Jewish Religious, Ethnic,and National Identities:
Convergences and Conflicts
Daniel J. Elazar
It hardly needs to be said that the concept of "identity" as a (perhaps the) touchstone of Jewish life is an entirely modern and postmodern one, indeed, mostly the latter. Throughout all previous epochs of Jewish history from the beginning through the modern epoch, Jews knew who was a Jew and how. Of course there were questions around the peripheries. In Hellenistic times many Jews assimilated and other non-Jews became Jews or Judaizers and distinctions had to be made between who was who. Problems arose with Marranos in various periods in Jewish history, but for the vast majority of Jews, not only was their identity clear but the issue never came up and the concept was foreign to them. In many cases, for non-Jews, who was a Jew was even more clear in the sense that they often defined even Jews who had converted to other religions as Jews for their own reasons. The question of identity, then, is at most a modern question and, with perhaps the exception of a few Western European countries, has received attention as such by Jews only since World War II.
Efforts at Jewish Polity Building
Emergence of the Pattern of "Jewish Identity"
Prior to the modern epoch, it was not possible to separate Jewish religious, ethnic, and national identities. Nor would the possibility have occurred either to Jews or non-Jews of the time. Every period that might be characterized as a time of crisis in identity was directly connected with some issue confronting the Jewish people as a collectivity, either constitutional, national or political, and usually involving all three elements. Although we have little concrete information other than the biblical account, the Bible clearly suggests that this was the case with regard to the exodus from Egypt and the establishment of the monarchy a few centuries later. The division of Israel into two kingdoms could have separated Jewish religious and political identities but in fact did not. Indeed, the Bible describes the establishment of a new common framework to unite the citizens of the two kingdoms, which is referred to as "aheinu bnai yisrael," which can be translated "our brother Israelites," recognizing kinship as the basis.
The next crisis that we might refer to as involving issues of identity was at the end of the eighth century BCE after the destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria when Judah under the rule of King Hezekiah extended its control over much of the territory of the destroyed kingdom. Judah welcomed many refugees from the north, and thereby included all of those Jews who remained identified as Jews in Eretz Israel. However, it could not reach out to those Jews exiled by the Assyrians who became known in the collective Jewish memory as the ten lost tribes. Although the latter disappeared as political entities, some families among them, maybe even quite a few, survived as Jews and later rejoined the Jewish exiles from Judah after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the southern kingdom early in the sixth century BCE.
The destruction of Judah in 586 BCE undoubtedly provoked another crisis as Jews had to find a way to preserve their identity outside of a territorial state. It was in the wake of that crisis that the Jewish diaspora came into being and began to develop its own communal institutions to preserve diaspora Jewries. That initiated a new era in Jewish history, one in which it was no longer possible to preserve Jewish identity primarily through territorially-based political entities.
New political arrangements were found at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah during the second Jewish return from Babylon or, more accurately, from the empire of the Medes and the Persians in the middle of the fifth century BCE. Only a minority of the Jews in the world actually settled or resettled in Judea (or the Persian province of Yahud). Accordingly, the Anshe Knesset Hagedolah, constituted as their governing body, made provision for symbolic representation from the Jewish diaspora, consisting of a few men who would come to Judea for a few years to represent their diaspora communities. This device, the conjunction with the rebuilding of the Temple and the half-shekel Temple tax throughout the diaspora, provided a formal linkage among all Jews. In point of fact, the problems of transportation and communication -- in other words, insufficient technology -- kept this linkage more symbolic than real. It disappeared by the end of the Bar Kochba revolt.
Another kind of arrangement came during the ascendancy of the Resh Galuta and the yeshivot of Babylonia during the initial period of Arab Muslim ascendancy in West Asia and a good part of the Mediterranean littoral. When the Arab empire was at its height by the end of the eighth or the early ninth centuries CE, perhaps 96 percent of the Jews of the world were living within it and subject to the authority of those great Jewish institutions in Babylonia. The very grave problems of transportation and communications were sufficiently overcome to keep the Jewish communities in the Islamic world within the common Jewish polity and the leadership of its institutions. This situation lasted until the Arab empire began to break up and local rulers wanted to detach "their" Jews from loyalties to Babylonia for purposes of their own empire-building. The system began to collapse in the tenth century and by the middle of the eleventh was totally disrupted.
After that, the Jews scattered throughout the world, often in small local communities, especially in Europe, which increasingly held an ever-larger share of the Jewish population as Jews migrated to the Ashkenazic lands and Spain was reconquered by Christian rulers who set up a number of small kingdoms in place of al-Andalus, the Iberian Arab empire. Jews were able to maintain only a semblance of unity through the responsa of posekim (halakhic decisors), carried by Jewish merchants and other travelers to far-flung Jewish communities. While this system of responsa correspondence was more or less worldwide, it was never able to develop beyond a system of authoritative correspondence. On one hand, it was successful in keeping virtually all Jews within a common halakhic tradition; but, on the other, it could not provide them with the executive institutions needed to enable their polity to function as such.
The Jewish situation in this respect worsened in the modern epoch, beginning in the seventeenth century and decisively spreading in the eighteenth. The autonomous Jewish communities were destroyed by the non-Jewish rulers in country after country even before the individual Jews were emancipated. Thus it was no longer necessary for increasing numbers of Jews even to be bound by halakhic decisions as interpreted by their posekim, thereby disrupting even the limited but still effective constitutional framework of the Jewish polity in favor of the new Jewish condition of modernity.
Only after the modern epoch was well advanced and even moving toward its conclusion, when perhaps half of the Jews in the world had been emancipated and most of the others had lost their communal autonomy even if they were still restricted in their rights of citizenship by the governments of their host countries, was world Jewry able to begin to develop modern alternatives for the by then well-nigh destroyed traditional polity. Chief among them and the most successful was the Zionist alternative which offered all Jews, no matter what their religious, cultural and political understanding of Judaism was like, a chance to actively identify as Jews and also established a set of institutions through which Jews could manifest that identity and in turn which could undertake collective Jewish action, particularly in connection with the reestablishment of a Jewish national home in Eretz Israel which was intended by the Zionists to fully restore the Jewish polity and which it has done, albeit in a way quite different from that which the Zionist theoreticians of those days then envisaged, however they envisaged it.1
At first Zionism had competition from other proposed solutions to "the Jewish problem" including emancipation, assimilation, socialism, diaspora nationalism, and traditional religious Orthodoxy. All of the others proved wanting in pursuing the Jewish goal of Jewish survival and maintaining Jewish identity, yet joining the modern world, each for reasons of its own. In the end, only Zionism succeeded in finding a way to achieve its goals while pursuing both objectives as a result of the Holocaust, the heavy hand of Stalinist Communism, and the reestablishment of the State of Israel.2
The reestablishment of the Jewish state came fortuitously at the same time that rapid, nay, revolutionary strides were made in transportation and communications technology. The Zionist enterprise had, in many respects, been a product of the first stages of that revolution. The revolutionary changes that took place after 1948 not only made it easier for the Zionist enterprise to bring Jews to Israel, but also made possible rapid, then instantaneous, connection between Jews in all parts of the world, in turn allowing them to undertake common activities insofar as they wished to do so or were not restrained from doing so by the governments of their host countries. That restraint also diminished after 1948, especially after the fall of the Communist bloc from 1989 onward.
These changes came during an epoch of great migrations which led millions of Jews to move not only to the reborn State of Israel but even earlier to the other new worlds of the great European frontier. Western Europe had been substantially judenrein from the fifteenth century until the Jews' return in the eighteenth century. By that time Jews were moving then to the New Worlds of North and South America, southern Africa, and Australia for Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, although mostly the former, and South and East Asia, first for Sephardim and only later for Ashkenazim in smaller numbers for purposes of business rather than settlement.
Thus by the end of the 1940s, after the great migrations, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the State of Israel, the earlier Muslim and Christian heartlands of Jewish settlement had been almost emptied of Jewish communities, while new communities had developed, at times into powerful ones, beyond that old core area, west and east, and to a lesser extent south and north.
There may well be a direct connection between these massive migrations and the increased voluntary character of Jewish identification in Jewish life. In continental Europe and the Muslim world where Jews had lived for centuries, even after full communal autonomy was eliminated, strong vestiges of autonomy remained. Jews who wished to be Jews had to be members; governments collected taxes for the communities, or enforced by law taxes collected by the Jews themselves. Communal religious establishments had control over Jewish law and religion. In most cases, only Jews who wanted to give up all connection with Judaism and Jewish life -- which often meant converting to another religion or at the very least walking away from all economic, social, religious, educational, or cultural benefits that their communities and the Jewish people as a whole might provide -- could refuse to accept basic communal discipline.
In the New World no such basic communal discipline existed. The communities were entirely or virtually entirely voluntary. Their institutions were private bodies in state law and adherence to them was strictly voluntary. Moreover, in some cases, the United States, for example, efforts to give Jewish communal institutions any kind of monopoly were illegal under state anti-monopoly legislation.3
As a result, key questions for Jewishness began to revolve around "identity" rather than birth, affiliation, or conformity to some kind of standard. Identity was subjective and voluntary, as distinct from objective and communal if not compulsory association of an earlier time. Moreover, as the world continued to open up for Jews, even the social pressures that might have led Jews to identify voluntarily against their basic desires as individuals fell away, making the matter of identity increasingly a matter of individual choice. Not surprisingly, this meant that Jewish institutions and practices had to readapt themselves, even transform themselves, to this new kind of voluntary Jewishness and Judaism, something which was totally or almost totally absent from Jewish life in earlier times.4
A person who saw him or herself as Jewish could make any claims, adopt any practices, or maintain any affiliations and get away with them. At first, those kinds of Jews were no more than "Jews at heart," but remained ethnically and thus halakhically Jews. Then Jews began to intermarry at substantial rates, often raising their children as non-Jews. More recently, some Jews have declared themselves Jews even as they accepted a belief in Jesus as messiah. Moreover, people born non-Jews began to declare themselves Jews if it suited their purposes to do so without undergoing any formal conversion. The 1990 American National Jewish Population Study revealed that up to a third of those who considered themselves Jewish by conversion had not undergone any kind of formal conversion, even a non-halakhic one.
Jewish institutions readapted themselves to attract people who identified as Jews without asking too many questions as to how they were Jewish. Jewish education was shifted to build upon the need to foster or strengthen Jewish identity rather than the need to equip Jews whose identity was taken for granted with the tools necessary to live a Jewish life, whether traditionally defined or otherwise.
Regional Varieties of Jewish Identification:
The Territorial Dimension
While all of the above is generally true for Jews in the diaspora, it is only partly true for the Jews in Israel. Israeli Jews live within a sovereign Jewish state where elements of the old order of Jewish communal authority have been adapted and the powers of state sovereignty are used not only to support them but also to support other coercive measures which, with or without their common Israeli element included, serve Jewish ends. The differences between Israel and the diaspora, that is, between having political sovereignty and not, are the most dramatic of differences in the Jewish world today and, considering that Israel now has approximately 4.5 million Jews, a number that is growing, while the world's largest Jewish community, the United States, has about 5.8 million, a number that is either static or declining, suggests how important Israel is even though it is the only one of its kind. But differences between the various diaspora communities also should be taken into consideration when planning Jewish policy.
A Jewishness based on identity rather than an assumed way of life complicates matters for Jewish survival, but, at the same time, seems to be the only way to achieve Jewish survival in our times. The question remains as to whether even that is enough. First, identity must be built or established and then ways must be developed to translate that identity into concrete and continuing manifestations. That, indeed, has been the modern Jewish project and it looks as if it will be the postmodern one as well. Speaking social scientifically, it does not seem likely that it will be a successful project. It requires too much voluntary effort on the part of a population that essentially is becoming more ignorant of what being Jewish is all about, generation by generation if not even more quickly, and it must be achieved in the face of horrendous competition which, precisely because it seems so open and welcoming, is so dangerous to the success of the project, imposing its norms and ways on the Jewish people in the name of freedom, choice, and democracy, very real values in their own right. At the same time, however, Jews have confounded social scientists or their predecessors for many centuries. Hence, as long as the effort is made, no final verdict can be registered.
How that effort is made is based upon many factors, one of which, at least, must be the starting point from which people born Jews or identified as such begin. While there was always less uniformity about that than the Jewish romanticists of the day might have liked to suppose, even in the times when Jews saw themselves as all bound by halakhah and living under the authority of the Jewish community unless they chose to change their religion, still today the diversity in ways is almost immeasurably greater. Moreover, that diversity is far more the result of choice, either ideological or territorial, neither of which were very likely matters of conscious choice in the past. This paper focuses on the territorial dimensions of choice rather than on the ideological.
Most of those who seek to understand contemporary Jewry are aware of the ideological dimensions and have greater or lesser understanding of them; but many Jews, even in the highest leadership positions, are unaware or insufficiently aware of the territorial dimensions. Jews who look the same, dress the same, speak the same language, and are engaged in the same pursuits, Jewish and general, may not be perceived by their peers to be as different from one another as they are in matters of Jewish identity and their Jewishness.
We can identify seven basic regional divisions in the Jewish world today. They are:
- The State of Israel or perhaps more correctly, Eretz Israel.
- The Jewish community of the United States.
- The Jewish communities of the rest of the English-speaking world, essentially all of which are products of Britain and the British empire.
- The Jewries of Latin America.
- The Jewries of continental Europe west of the former Iron Curtain.
- The Jewries of the ex-Communist bloc.
- The Jewish communities and outposts of Africa and Asia.
Let us look at each of these in turn from the perspective of their Jewish identity and perspectives on that identity.
In the first place, they significantly differ with regard to their bedrock perception of what Jews are. For the Jews of Eretz Israel the key concept is that the Jews are a nation. There are variations on this concept. Most Jews in Israel probably consider the Jews to be a nation which includes certain religious dimensions. For religious Zionists, Jews are a nation in which the religious dimension is critical. For the haredim, Jews are a nation by virtue of their religion or, more accurately, by virtue of the Torah in which they include the written and oral law, the definition which very much approximates that provided by Saadia Gaon over a thousand years ago. Finally, for a growing number of Israeli Jews, Israel is the focal point of their national identity, but the vast majority of those "Israelis" are of Jewish descent. Hence the two identities are intertwined.
For the Jews of the United States, Jews are principally Jews by religion. Many American Jews, having assimilated so totally into American culture, see Jews as hardly more than a religion. Others see the Jews as a people albeit formed and held together by their religion. They more or less follow Mordecai Kaplan's definition of Judaism as the religious civilization of the Jewish people, without all that much civilization consciously surviving today. With the exception of a small handful, even American Jews who are strongly committed to Jewish peoplehood understand that peoplehood primarily in religious terms.
In the rest of the English-speaking world, Jews are an ethnic group sustained by their religion. Latin America, and continental Europe, Jews see Jewishness as primarily a function of ethnicity, i.e., the Jews are an ethnic group.
In Latin America, Jews are an ethnic group sustained by family, language, or other aspects of culture, and concern for the Jewish state. Religion is an almost non-existent factor for most Latin American Jews. Exceptions include those who have turned to ultra-Orthodoxy, or converts to Judaism, or Jews who need to identify in some measure with Jewish religion to separate themselves from the Catholicism of their societies.
In Western Europe Jews are an ethnic group perhaps most sustained by anti-Semitism, real or perceived, manifest or latent, whereby Jews perceive themselves as different from French or Germans or Norwegians, even though they may be very much integrated into their country's civic life and culture. Jewish religion is residual and its institutions are more overtly ethnic anchors than they are in other parts of the contemporary diaspora. Thus they are more likely to prefer a formal communal Orthodoxy regardless of their personal beliefs and practices because of the association of traditional Jewish religion with Jewish ethnic identity. Since they are located in countries where there are principal churches or religions, even if they are no longer established, they preserve older traditions in their institutions, however their people behave. It is easy for Jews to fall into the same pattern, just as for American Jews, the great diversity and competition of churches and sects has made it easy for them to experiment with institutionalizing different paths to Judaism.
In all three regions, but especially in Latin America and continental Europe, Jews feel less "at home" in their host countries than do either Israeli or American Jews. They see themselves bound by some kind of mystic cord to the State of Israel regardless of whether they ever intend to settle there. Latin America has a phrase for it: "madre patria" (mother fatherland), that is to say, the fatherland prior to the new one in countries of immigration. Even if the term or an equivalent is not used and the migration took place centuries ago, that phrase describes the feelings of Jews in all three regions.
Perhaps the most radical new senses of Jewish identity are to be found among the Jews of the ex-Communist bloc. Jews elsewhere, however much they are engaged in redefining who is a Jew, begin with those who are defined as Jews halakhically and expand from there. Even if they include self-identified and "self-converted" Jews, they have not abandoned traditional definitions to the extent that is apparently the case in the ex-Communist bloc.
In a small meeting with fifteen of us sitting around the table a few years ago, I asked Mikhail Chlenov, the head of the Vaad, then the umbrella organization for Soviet Jewry and now rather in limbo since the demise of the Soviet Union, how many Jews there were in the USSR. He prefaced his response by giving me the Soviet Jewish definition of who is a Jew. There were three categories:
- Jews who were Jews by virtue of being identified as such on their Soviet internal passports;
- people whom everybody knew were Jewish even though they had managed to secure a different national identification on those passports, and
- "those who identify with the fate of the Jewish people," namely non-Jews who became connected with the Jewish people through marriage and the family relationships it established.
Not only was there nothing halakhic about this, but the definition was certainly not religious in any form and was only partly ethnic and not very formally at that. In a sense it could be described as national since at least in theory "national" can be multi-ethnic. But most important is that it was a subjective product of certain objective conditions, not exactly voluntary but not necessarily authoritative either.
A look at the ex-Soviet republics and the rest of the Communist bloc suggests that this definition exists well-nigh universally within them. This is a thoroughly modern or contemporary definition. Theoretically, it poses great new problems for the Jewish people and their accepted definition or definitions of Jewish identity. In practice, at this stage, because the State of Israel more or less implicitly accepts that definition under the Law of Return, it has become a working one for many purposes, many of them very important.
In theory, that definition would cease to have effect when people have to be identified on their Israeli identity cards according to the halakhic definition of who is Jewish. It is quite surprising that there have been so few cases in which problems have arisen publicly. In part this has been due to a generous conversion policy on the part of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, now being challenged by at least one of the new chief rabbis, which has prevented problems of this nature from reaching the stage of public exposure. In the two, three or four cases that have, it is usually when somebody has died unexpectedly and thus a decision has to be made whether he or she is Jewish or not. All of these cases have either been dealt with or swept under the rug.
Those confrontations that have taken place have exposed the difference between those Jews whose sensibilities about Jewish identification rest on contemporary criteria, and those whose sensibilities rest on traditional ones. For the former, for example, an Israeli soldier of dubious Jewish ancestry was to be considered Jewish because he had identified with the Jewish state to the point of serving in the IDF, and even giving up his life for Israel. In their eyes that should be enough or more than enough. For those whose sensibilities are more traditional, when push comes to shove, they must rely on traditional halakhic definitions, although in most cases they would prefer that the matter not be raised at all. Within the ex-Communist bloc itself, only now as a result of the presence of Jews from other countries are halakhic questions even being asked and in general it can be said that the Chlenov definition prevails.
In the case of the final grouping, we are essentially dealing with Jewish outposts, either because they are minuscule survivors of older communities now emigrated or destroyed, or because they are minuscule settlements of Jews from elsewhere for whom business and professional interests bring them to Jewishly out of the way places. Theirs is a Judaism of self-identification based on either religious or ethnic grounds or some combination of both. With the exception of those who are religious and who need to find other Jews in order to properly carry out religious commandments, they are Jews who seek Jewish companionship in strange lands. In an anthropological sense, they are Jews by culture but only in the most basic sense. In other words, they bear with them certain kinds of Jewish cultural traits, even if they know very little about Jewish civilization. One might best refer to them as tribal Jews. Inter alia, they serve to remind us that underneath, Jewish identity for most of those born Jews is tribal, however it is filtered through other definitions. Indeed, the great problem with contemporary changes in Jewish identification is that most of them require abandonment or minimization of the tribal dimension and hence even Jews who accept them fully in theory are often uncomfortable with them in practice, except to the extent that their own tribal identification has been diluted or modified.
This may be a latent reason why emancipated Jews have so emphasized universalism as a cornerstone of Jewish identity and self-definition. Obviously, it is in the self-interest of those Jews who seek to become part of the larger world, however defined, to emphasize universalism and its corollary, openness, because as a minority, universality justifies their acceptance in the larger world of which they seek to be part. This is as true of Israeli Jews active in the left-wing Meretz Party as it is of American Jews active in the politically liberal American Jewish Congress. Being Jews, it is not enough for them to say that it suits their interests to promote universalism. Rather, they must make it an ideological principle, sacred and inviable; and so they have, introducing it as such into the very structure of Jewish identity as they see it even though, in fact, it often works counter to all those elements that we know are necessary to Jewish identity.
The simplest and perhaps most vulgar demonstration of this phenomenon is found in the case of intermarrying children of "modern" Jewish families. The Jewish child comes to his or her parents with a non-Jewish partner. The parents will often indicate their disapproval for what are essentially tribalist reasons and the child will retort that he/she was raised to be universalist in outlook so why now should this next step be inappropriate? The parents, despite their feelings, are stuck. So with that problem and the desire not to alienate their children, they acquiesce. But the story is not yet over. After the marriage takes place and the Jewish parents come to know the non-Jewish spouse and his or her family, they often discover that they are very nice people. At first they are even surprised by that since their tribal instincts had told them that all non-Jews are at least latently hostile or uncivilized, that Jews are special, and here they have human beings like all other human beings. This is even more pronounced when there are few overt religious and cultural differences between them because of assimilation. So the devil is not so bad. They are then at a loss as to on what to base their Jewish identity.
Implications for Jewish Education
The implications of this situation for Jewish education are several. First and foremost, we can now see throughout the Jewish world, including Israel, that it takes almost no time for a civilization to be disrupted by lack of proper education of its new generations. Ten years is probably enough to do the deed. Considering that a demographic cohort is about five years in length, if two cohorts do not receive proper education in their heritage, it is radically disrupted, its continuity lost, and it can only be revived by a conscious effort by later cohorts with all the problematics attendant upon rediscovering what was once living and "natural" (i.e., so deeply rooted in one's culture that it was second nature) through conscious learning and deliberate design, which has no basis in a continuing culture.
The phenomenon of a disrupted culture is visible in every Jewish community in the world including Israel. In the diaspora, communities seeking modernization or assimilation into what were for them new societies either rejected or neglected proper Jewish education of their children, both at home and in the schools. In Israel, many of the early Zionist pioneers rejected traditional Judaism and deliberately refrained from passing it on to their children at home or in more formal educational frameworks. By now the results are apparent. For the vast majority of world Jewry, all we have left is a kind of communicated tribalism, certain universalizable elements of general culture compatible with tradition transformed to conform with the new environments in which Jews found themselves, and certain patterns of political culture and behavior that are not even recognized for what they are but are deemed by their bearers to be universal (e.g., Jewish humanitarianism and aspirations for communal solidarity). The second part of the equation is exemplified by the hozer b'tshuva phenomenon. Here we see people raised without Jewish tradition finding their way back to it but having to acquire it painfully on their own and thus often unable to discriminate between its essential elements and peripheral expressions.
Education must take place both in the home and in other settings. The home experiences are often so subtle that children are unaware that they are being taught. That is what makes them so vital. There is very little basis for assuming that a formal substantive education can replace home experiences or that substance can be provided by informal education trying to foster certain kinds of actions based upon commitment without the appropriate knowledge base. In the past two generations, Jewish educators thought that perhaps schools or less formal educational settings could substitute for the home in this respect. It cannot be said that they never succeeded. There were always those few who were thirsting for something they might have gotten in those settings instead of at home, at least for a while. For the most part, however, they failed to provide an alternative for something for which there is no alternative.
Partly in response to the first points, we find that there are today two conflicting views in Jewish education: the substantivists and the experientialists. The former are committed to teaching substantive knowledge and information and expect that those who come to learn with them or their parents accept a system of learning that rests on substantive study. The latter are convinced that their students do not devote enough time to Jewish education for that purpose and do not have enough interest in it, so they strive to make Jewish education experiential, in part to replace what the home used to provide, in part to give people a good feeling about feeling Jewish since they cannot give them much else. The former expect relatively long hours and serious commitment to Jewish education, but, perhaps paradoxically, have also had more success with those students who have come into their framework without that commitment than have the experientialists who have recognized the reality in which they find themselves and are willing to try to work within it.
By and large, experientialism has failed to achieve what it was designed to achieve, demonstrating willy-nilly that only in rare cases can there be even a partial substitute for home-acquired experience, and that the minimal time available for attempted substitutes is clearly inadequate. By the same token, the substantivists have failed to attract a sufficient percentage of Jewish students, whether they seek to introduce them to traditional religious Judaism or to modern national-cultural Jewishness, and that even many of their efforts to provide the requisite time through non-Orthodox day schools, for example, have become "watered down" to deal with the populations which they serve. It is too easy to conclude that what we need is a combination of both substance and experiences, but that would be so facile as to be worthless. Of course it is true, but it is not a truth which we can operationalize outside of a few places and in a few cases because the major transformations in Jewish society fail to make operationalization a reality.
The variety of basic forms of Jewish identification requires that there be a variety of curriculum designs to meet different sensibilities. This means that there can be no centralized curriculum design as many Israelis have proposed from time to time. In an adaption of the principle: ki mitzion tetsei torah, some body in Israel will attempt to provide a curriculum for Jewish education throughout the world. We know that empirically it does not work for many reasons that one might consider to be extraneous to education per se, i.e., politics, but we also know empirically that it does not work qua curriculum.
An analysis of the varieties of Jewish identification may add another dimension to our understanding of that. Not only are Jews different ideologically, but even territorially where they might assume a priori that there might be no significant differences.
At one time we could speak of a common tribalism underlying those differences and indeed there are still echoes of that in many quarters. During this past generation we have discovered that common tribalism has either disappeared or so lost compelling force for most Jews that it remains merely a vestigial sentiment for the vast majority of those who identify with it.
Not only that but holding onto the other forms of identification taken alone involves reliance on a weak reed. American Jews, recognizing the reality of, and hence the strength of (non-Orthodox) religious identification in the United States sought in the first postwar generation to rebuild Jewish education strictly or overwhelmingly along (non-Orthodox) religious lines. In the end, the vast majority of the now-dominant synagogue supplementary schools were reduced to an emphasis on "synagogue skills" for the young which, as the young people got older, proved to be woefully inadequate to give them reasons to be seriously Jewish in the very attractive face of American society. The end result is well known.
Nor was ethnicity any better though there has never been a proper curriculum emphasizing ethnicity alone. Either it slides over into religious education or into national-cultural education or some combination of both. Ethnicity by itself has no content beyond the experiential and would essentially involve cooking classes. Even Jewish folk dancing, a relatively new product of the Zionist movement, would not do. Besides, in most of the New World countries the ethnicity movements have been an effort on the part of newer ethnic groups to stake claims to social legitimacy prior to their massive assimilation into the general society. What they seek is massive assimilation as equals. For that they have to claim the worth and legitimacy of their ethnicity for a brief period.
Ideology could, perhaps, have provided Jewish education with a better route, but all the secular ideologies which Jews embraced or with which they flirted over the past two hundred years have come to an end, at least as compelling forces. Zionism, the most successful, could compete in the education marketplace only where Jews found it in their self-interest to learn about it and Israel, its product, usually so that they could be rescued from their places of exile; thus their education became part of their approach to Israel.
National-cultural education required too much time and often went against the grain of learning how to be absorbed in the majority host cultures. The Hebrew language, and to a lesser extent Yiddish, was for a while successful in some places where Jews did not yet see themselves as assimilating into the host cultures and did still consider the possibility of resettling in the Jewish state. Just as those two feelings diminished, thus too have Jewish languages declined as a successful tool for maintaining Jewishness.
The recent exception to this general rule was in the ex-Soviet Union where more than a handful of Jews worked very energetically, even desperately, to learn Hebrew because they planned to get out and Israel was their destination. In the English-speaking countries where Jews rapidly acquired the language difficulties associated with English-speakers, language education as the anchor for Jewish education rapidly proved to be counterproductive, even where attempts were made and the population seemed willing, as, for example, in Hebrew-speaking summer camps.
So, on the basis of our analysis. we are left with no positive recommendations in which we have confidence. Education is successful only when it is part of a total life experience. Accordingly, we need either to restore or to find new forms of total life experience for Jews that will attract them. Some are attracted even now as a result of conditions quite external to the Jewish people, perceived to involve the social demoralization generated by contemporary society leading to a return to other ways of life and is outside of the purview of this paper. We see, on the contrary, a growing gap between the small minority of Jews who are prepared to invest in substantive Jewish education, and the vast majority who are not, who at best want some minimal palliative experientially-based efforts. In the diaspora, actually it is easier to get those in the latter category to think that "Jewish education" has some value since in their own ambivalent ways most Jewish parents seen to want to pass on their Jewishness to their children. Survey after survey shows the results.
I refer not to the substantive results of the questionnaires but the categories which the questionnaires provide. All of the questions are based upon the kind of minimal experiential educational time which is the norm. They almost never have any data about the few who pursue more substantive education because there are just too few of them in the minds of the surveyors or the surveyed. In the general field of education, we have long since come to conclude that four or five years of full-time education, that is to say, seven hours a day five or six days a week, at most produces functional illiterates more often than not. In social scientific surveys of Jews, a Jewish education of that intensity would be off the upper end of the scale and for good reason. This should give us real pause.
So we make no recommendations because we have none to make that have legs to stand on. On the other hand, we know that our Jewish commitments and concerns demand that we continue working to improve the situation. No doubt we should and no doubt we will. We will continue to do more of the same in one form or another, implicitly relying on a few inspired teachers who will continue to have significant effect. Perhaps that is all we can expect at this point in our history.
1. See Arthur Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970).
2. Walter Ze'ev Laqueur, A History of Zionism (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977); Howard Morley Sachar, A History of Israel (New York: Knopf, 1976-1987) and The Course of Modern Jewish History (New York: Vintage Books, 1990); David Vital, The Future of the Jews (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990), Zionism, the Formative Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), and The Origins of Zionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
3. Arthur A. Goren provides an excellent case study example of this in his book, New York Jews and the Quest for Community; the Kehilla Experiment, 1908-1922 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970) in his discussion of the Kehilla's failure to sustain its regulation of kosher meat.
4. Calvin Goldscheider and Alan S. Zuckerman, The Transformation of the Jews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), and Steven Martin Cohen, American Modernity and Jewish Identity (New York: Tavistock Publications, 1983).