unique to particular Jewish groups whose practices came out of adaptation to the local cultures that they were once living in the context of. I certainly don’t and not every Jew has practices in any or all of these categories— oy what a busy life that would be!

A serving utensil for latkes — a gift from my mom.

As for the ritualized religious practices, some, like observing Shabbat (meaning, roughly, not performing work or using electricity on Saturdays), seem religious on the surface but ultimately may have meaning to people for non-religious reasons, like spending time with family — something my father-in-law has said gives it importance to him beyond the religious aspect — or, perhaps, disconnecting from phones. Leah observes Passover in a traditional manner in large part out of respect for her grandfather, who kept kosher for Passover after fleeing Nazi Germany while he emigrated across the United States by train to the West Coast eating only matzah and hard boiled eggs—no easy task. For Leah observing Passover is among many other Jewish practices that she continues not necessarily because God tells her to do so, but because it’s an unbroken tradition (she’s never missed a family seder). And she is connected through this tradition to many other Jews, who many have many other motivations for doing so.

Throughout my life I haven’t found meaning in tradition for tradition’s sake— apologies to my ancestors. (I know something about why I don’t, but I’ll save the psychology.) And when there’s a conflict between tradition and progression, my inclination is to flee —a reaction I have to imagine that other Jews like me share. So while I respect both the purpose and the effort that goes into Leah’s personal commitments to her family’s traditions, tradition on its own isn’t something that resonates with me.

Here All Along by Sarah Hurwitz is fantastic

In the excellent book Here All Along, Sarah Hurwitz adeptly explains why one’s Jewish history should matter though: You can choose to practice any religion or culture, but why not start by considering the one whose story has you in it?

I’m not sure tradition will ever inform my Jewish practice, but there are endless practices to choose from, religious and not religious, from which one can assign a personal meaning.

(Hurwitz also makes a similar point about what I called the ‘anti-’concept of God: “One god or fewer,” she wrote, quoting a rabbi paraphrasing who was in turn paraphrasing a teacher of his.)

In the lead-up to our wedding, Leah and I met with our rabbi —the amazing Rabbi Aaron Alexander at Adas Israel — several times, as one does. Rabbi Alexander asked us to consider different perspectives on what Judaism says about having a Jewish life and a Jewish married life. I couldn’t help but put Rabbi Alexander on the spot: What is the core principle of a Jewish life? If not god, for me, then what? Rabbi Alexander shared with us a rabbinical teaching of six key acts in life, among which giving one’s fellow the benefit of the doubt was raised to just about the same level as Torah study, at least according to this one old rabbinical teaching. Being Jewish isn’t only being religious.

I don’t want to put words into Rabbi Alexander’s mouth here because my understanding and recollection may both be off. But I remember his response to my question as this: To have a Jewish life is to have something among your Jewish practices that you choose to put absolutely above everything else — such as a practice of Shabbat (i.e. when the sun sets the rules begin, no exception). And the effort of putting that practice first — of confronting and knowing your choice to practice Judaism— is critical. The Rabbi’s point about commitment and choice stems, I assume, from the “covenant,” an exclusive, mutual, and voluntary commitment that is the heart of the Jewish concept of God.

For Leah, keeping kosher is the sort of commitment Rabbi Alexander was talking about— it’s hard keeping kosher and also living in the modern world and it is a constant reminder of her commitment to Judaism, Leah says.

It’s not hard to find an opportunity for commitment among Jewish practices. There are practices around washing hands before eating bread, lighting candles, tzedakah (giving to charity), fasting—some are more intrinsically religious than others. I can feel this blog post getting warmer: I’m getting closer to finding an answer that works for me. Maybe I can find a practice to commit to that fits me.

Judaism is a religion of law. The body of Jewish law is called halacha, and it derives from the biblical rules of Judaism. Recorded debates between rabbis over the last few millennia about halacha is the defining aspect of post-biblical Judaism. Toward the end of the Passover Seder is a line, roughly translated, “Passover is now completed according to the statutes.” (If you know me, you can see how I would love that.) Am I doing it right? is what most debates around Jewish law seem to be about.

Those statutes — the 613 mitzvot and other aspects of Jewish law — address rituals like how to keep kosher, beliefs like knowing God, and ethical practices including Commandment #5 “Honor thy father and mother.” Apparently celebrating Passover completes five mitzvahs. The ethical mitzvot and other Jewish teachings lead to principles such as that everyone is created in God’s image, each person a unique God-resembling universe, and so should be infinitely valued. And there’s overlap: the rules of kosher are ritualistic, religious, and also ethical (as it relates to the treatment of animals). Halacha is viewed by some as commanded by God and binding, while many consider none of the rules binding, and among Jews who consider at least some of the rules binding, there’s disagreement about what the rules entail.

Some Jews probably believe that observing Jewish law religiously (that is, with the belief that the law is from God and that it is binding) is the defining aspect of a Jewish life, and as Hurwitz lamented in her book, many Jews and non-Jews do “evaluate someone’s commitment to Judaism by their level of compliance with ritual mitzvot” — but rarely, she observed, the ethical mitzvot.

There is a lot of halacha to draw from when creating a Jewish life. And there is plenty for non-religious Jews too, if you believe that halacha and God need not go together: for instance that every person should be valued infinitely, even if they are not literally created in God’s image. And even atheists could consider those parts of Jewish law binding, morally and/or spiritually. Picking and choosing the parts of halacha that are most convenient to observe at any given time might be problematic, depending on who you ask, but a pick one mitzvah and commit to it version of halacha seems like it could be respected by even (so-called) observant Jews.

Beyond the personal practices that I wrote about earlier, there are also many Jewish institutions that one can participate in: endless charitable organizations, youth groups and service organizations, schools, for Zionists the civic institutions in and about Israel, and of course synagogues and everything you might call “organized religion.” As with other practices, practices related to these institutions may look religious on the surface (such as a Jewish education in school) but likely have a more personal meaning to those who participate beyond just connecting with God (synagogues are valued as a hub for communities). Taken together and with a historical perspective, these institutions form the Jewish civilization. These are in a sense civic Jewish practices.

Some Jewish civic organizations are about preservation of the civilization with a fear that without effort Jewish beliefs and practices may fade away. (Leah notes that some are about fostering the sort of interactions between Jews that eventually lead to Jewish marriages and then Jewish babies.) And other institutions are forward-looking political movements that aim to shape the nature of life for Jews and for Judaism itself

There are no universally shared political beliefs among Jews (despite a nominal code of ethics; Jews lean politically left in the United States, but it’s only a lean). Nevertheless, there are political movements that are uniquely Jewish, like Zionism, anti-Zionism, and Jewish socialism (like kibbutzes, I guess). (Zionism and anti-Zionism both have anti-Semitic counterpart movements— not those. Anti-Zionism, by the way, has supporters among both the progressive wing of Jews as well as the ultra-religious, but for completely different reasons.) It’s not a contradiction that Jewish political movements can be at odds, and the movements cross-cut Jewish religious beliefs and practices, which is perhaps what makes them political movements and not religious movements.

It’s one thing to have a cultural practice of debate over millennia, but it’s another thing for those debates to be a single continuous conversation about the same few books. Jews and Words, by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, introduced me to this entirely distinct perspective of jewishness: That it is, essentially, a peer-reviewed field of study. “We were not a people because we thought so and so, but we were a people because we read so and so,” Oz and Oz-Salzberger wrote, paraphrasing another author (emphasis is in the original).

There are a handful of key books in Judaism, some of the most famous of which are the Torah, the Passover Haggadah, and the Megillah read on Purim (but, I recently learned, there’s also the rest of the Tanakh and the whole Talmud). For millennia, Jewish rabbis and their students, and parents and their children, have studied these books. Over and over. With interpretations taking hold only because others accepted them. And still finding new meaning today. If you add in books like those by Hurwitz, Oz and Oz-Salzberger, Arendt, primers for learning the Hebrew language, and on, you get a field of study not just of Jewish religious texts but of the Jewish civilization.

I love fields of study, and while I may not be interested in a study of God’s original intent, the texts are interesting in their own right. I’m passionate about observing Passover and found a new interest in the history of the Haggadah at last year’s Passover (see my blog post on creating a minimalist Haggadah).

I’ve also enjoyed learning about Shabbat rules and thinking about how they can be understood through the language of thermodynamics— but I haven’t studied enough to write that blog post yet. Will my tinkering with Shabbat concepts guide my so-far-non-existent Shabbat practices? I don’t know.

I’m cautious about saying that debate over these texts for the sake of debate may be Jewish enough. Maybe that’s too easy — maybe debate for its own sake doesn’t require the sort of effort that Rabbi Alexander told us is important for keeping one’s jewishness in mind. To embrace an identity, a tradition, words, or a history means there are some obligations too. There are wrong answers to these questions. An entire civilization has existed around these questions but I think I can figure it out from a book?

But it wouldn’t be very Jewish either if debate were limited to those who have committed their life to Torah study. A halacha-compliant Passover requires all of us to debate the meaning of the Torah. Oz and Oz-Salzberger argue that lay debate itself is a crucial component of the continuity of the Jewish civilization. It’s a meta-practice, in a sense: a practice to preserve other practices and keep the tribe alive (there are endless Jewish activities that fall in this category). Giving everyone the responsibility for preservation means there has to be room for some error.

Do I need to say at this point that all these thoughts may not be correct? Is that a problem? My work in civic technology has continually faced a similar tension between empowering people through knowledge and the risk that incomplete knowledge can lead to harmful outcomes. People leave GovTrack.us with still only an incomplete understanding of the law, but they will go on to advocate for policies they may not understand. I’m not a lawyer, but I educate people about the law! I do it because there are few other on-ramps for people to become wiser about their own government, and America has sadly tried but thankfully rejected the notion that participation should be limited to those with expertise. One person’s expertise is another person’s captivity. Everyone trying and sometimes being wrong is as good as government gets.

And, here, I’m telling you about what it means to be a Jew understanding about as much of Judaism as my website’s users understand about their government. So long as my interest continues, I am going to hope for better on-ramps to expertise in the Jewish civilization, of which there seem to be few. It does seem that the Jewish people figured out much earlier than America did that it’s better that I try and get some things wrong than to not have a voice at all.

So I may have gotten something wrong — and if so I’ll add a correction. But it may be that being wrong but committed to the success of the debate is yet another way I can be Jewish — if I choose.

(A final note: I used “Judaism” in this post to refer to the religion, the God-parts of jewishness, but whether the term includes cultural aspects of Jewish life is up for debate. “Secular Jew” is similarly not well defined, which I why I didn’t use that term either. And I kept “jewishness” lowercase to reflect the lack of an answer about what it means.)

I thank my wife Leah Schloss for teaching me many of the Jewish concepts in this piece that makes my jewishness make more sense, her willingness to have some of her personal practices shared here, and her edits. I also thank Rabbi Alexander for our pre-wedding chats and his amazing work as our officiant; Leah’s family, in particular my father-in-law Neil, who have welcomed me in their Jewish practices; and my parents and my family for decades of memories of our Jewish experiences.

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