Patterns of Jewish Identity in the Modern World

By Chlenov, Michael A. | Midstream, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Patterns of Jewish Identity in the Modern World

Chlenov, Michael A., Midstream

Not more than 10 or 15 years ago, several events in modern history, and in contemporary Jewish experience, revealed a fact, which now seems obvious, that had not manifested itself previously in academic studies, or in political or social practice. It suddenly turned out that Jews living in different communities do not mean quite the same thing when speaking about what it means to be Jewish. Comparing American Jewish and Israeli understanding of Judaism, Charles Liebman and Steve Cohen came to the following confusing conclusion:

   American and Israeli conceptions of Judaism have salient. differences. Each
   culture has reinterpreted in its own way the pre-modern Jewish tradition
   that is common to both, and the reinterpretations diverge sufficiently to
   warrant their being called new constructions of Judaism.(1)

This statement opened a series of publications, conferences, symposia, and debates devoted to the problem of divergent Jewish identities in the modern world and their impact on the major issues of Jewish politics of today, such as Israeli-Diaspora relations, the peace process in the Middle East, and the religious vs the secular nature of the Jewish state.(2) As a rule, identities of Israelis and American Jews are compared, with a presumption that European and other "Western" patterns (Australian, Latin American, etc.) follow the basic traits of the American model. Although the number of analyses is scarce, contemporary development of European Jewish identities shows that there's no such phenomenon, and the Western European model, which probably forms some kind of unit, is certainly not identical either to the American or the Israeli model.

Another problem is the content of Jewish identity. What is the self-perception of a given community, where the content of its Jewishness specifically lies? Usually one finds several components: Judaism as religion, the Holocaust, Zionism in its secular and religious forms, the recognition of Israel as a center of Jewish life in Diaspora. These are the main points that matter for Western Jews, and they vary from community to community in different understandings of these variables. As for the Eastern European types of identity, they remain largely unknown, and only a few publications of the last several years shed some light on the problem.(3)

The majority of analytical studies of Jewish identity are based on empirical sociological studies in the form of questionnaires and similar surveys. It is my intention to add some socio-anthropological observations of a general nature, as well as empirical findings from working within the Jewish community of Russia for more than 25 years.

For the sake of logical ease, we may consider, as an initial stage in the development of today's diverse types of Jewish identity, the relatively non-broken, monistic pattern of pre-modern Jewish identity of the so-called Derekh-ha-SHAS (DHS) model, which prevailed in the medieval world and represented a type of identity specific for a feudal society based on corporate rights. The basis for the DHS-type was not merely religious; rather, it corporatized social separateness, exemplified in religious specificity. This pattern included first of all a certain sense of separation, the sense of lehavdil, i.e., a physical, social, and religious isolation from the surrounding neighborhood; a consciousness of being subject to a specific internal law based upon Jewish halacha and tradition; a consciousness of being exiled; a perception of the social surroundings as hostile and persecutors as God's whip; a shared knowledge of how to escape from minor discrimination and persecution; a shared victimized self-consciousness, i.e., a self-perception as eternal victim; the presence of a specific Jewish vernacular, and of Hebrew as a language of civilization; a shared belief in the forthcoming Geulah (Redemption) and the Messianic future. This model was quite non-controversial, because it was fully consistent with the general model of social structure in the European and Near Eastern Middle Ages, as based upon the notion of corporate rights. …

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