The Myth Of The Authentic Jew

“Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews and Secular Humanistic Jews are both Jewish – if each of us contains multitudes, so too does Judaism… More than that the Jews have kept being stubborn, being stubborn has kept the Jews around. You do not get to tell me that I do not get to be Jewish.” – Rabbi Adam Chalom, Ph.D.

It is a simple historical fact that there have been Jews long before there was a uniquely Jewish religion. It is also equally true that in as much as Jews have made Judaism, Judaism in its many many forms has made Jews. There are religious Jews and there are secular Jews, and this has always been the case throughout the entire history of Jews. Jewish culture, languages, and religious ways have diversified immensely throughout the course of several thousand years, taking on many radical new turns. And, throughout history, Jews have criticized each other for not being authentically Jewish enough. All this is nothing new.

But, who gets to decide what is authentically Jewish? Does a religious Jew get to decide this for a non-religious Jew? Does a secular Jew get to decide this for a religious Jew? By whose standards are we to judge ourselves, our Jewishness, our authenticity as Jews? The answer to these questions is a rather easy one. We answer it with the historical truth. Not the religious mythic history, but with the literal historical truth of how and when every modern religious or secular Jewish movement came about. And this truth is that none are more authentic than the other, that all are rather recent historical developments.¬†But certain movements are believed to be the quintessential example of authencity, basically across the movements, and this simply isn’t true historically.

In the end, from the most secular to the most religious, we’re all Jews as far as the greater world is concerned. We’re Jews because of ancestry, because of religion, because of cultural affiliation, because of our language or beliefs, and so on and so forth. The religious Jewish minority does not have a monopoly on deciding who is Jewish and who is not. They are not the final answer on this subject, whether they want to believe this or not. The religious Jewish minority that would seek to limit the identity of who is authentically a Jew are not to be idolized¬†for their particular religious beliefs and ways. They are not superior or, historically, more authentic, and belief to the contrary does not change the reality. The history of Judaism, of Jewishness, is far greater and needs to be fully embraced.

“Judaism is a rich and varied and long tradition: it has seen everything from rational philosophy to animal sacrifice to mystical exploration, hereditary kings and priests giving way to rabbis and religious law, multiple languages sharing the same alphabet, and art and creativity celebrated in one corner of the Jewish world while condemned in another. At times we are inspired by our legacy; at times we are alienated. Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews and Secular Humanistic Jews are both Jewish – if each of us contains multitudes, so too does Judaism…

In the end, I suspect that I am still Jewish because I am stubborn, and that is definitely a Jewish tradition. We have called ourselves a stiff-necked people: we can be a pain in the neck, or as Henry Youngman might have said, some people have a lower opinion of us. More than that the Jews have kept being stubborn, being stubborn has kept the Jews around. You do not get to tell me that I do not get to be Jewish… If I lived my life by your standards, it would not be my life. And I refuse to surrender being Jewish to you. Even the Jewish values I reject – chauvinism, anti-feminism, insularity – they are skeletons in my closet, knots on my family tree.”

– Rabbi Adam Chalom, Ph.D., dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism for North America and rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation; from “Why Be Anything? And Why Be Jewish?” presented at IISHJ colloquia on Jewish identity.

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