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On being Jewish in a secular world.

One prominent English historian, Orlando Figes, writes (The New York Review of Books, June 9, 2005) that while he may be considered to be a Jew on the basis of the author Yuri Sleskine's definition of what it means to be a Jew--a definition that includes coming from Jewish parents--he, Figes, in fact, has--"no real connection to the Jewish religion, to Jewish culture or communal life," and, indeed, "consciously reject[s] all forms of Jewish identification." He writes, "... I have never been to a religious service in a synagogue and do not think of myself as a Jew." He notes, curiously, that his daughters "have been christened and brought up in an atheist household." So, this author, presumably, does not object to a religious service, and has engaged in one (at least), even though he is all atheist, but has never attended a Jewish, religious service and rejects for himself and his children any form of Jewish identification. (The author is, presumably, then, not adverse to religious services, even though he is an atheist, only to Jewish services--at least, for himself and his family).

Figes, oddly, then, goes on to talk about Jewish socialists and Bolsheviks active in Soviet Russia, including what he refers to as "left-wing Bundists and Zionists." Now, these were people who were atheists, maintained "no real connection to the Jewish religion," and did not attend a "religious service in a real synagogue." Nor did many of them, as Figes himself points out, sustain a connection "to Jewish culture or communal life." Moreover, among the socialists and Bolsheviks, many were not Zionists. And some, Figes tells us, did not describe or identify themselves as Jews, although other Soviet Jews did. Therefore, on the basis of the very criteria by which the author declares himself not a Jew, those Soviets who may, indeed, have borne the burdens of Jewish parentage, but were atheists, who maintained no connection "to Jewish culture or communal life," and "consciously reject[ed] all forms of Jewish identification" were, like the author himself, by his own criteria as he applies them to himself, not Jews and, thusly, not Soviet Jews or Bolshevik Jews--except, presumably, as certain insistent Jews and most antisentites would so have it. Is the author, then, playing the insistent Jew (but he has already declared himself not a Jew) or the antisemite in addressing the history or conditions of what he himself refers to as "Soviet Jews"? Or is he simply and inconsistently failing to accord to other people, viz., "Soviet Jews," what he would say of himself and "his friends" living in England?

The author, then, goes on to talk about Soviet Jews who, while atheists, did declare themselves as Jews even though they were socialists and universalists. And, among these, some also maintained no real connection with 'Jewish culture or communal life," though, as the author explains, others did. So, the difference between being a Jew and not being a Jew may turn on nothing more than declaring and acknowledging oneself as a Jew, even while being an atheist and/or an anti-Zionist, and even while maintaining no particular relation to 'Jewish culture or communal life." For these people, these socialist or universalist Jews, the only difference between them and the author is that they declare themselves Jews, even while not religious or Zionist, and the author does not. But, this raises the question, why do certain universalist, atheist, antinationalist people, nevertheless, regard themselves and their children as Jews, and the historian Figes and his many friends do not regard themselves as Jews, though their parents were Jews?

All of which poses the question, what does it mean to be a Jew? And here I would like to agree with Figes, that there are no special traits of intellect, emotion, personality, or character that are either distinctive of Jews or native to Jews as such. But as the [Jewish?] philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, that is true of most things we bring together under a definition or label in this world. He employed the term, "family resemblance" as a better way of understanding categorization, than to think of things put together under one rubric as sharing some single, distinctive trait or set of traits. And if what, in the end, separates Jews from non-Jews, is that they regard or do not regard themselves as Jews, our question, then, becomes, what is at stake for a child of Jewish parents or grandparents to regard him or herself as a Jew or not as a Jew? What does it mean for anyone to regard him or herself as a Jew? And, I would suggest, in an age of secular liberalism and large-scale assimilation, this question assumes a special significance. For those who are religious and are attracted to (Jewish) religious services, to Jewish customs, rituals, or Jewish culture, the issue is simple enough, I suppose. But, what are we to say to the cosmopolitan, secular liberal, the communist, the left-wing universalist with no affinity for religious practice or "parochial" customs? Can one be such, and still be or consider oneself a Jew? And to this question--what does it mean to regard oneself as a Jew?--I would reply by proposing that to regard oneself as a Jew is to acknowledge that one shares a common destiny with Jews, and to declare oneself as not a Jew is to reject such a common destiny.

But, what does one mean to acknowledge or reject a common destiny with other Jews? I propose that such acknowledgment entails, first, avowal if not affirmation of a Jewish heritage, that is, recognition that one is the child (adoptive or not) of a Jewish past, a Jewish culture and tradition, that one's forebears did engage in a distinctive "communal life" and bore, by choice, its burdens, responsibilities, and values, often at a terrible cost to themselves. And, I would briefly here add, that such acknowledgment could, but need not, involve engaging, even if only on occasion, in certain traditional and cultural practices common to that past and of vital significance to those forebears. Even atheists sometimes go to synagogue or church, participate in rituals, celebrate custom, christen, as Figes, the atheist historian, reminds us, their children. Celebration of what may have given pleasure, if not joy, if not some sense of relief, if not some sense of religiosity or community, if not some sense of selfhood or dignity (as they understood it) to one's great grandparents and their parents before them, is, after all is said and done, not a stupid or dull-witted or irrational or unenlightened or ignorant, but very human, commemorative, and, perhaps, loving thing to do.

Second, acknowledgment of oneself as a Jew, I propose, entails acknowledgment of a common future with others who understand themselves as Jews. And what does such acknowledgment involve? If things go well for Jews in the future, then they will participate or not, compete with everyone else in society, succeed or fail on the basis of chance and/or merit like everyone else, be treated much like everyone else. This, presumably, is the kind of world, an enlightened liberal, a cosmopolitan universalist, a socialist, would ascribe to in any case. If things go poorly for Jews, then things will go poorly for the children and grandchildren of Jews, and some people will be defined as Jews and ill-treated as Jews, whether those individuals declare themselves as Jews or not. And so regarding this matter, one, then, cultivates a concern for the survival, the preservation, and well-being of the Jewish people as such, even as one harbors concern for the survival, preservation and well-being of oneself, of one's family and children. One argues for the opportunity to participate, contribute, compete, and succeed, as a Jew, like everyone else. This does not mean that non-Jews cannot and, indeed, should not be concerned about the survival and well-being of Jews, just as Jews can, and, indeed, should be concerned about the survival and well-being of non-Jews. It means that such concern is of one who shares and will share and consciously wills oneself to share that common and special identity--for good or ill. It assumes a regard and burden--as one may have a regard for and bear a responsibility to all mankind--but, acknowledging one's particular origins, carries a special regard for and responsibility to one's parents and grandparents.

But some people do not want to share that common destiny. If things go badly for Jews, they would rather be among the non-Jews in such circumstances. (If things go well for Jews, it's not an issue, since, as suggested above, Jews will simply be treated like everyone else, i.e., as non-Jews in any case.) Some people do not want to share that special responsibility and burden--just as others don't want to bear any particular or special burden with respect to their parents. They have a right, I suppose. We may ponder some of the reasons so many Jews don't choose to exercise that right. We are all, no doubt, familiar with the pragmatic and, what I would characterize as, "negative" argument, namely, that only in collective unity lies individual safety. But I would propose that there are reasons far more positive, far more interesting, enthralling, and profound than that. However, those matters must remain the subject for a future discussion.

R. BEN is a professor of philosophy who lives in New York City and who writes under a number of different pseudonyms including R. Ben.
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Title Annotation:Religion
Author:Ben, R.
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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