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Feeling Jew-ish or Jew-like


Shabbat Lekh Lekha 5778 | October 28, 2017

The title of a recently published book got my attention. Feeling Jewish – A Book for Just About Anyone, written by Dr. Devorah Baum, a lecturer in English literature at the University of Southampton.

The book title reminds me of Norma, a woman who helped prepare food for Jewish events and celebrations. After the food was prepared and ready to be served, Norma had one very important question. What time should she put out the meal? Typically, the answer came back, “Be ready to eat at noon-ish, or two-ish, or six-ish.” Unhappy with these imprecise times, Norma once asked, “Is this how you tell time because you’re Jewish?”

Dr. Baum argues feeling Jewish is no longer only about being Jewish. It is now a universal sensation, a feeling of angst most anyone can experience. To set out her notion, Dr. Baum points out what most of us understand. Whether or not someone considers him or herself religious, being Jewish is a condition of life.

The great German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote in a similar vein in the early 20th Century. Except, he was addressing being Jewish as an identity, not feeling Jewish as an emotion. “Just as Jewishness does not know limitations inside the Jewish individual, so does it not limit that individual himself when he faces the outside world. On the contrary, it makes for his humanity… Jewishness is only lived, and perhaps not even that. One is it.”

As I read and understand it, this is Professor Baum’s working definition of feeling Jewish. Feeling Jewish is the “sensibility of whoever feels a bit unsure of who they are – a bit peculiar or out of place, a bit funny.”

Does that describe you? Not me! By her definition, I don’t feel Jewish at all. And that feels strange! I am not an ethnic Jew. I’m quite sure of and comfortable with my place in the world as a person and as a Jew. Cultural Jewish neurotic stereotypes like guilt and inadequacy don’t animate me. Jewish kitsch is cute and familiar but I’m not a person who identifies primarily through culture and association.

In response to Devorah Baum, I want to argue that while feelings of insecurity are one consequence of the Jewish people’s historical experience, they are not our best feature to offer others. The world doesn’t need more angst. How about a bit of self-understanding and wisdom to help us move forward these days?

I find a compelling sense of purpose results from our people’s journey through the ages. I am an ideational Jew, a person who identifies with Jewish ideas. Jewish meanings inspire me. An optimistic Jewish worldview engages me. A Jewish sense of ethics and compassion motivates me.

Never the less, I find Dr. Baum’s book to be thoughtful and poignant. She writes, “While modernity promised Jews and other minorities that they could move from the margins to the center, it’s the reverse that may have actually occurred. In the era of radical globalization and the internet, it doesn’t matter who you are – even if you’re male, white, straight, middle class – you’re probably feeling that your group or identity has been, if not existentially threatened, then at the very least marginalized.”

She arrives at this understanding by reflecting on Jewish culture through the ages. So much Jewish humor and so much Jewish angst comes from those before us who lived on society’s edges, who were marginalized and not welcome. Throughout history, Jews have been reviled and persecuted, both emulated and envied for their successes.

“When it comes to feeling panicky, weak, outnumbered, and existentially threatened,” she explains, “Jews are by no means all alone. Indeed, the sense of dispossession that might be said to underpin resurgent ‘nationalist’ feelings could hardly have more in common with the feelings of those rootless cosmopolitans accused of aggravating them.”

Essentially, Dr. Baum seems to argue, the Jew-ish condition is a feeling of unease, of not knowing who we are as a collective in an increasingly globalized world. Anyone who feels disoriented or dislocated is feeling Jew-ish.

Interestingly, though I don’t fully resonate with what Dr. Baum writes, I find a hint of her thesis in how the Torah describes Abram. As we come upon him, Abram (as Abraham is first known) has left his native home for a land that God will show him; a land in which his descendants will live as fulfillment of God’s covenantal promise. After Abram tours this Promised Land he settles in Hebron with his wife Sarai. We learn that his nephew Lot resides to the east.

Suddenly, it seems, war surrounds Abram. Lot is captured. We read, “A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, ha-Ivri.” Abram goes into battle to rescue Lot and protect his new home. I’m interested in how Abram is described. What does it mean that he is called, “Abram the Hebrew, ha-Ivri?”

“Rabbi Judah said: “The Hebrew, ha-Ivri, signifies that the whole world was on one side (ivri is derived from the Hebrew word ever, which means “over there, across”) while he was on the other side.” In this view, Abram feels dislocated. Separated from the larger society in which he lives. We might even say that Abram ha-Ivri feels Jewish!

Rabbi Judah’s interpretation isn’t really about identity, however. It’s about belief. Among all of humanity only Abram was a monotheist, the first person we meet who believes in One God. The label describing Abram reflects his belief, perhaps his values, not his ethnic identity.

We who are Jewish are spiritual descendants of Abraham. Avram haIvri, Abram the Hebrew, also means Abram the Nomad. Our historical experience was as a people who wandered and migrated from place to place. We have indeed been among the outcast and insecure throughout our history. Thankfully, this is no longer our reality.

While it is true that feelings of insecurity are one consequence of the Jewish people’s historical experience, at this moment I believe the larger world needs to hear something else from who we are Jewish.

To be Jewish is to access one of the world’s great wisdom traditions. If we’re looking for some truth that all people can sense in their particular circumstance today this is it.

Every one of us is different from every other one of us. While we share much in common, we are each unique in essence and personal identity. Let’s talk about feeling unique rather than feeling estranged. Let’s talk about feeling Jew-like rather than feeling Jew-ish.

The best life lesson of Jewish history for the world at this moment is to respect what’s different about each of us. Let’s build a society that celebrates each person’s unique and precious place among us. Too much emotional and ideological energy is pushing us apart. Too many want to live and associate only with people similar to themselves. Making room for one another, and opening ourselves up to what’s different about us rather than what’s the same, is our great need today.

Abram, our spiritual father, stood across on the other side. He found his purpose in his different belief system. Yet, Abram brought his different perspective out into the world to live with it among his neighbors, not to separate from them. To feel Jew-like is to celebrate what’s different about you and me, to take care of ourselves, and to give our unique gifts and talents to the world. To give the world who we each are is to be Jew-like and to build the society in which we want to live.

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784