Monday, October 31, 2011

The Evolving Face of Jewish Identity

The question of who is a Jew is the seminal issue of debate these days, and will likely continue to be argued in Knesset and Jewish living rooms for years to come, if not forever.

The question that often receives much less attention (at times to the point of being ignored), yet has just as profound impact on the future of the Jewish people is what makes one want to be a Jew?

Bnei Menashe synagogue - Zeeweez
In the remote mountains of northeastern India, the Bnei Menashe Jews are learning how to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors of thousands of years ago. Returning to Judaism has become intrinsically linked to the identity of the Bnei Menashe, just as it was for their ancestors when they were sent into exile by the Assyrians almost 3,000 years earlier. The political and social struggles of these “new Jewish pioneers” who want to immigrate to Israel are formidable. Yet they persevere …

On an island in the Mediterranean Sea several hours off the coast of Barcelona, Spain’s “secret Jews” fight against the impact of more than 500 years of repression. Part of the Bnei Anusim of Spain, the Xueta Jews (Chueta) also face huge challenges. Whereas previous generations hid their Jewish heritage from recognition out of fear of frequent reprisals, many of today’s Xueta Jews see that same heritage as a guide to learning how they should ethically and religiously live. They have little if any access to kosher meat and supplies, and synagogue services are provided by an out-of-town rabbi who makes frequent visits. Like the Bnei Menashe, they must “relearn” the relevance and meaning of all of the traditions their ancestors had kept alive throughout the centuries. They keep Shabbat, attend classes and observe halacha with the same dedication as would one who had grown up in Israel or in the nurturing surroundings of a North American Jewish community.
A street on the island of Mallorca - Ferlaiker

And yet, as much as one would like to say that it is religion that drives Jewish identity, recent events in Israel suggest that the motivating factors are not that succinct.

Throughout Israel, individuals have been lining up to take advantage of a recent court ruling that states that one can indeed both be secular and Israeli. Put another way: In a country where citizenship is defined by a person’s Jewish identity, one can now be considered Jewish without accepting or practicing the religion that gave him that title.

It interesting that these self-proclaimed secular Jews chose to fight for their Jewish and Israeli identities instead of renouncing them altogether. In fact, the fight to preserve their Jewishness is what ultimately made them Jews in the eyes of those around them. By standing up, by speaking out, by showing they cared, they became Jews in the eyes of those who would otherwise have discredited them.

A Bnei Menashe Jew in Israel - Rajkumar1220

The more I learn about the many disparate and distinct Jewish communities throughout the world, the more I am swayed to believe that the defining element of being a Jew is one’s chosen actions. It is also defined by halacha – that isn’t to be debated here – but it is the desire to be a part of that tribe, and how one manifests who he or she is that matters. It is what makes the person want to be a Jew that matters.

A case in point is the controversial decision by some couples in Israel to circumvent the rabbinate when they marry. To understand the significance of their actions it is important to note that this inclination cuts across all religious strata, from non-religious to Modern Orthodox, to stringently religious Jews. Halacha is still observed during the wedding, and in many cases, in their daily lives. But the participants have taken deliberate step to remove what they see as a political filter from their religious and social obligations. Again, they could have flown to Cyprus to get married; they could have moved out of Israel, or they could have been declared common law. But they chose the more difficult path of action without reneging on their personal values as Jews.

So what defines living one’s life as a Jew? The Talmud and the Torah would tell us that it is bound by 613 mitzvot. But what happens when accessibility to performing all of those mitzvot isn’t available? Put another way, does ensuring the observance of a number of important mitzvot take precedence when not all can be honoured? Does it undermine one’s desire to live as a Jew? Does commitment and conviction have anything to do with one’s identity and definition as a Jew?

A menorah in Barcelona synagogue - Ferbr1

Would a person who lives hundreds of miles from a synagogue, but has chosen that location for the care and the final wishes of a relative be less a Jew than one who lived within commuting distance of synagogue? Is helping to enrich another’s happiness and realization of a dream against challenging odds a mitzvah or misdirection from religious obligations?

Would living outside the physical surroundings of a Jewish community detract from a person’s Jewish identity, even if that life were dedicated to Jewish study and traditions? It’s worth mentioning that much of North America – as well as Israel – was founded with the help of Jewish pioneers who sowed the seeds for future Jewish communities.

What makes us want to be Jews – amid great challenges at times – says as much about who we are as what we are. It also provides proof that Jewish identity is anything but stagnant. It is a living, changing essence that can as much be found in the ideals of the Xueta Jews of Spain, as in those of 19th century North American pioneers. Who is a Jew really never was the question. How we live in conviction and compassion to others defines how people see us, and is ultimately what counts.
Bnei Menashe - Shavei Israel

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