Thursday, October 16, 2008

Despite Agnosticism: Why I Am a Jew

I do not title this essay “Why I Am a Jew” in full reference, or as a Jewish response, to Bertrand Russell’s well-known lecture “Why I Am Not a Christian.” However, I will have comments on some of his points.

At the outset, I want to consider something that seems curious. Most Americans of every persuasion, and non-Americans as well, consider the United States to be a Christian nation. That is, while they know the country’s official doctrine of “separation of church and state,” they nevertheless regard Christian belief and values as underpinning our governance, legal process, culture and social organization. At the same time, many Americans lament with reasonable concern that we are as secular and humanist a society as we have ever been. I think we all can agree without need of elaborate detail that our society overvalues celebrity, too easily becomes swept up into tawdry scandal and public squabbles, and too much promotes self-gratification and self-indulgence over humility and modesty. Despite this, religion and religious affiliation figure prominently in the lives and identities of a great many Americans.

Although Jews have traditionally felt a deep cultural, historical and religious bond with the land of Israel, they are most at home in America. Perhaps this is because, seemingly alone among the nations of the Earth, America strives to recognize and respect most, if not all, religions. Subscribers to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism can practice their faiths knowing that they have full legal protection and may worship without mortal fear of their government or countrymen. American culture even accepts, if not embraces, those who categorically reject the idea that a deity exists, as we have witnessed through the ascendant visibility of atheists and the proliferation of secular humanist associations. One may be a Jew most fully in Israel, but one may be Jewish – in a special sense of being, as I shall explain – more freely in America than anywhere else. But this freedom is not without issues.

America’s pluralism must appeal to the Jew more powerfully than it does for other believers and non-believers because Jewishness is, ultimately, a choice. And it is a choice different than that available to our Christian brethren. One may be born to Jewish parents, but one pursues Jewishness on one’s own. Our tradition has deep and solemn love of self-determination, particularly in matters of identity and direction. For this reason, American Jews, and all Jews really, live in a unique two-ness. More than a century ago, scholar and journalist W.E.B. DuBois defined the special two-ness of the African-American experience. His words still educate and enlighten:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
In the Jewish experience, we are born having inherited a Jewish identity, yet each one of us must actively claim it. Of course, we can no more choose our Jewish identity than we can decide our biological parentage. Yet only by declaring ourselves Jewish and seeking to accept the obligations of Jewish practice do we fulfill that heritage. Our Jewish self-consciousness is a product of seeing ourselves through the eyes of our family history and our people’s history and well as through a glitzy American secular culture. Unlike the African-American experience, Jewish two-ness is not a war of unreconciled strivings, each pulling away from the other, but a struggle between two ideals trying to affect each other and integrate into a whole. Jewish two-ness is being Jewish. It's how we are, in constant dialogue with America and ourselves.

For Jews, one of the great beauties of America is that we can – though many do not – embrace the two-ness of our lives here. Our private faith and public lives can exist unreconciled yet in mutual respect, admiration and dialogue. But many do not embrace the doubleness of life as Jews in America. Here, we learn that Judaism is only a religion and one religion among many others. As the role of religion in American life has generally declined over the last century, many Jews have lost or shed the sense that being born Jewish carries significance. On the other hand, even in our enlightened age, many Americans nevertheless continue to see Jews as somehow other than themselves. A Jew growing up in this world has a pronounced sense of two-ness: feeling at home in America yet perceiving that some Americans consider Jews as, at best, quasi-Americans or not fully American.

Many Jews today address this doubleness by choosing not to accept the obligations of Jewishness. And the “many” appear to be increasing in number year after year. Nevertheless, in America and around the world, Judaism not only perseveres but actually thrives in our times. I have several hypotheses on why this is so, but the most relevant here is Judaism’s comfort with a version of a “separate but equal” doctrine. The phrase “separate but equal” rightly conjures impressions of the injustices of American segregation and Jim Crow laws. The principle apparently runs counter to America’s often simplistic ideas of equality. But in Judaism, difference is the lifeblood of community. Every group has an important role to play, and the groups mutually depend upon one another. The roles of man, woman, child, rabbi, priest, and so on – they are all interdependent, and each role needs to be fulfilled as well as possible. This is similar to the interdependence in a business of the roles of executive, salesperson, janitor, manager, accountant, and so on. The roles are clearly different from one another, but each role has a unique value and dignity that binds them and should create a peaceable environment in which none in a certain role covets a different role. From a Jewish perspective, it is both absurd and immoral that in one company the CEO could earn more than 10 times the annual salary of the average worker. It is a shame but no wonder that average workers practically kill themselves and sacrifice daily family time to run in the rat race. Judaism asks that each worker, including the CEO, should earn similar wages in recognition that each corporate position exists in a relationship that depends on individuals performing according to their own unique best. This is related to a saying of Rabban Yochanan be Zakkai: “If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, since it is for this that you were formed.” A great scholar or successful corporate executive should not be overly proud of her accomplishments because she has merely done what she was born to be able to do.

I believe that Americanized Jews possess a gut-level knowledge that in the end, however the end is defined, religious and secular self-identifications are but the surface coverings of a common desire to connect with the transcendent. I have found this belief dramatized in a great story by Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” describes an extended dialogue between the secularized narrator and is believing friend. The philosophical differences between the two are sharp and deep, but so too is their underlying affection and bond. The story ends on a somber but not altogether pessimistic note, as the narrator suspends the matter unresolved:

Reb Hersh, it’s late, let us take leave of each other. Our paths are different, spiritually and practically. We are the remnant of those who were driven out. The wind that uprooted us is dispersing us to all the corners of the earth. Who knows if we shall ever meet again? May we both have the merit of meeting again in the future and seeing how it is with us. And may I then be as Jewish as I am now. Reb Hersh, let us embrace each other.
I do not know when we will meet again, those of us who proclaim ourselves to be Jews and those of us who do not. But I genuinely believe that we all will meet again because it is a very good choice to be Jewish, and it is a choice that goes far beyond simply defining a religious affiliation. One can change affiliation, as one can switch political party affiliations. If one is born Jewish, however, one remains Jewish even if the choice is made not to exercise that inheritance. To me, choosing to be Jewish opens up many different ways of being personally fulfilled, beyond intellectual fulfillment and beyond social acceptance. To be Jewish is to be intensely curious about the universe, yet wanting more to learn from it than about it. To be Jewish is to experience real horror when people – any people, but especially Jewish people – behave barbarously, and to take some ownership and responsibility for not having fostered more peace in the world. If I am a Jew, it is not only because I say so, or because I pray and keep kosher. If I am a Jew, it is because every day, and throughout the day, I re-assert my belief that we will all make that connection with transcendence. When we do, and when we are all met together at that celestial place, these worldly identities won’t matter so much.

In light of these thoughts, I reject Bertrand Russell’s conclusion that “Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.” Two responses from a religious perspective seem appropriate. Firstly, fear is certainly a basis of religion, and an important one. The definition of fear, however, ought to be considered carefully. In my view, religion does not want or seek to make people afraid of the unknown or scared at the prospect of being alone. On the contrary, my personal experience and my conversations with hundreds, if not thousands of different people, suggest that religion emboldens people in uncertain times and solitary tribulations. In the aftermath of a natural disaster or a man-made tragedy, the appropriate religious response is not to withdraw and pray, or shrug our shoulders and remark that such things “are G-d’s will,” No, the proper religious response is to take action, to place ourselves where our brothers and sisters are suffering, to share their burden and try to help make it better.

The second response suggests is that fear is certainly not the primary or main basis of religion. Love is. Love of knowledge, love of being a creative force in the universe, love of competition, love of life, love of the visible ineffable within others. And when we articulate love through righteous action, then we interact with the divine and connect with G-d in the ways we were taught long ago. This love can, it must be said, blend into a different kind of fear, the fear of losing that connection with G-d and our people. We read in the Bible how Ruth became Jewish, announcing to Naomi that “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your G-d my G-d.” As with Ruth and Naomi, Judaism is highly personal and familial.

In our age, it may sound trite to make such a statement as love is the basis of religion. Perhaps we don’t trust the variety of emotions that can be called love anymore. Regardless, we must face the world squarely today as we have always needed to. Whether we stand before it in fear or love is something we alone can decide. As a Jew I stand with my people and my G-d, from the three million of us who were unified and gathered at Mount Sinai to the millions more of us fragmented and dispersed across the globe today. Whatever science’s high-tech hunches about humanity and the universe, and however much their claims disturb, we continue to choose serving G-d. Neither science nor tabloid culture can undermine religion, in the end. Only we can.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.