in the garden

 

Nov 2007 Journal

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On being or not being a Jew (Point of View)

In 1973 I went to Israel to ‘sit shiva’ after my father died. Having had little verbal contact with my brothers over the years, I posed the question as to what extent I was a Jew. An agnostic, I didn’t practise any part of the Jewish religion (‘sitting shiva’ was a matter of respect to my father’s memory); I was married to a non-Jew; while I sympathised with the aims of Zionism, I was not a citizen of Israel and couldn’t consider myself a Jewish nationalist. I concluded that it was the common suffering we endured that still made me feel a Jew.

But that answer is simplistic. Among other reasons, there is also the feeling of guilt I experience at the thought of abandoning my innermost sense of being Jewish. The first question I should have asked is: how to define a ‘Jew’? From that definition could have sprung the solution to the question I then posed. But, before answering, one must state who is asking and who is answering the question.

According to Jewish religious law, the question I asked is irrelevant: what matters is whether a child is born of a Jewish maternal line, of a female convert to the Jewish religion, or is Jewish by individual conversion. According to the Halacha, the practice of Judaism, although desirable, is of itself not a sufficient condition for being considered a Jew. So once a Jew always a Jew? According to the Halacha, one remains a Jew for as long as one does not convert to another religion. By that definition, of course, I remain a Jew in the eyes of Jewish law.

How do some dictionaries define the term ‘Jew’? Definitions can be gleaned from the following: Chambers: A person of Hebrew descent or religion: an Israelite: (offensively) a usurer a miser etc. v.t. (offensively) to overreach or to cheat. SOED: One of the Hebrew or Jewish people, or one who professes Judaism; Longman’s Encyclopaedia: accepted designation of believers in Judaism; Britannica: The name came to mean the followers of Judaism, including in-born or proselytes, the racial signification diminishing as the religious increased. Later refers to racial history; Hebrew Dictionary: One of the sons of Israel, a Hebrew, one of the people of Jews; The Jewish People: Judaism is the religion - and, in a broader sense, the culture - of a unique people which has been known as Hebrews, Israelites and Jews.

By these definitions, as far as non-Jews are concerned, Jewish maternity is not a necessary condition and, to the world outside, the practice of Jewish rites appears a sufficient condition. To the racist, the presence of one Jewish grandparent of either gender would ‘tint’ one a Jew (see above: a person of Hebrew descent). It appears that to the outside world a Jew remains a Jew even when converting to Christianity. The Conversos or, as the Spaniards called them, the New Christians, are an example. These terms were applied not only to the person who had converted but also to many generations thereafter (see above: refers to racial history). Again, by virtue of any of these definitions, I am a Jew.

If Jewishness causes Jews to huddle together because of persecution, then most Jews are Jews only because of that persecution. It follows that Jewishness is ‘what has been done to us’. It is not that Jews make antisemitism; it is antisemitism that makes Jews.

Words are the medium for articulating thoughts. The building blocks of the medium referred to as language are the use of such words. Language is, therefore, the expression of the collective thought-processes of people who use any given language. In English one speaks of Indo-Americans and many other so-called Americans. All are ‘All-American’. Why does one not speak of Judeo-American but of an American Jew? This inversion demonstrates the common mindset of Anglophones: the ‘Jew’ seems a group apart.

On an individual level, Jewishness is a specific concept and construct; it is independent of any other definition. The attempt to flee Judaism is itself a badge of a Jewish identity.

It is simplistic to say ‘I was born a Jew and will die a Jew’. My genes - at least some of them - will point to ancestors who lived in the Middle East in the past. Scientists can point to the chromosome that made me male; they may now, or will in the foreseeable future, point to the part of the DNA molecule that made my skin white, my hair black, and my nose aquiline. There is no part of the DNA molecule that can be identified with being born a Jew - not unless one considers Jews a race. But, since Jews are of all colours, they cannot be a racial uniqueness. My Jewishness then is not in my genes. So, obviously I was not born a Jew but I was born into a household that practised the Jewish rites. Is that sufficient for being Jewish? Had my parents converted to another religion before my birth, would I still be a Jew? That again depends on who gives the answer!

A Jew who has abandoned his faith has being labelled a ‘cultural Jew’. What is this Jewish culture that he lives by? Is it the same as the culture of an ultra-orthodox Jew? I don’t believe so. I have never heard an agnostic or atheist who has lapsed from his church described as a ‘cultural Christian’.

There is obviously no simple answer to the question of why I consider myself Jewish. After all this, I am none the wiser!


Harold Saunders

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