I was recently shown an article by a Protestant clergyman which contended that contemporary reports of a fall in church attendance in Canada are only presenting one side of the story. Indeed, these reports are accurate in regard to attendance at the majority of mainline churches, that is, churches that have modernized their theology, adopting more liberal, and more universally accepted, interpretations of Christianity’s beliefs. In regard to other churches, though, that have maintained or returned to more traditional, conservative teachings, the opposite is actually happening. Their attendance is increasing. Looking at this demographic, rather than religion being in a process of dying, there is actually a rejuvenation occurring.
This should not be surprising. If one considers the modernization of theology, on a certain plane, what one is really describing is the integration of modern perspectives into traditional theology. If this is so, then the distinction between this integrated theological grouping and other modern social groupings would naturally become less apparent or clear as this integration takes place. Why, then, would one identify with such a specific theological group when what this group offers may not be that different than the standards and practices of general society? If the mores of those within the Church are basically similar to the mores of others outside the Church, why the need to specifically connect with those within this Church? There is, simply, less reason for this distinct identity.
In that a more traditional religious teaching reflects a distinction in thought and/or attitude from the modern, general populace, it makes sense that those sharing these beliefs would wish to identify with a group of like-minded individuals apart from the general public. The more pronounced a group’s distinctiveness is, the more those attracted to this viewpoint will specifically take action to identify with this group. There is, therefore, a good reason why church attendance would increase within such a sub-group within society. Similarly, the less distinct a specific group is, the less people will be motivated to carve out a separate identity from the larger, general population. A drop-in church attendance would be understandable among this population, for what need do they have to specifically connect with this particular group, as they have the option of identifying or participating in a range of other similar groupings within society. They would be content with simply being seen as a member of the general populace.
In a similar vein, but from the opposite direction, if individuals initially wish to build or strengthen a certain Church identity, there is also greater impetus for them to adopt more traditional leanings in order to foster their social distinctiveness and, hence, spur the identity. In other words, wishing to be perceived as dissimilar via a certain group identity, fosters the promotion of differences between the standards and behaviour of the group and those of the dominant society. Even if members of this group have a general affinity for modern mores, they may choose to foster distinction through the maintenance of at least some traditional perspectives. If you want to promote group identity, your group has to stand out! What the trend in Canadian church attendance is really showing us is that, if you want people to come to your church, your church has to be unlike other options – other churches and other social institutions. Otherwise, why would someone connect with this church when what that person is desiring can be met in many other places and perhaps more easily?
The application of these observations to the Jewish world would seem to be obvious. More traditionalism within the realm of Jewish identity would also foster distinctiveness from the general populace, a necessity for the enduring strength of a sub-grouping within a broader society – and, indeed, this seems to have occurred. Connection to Jewish identity has reflected, in recent years, a correlation between distinctiveness and tradition. The percentage of Jews who define themselves as Orthodox has clearly increased over the last few decades. This means that those who identify as Jewish are also becoming more likely to identify as Orthodox. This suggests that, in correlation with a desire for stronger Jewish identity, a move to traditionalism has also occurred in the Jewish world.
Yet, while a swing towards tradition may be further fostering Jewish identity, the drive to identify with the broad Jewish sub-group still also exists outside of an interest in tradition. While tradition may foster Jewish group identity it still does not define it. The desire to identify with other Jews extends beyond the sharing of a positive perspective on traditional values.
As such, in the Jewish world, even one feeling an aversion to traditional religious teachings may still feel a great desire to identify distinctly as Jewish and connect with the Jewish group. While tradition may foster Jewishness, as indicated by the growth in Orthodoxy, attraction to Jewishness still also exists outside of an attraction to traditionalism and traditional values, as personified by these individuals adverse to tradition yet still wishing to express themselves as Jewish. In a similar vein, even the vast majority of those attracted to tradition still would include those uninterested in tradition in their definition of the broader Jewish group to which they belong. The group extends beyond an interest in traditional values and, as such, the group’s identity still exists outside this move to tradition.
As, a further indication of this issue within Jewish identity, we should also note how many Jews not only wish to connect with the perspectives of mainstream society but also take special pride that, in our present world, they, furthermore, can do so as Jews. There are many stories of individuals who specifically wanted to join a certain club because they could now do so as Jews. As such, even as these individuals may share the mores of the present society, they would still clearly not be “content with simply being seen as a member of the general populace.” They also want, as they integrate into society, to identify as Jews. For such individuals, there is a desire for a distinct Jewish identity but with this identity’s distinctiveness not being greatly at odds with the mores of the general society. Simply, these individuals wish to identify as Jews but also wish to maintain the universal values of the general society. In fact, these individuals, furthermore, often see this integration of universal values, especially liberal ones, as a reflection of their very Jewishness. (There may even be the argument that modern liberal values came from Jewish values.) There is, thus, a further factor in the breadth of modern Jewish identity in that, for some Jews, this very drive to identify as a Jew may demand, simultaneously, distinctiveness in concert with a strong universal connection.
One of the challenges of modern Jewish identity has actually always been how to maximize both sides of this equation – to maintain a distinctiveness while ensuring that this distinctiveness does not necessarily challenge the acceptance of Jews into the general community and, to varying degrees, their acceptance, as Jews, of general communal mores. This is an almost contradictory requirement of modern Jewishness. This is a further tension and challenge in the Jewish world that even the Orthodox would take into consideration, namely how Jewish distinctiveness may impact on the acceptance of Jews within the general society. For all Jews, the question is always how to be distinct yet also accepted; the issue being the degree of this balance.
When Western society opened up to its Jewish populations, there were three responses. There were those who chose to assimilate and forego their Jewish identity in response to their desire to integrate with the general population. There were those who chose to barricade themselves from any outside influence, choosing to protect their Jewish identity from any possibility of being affected by the new tolerance of their non-Jewish neighbours. Then, there were the ones who wished to have both, to maintain their Jewish identity while integrating as best they could with the outside society. Different paths were formed to achieve the desired objective, each one reflecting differing theological as well as other considerations. One important dynamic in this environment, though, was that there was no need to reinforce the distinctiveness of Jewishness in the face of the welcoming nature of the general society. Once one declared oneself as Jewish, the distinction was already powerfully enunciated, for, despite the existence of a more welcoming outside culture, there was still a strong, general recognition of the Jew as different, with a resulting desire for at least some separation. As such, Reform Jews, for example, could undertake to strongly integrate many aspects of the general society into their Jewish practice – and even have limited desire to adopt much distinctive Jewish practice – as the very presentation of themselves as Jews established their distinctiveness as Jews in regard to others. These individuals thus needed to be solely concerned with how to integrate into the general community. This is not the situation today. The Jew today also has to be concerned with how to enunciate his/her distinctiveness, for the simple statement that one is Jewish no longer has this force.
This is the challenge we are identifying. How one balances distinctiveness and integration in our modern world has to be proactive, regardless of how one may determine the desired balance that he/she wishes to achieve. As such, there are many Jews who want to be different and connect with their Jewish distinctiveness but also do not want to be too different to the extent that they also wish to strongly connect with universal humanity – and, furthermore, to do so as Jews. The option of simply melting away into the general, universal population is not such an attractive one to such individuals. They are not interested in full assimilation. Many individuals, even as they are attracted to the overall values of the general society, still wish to maintain a recognizable Jewish identity that somehow allows for a dual possibility – to be distinctly Jewish but also almost fully integrated with the external society.
If being a Jew ultimately just means that I am just like everyone else, then there is really little force in this identify as a Jew. If, however, being a Jew means you are different in ways that you really do not favour, there is also little motivation to identify as a Jew. I am reminded of an article I once read in response to the argument that involvement in Orthodoxy is a strong force against assimilation. The author maintained that if this was the price for the continuation of Jewishness, he would rather assimilate. The strength of Jewish identity absolutely demands a distinction in this identity but, for this form of distinctiveness to be accepted, it must be one which the individual finds positive or, at least acceptable in some manner. As much as these Jews may wish to maintain a distinctiveness as Jews, a return to traditional values may be too high a cost – especially if they feel that, as Jews, they should be integrating, to some extent, with a society that has embraced them. To them, though, simple integration into the general society is still also not a desired alternative for they still want to be recognized as Jews embracing this society.
A possible different answer for Jews, though, may be found in the distinctiveness of what we may term Jewish ritual behaviour, which is basically seen by many, simply, as behaviour marking Jewishness. A Jew, through such behaviour, can have, thereby, a strong means of enunciating a distinction in identity while still maintaining the general ethical standards of the society.
Ritual and Ethic
The attempt to distinguish mitzvot through the categorization of Ritual and Ethical is one that, for many reasons, must always be approached with caution. In general, the term Ethical reflects certain moral and ethical constructs with a focus on human interpersonal relations; commands, for example, reflecting on the treatment of the poor. The term Ritual is then employed to refer to mitzvot that reflect on the human relationship with the Divine; commands, for example, such as kashrut and/or Shabbat. The challenge in applying these terms is that it is often very difficult to neatly apply these categorizations, as a thorough investigation of many mitzvot in all their details can reveal a multi-dimensional nature that overlaps these boundaries. At the same time, though, this distinction may also have instructive significance in regard to the mitzvah and, as such, cannot be simply disregarded. There is value in this classification and there is concern – yielding a complexity which should cause one to approach this issue with caution. Within the context of this discussion, though, the issue is not really the actual nature of the mitzvah but, rather, what it portrays in regard to identity. The term Ritual is simply employed herein to refer to certain behaviour that can be seen as uniquely associated with Jewishness. The issue before us is the use of such behaviour in enunciating identity.
In the Ritual mitzvot we thus find behaviour that essentially can be seen as distinctly Jewish without necessarily challenging general societal mores. Furthermore, while it may be that some may still define this ritual behaviour as challenging certain communal standards, this also does not necessarily have to be the case – especially if the observance of ritual mitzvot is done selectively as individuals chose which ritual action they may wish to perform. The result is that through such behaviour, one can thus find a method of strongly identifying with the Jewish group while not necessarily, at the same time, being at odds with the general mores of society. It must further be recognized that such observance of ritual mitzvot need not be necessarily identified with Orthodoxy. Think of the Israeli team, all wearing kippot during the playing of the national anthems, at the recent World Baseball Classic. Such behaviour, simply as expressions of Jewishness, can play an interesting role in responding to the above noted challenge of Jewish identity.
In a certain way, this very idea was reflected in the relatively recent promotion by the Reform movement of the observance of more ritual by its membership. This was not the only reason why Reform Judaism began advocating for the observance, to some extent, of more ritual mitzvot; these other, theological reasons, though, need not be addressed in the context of this presentation. For our purposes, we can note that such observance still did have the effect of providing for a distinction in Jewish identity while allowing for the promotion of a liberal moral agenda in line with certain elements within the general society and even contrary to traditional Jewish values. In a broader sense, what has occurred is that individuals, through choosing to perform ritual mitzvot as they wish, become able to mark a distinctiveness in Jewish identity without infringing upon the person’s universal viewpoints. From the perspective of Reform Judaism, in that, furthermore, one chooses the extent and nature of this observance, the effect on one’s relationship with the general community can be personally monitored.
In that the present general community also welcomes cultural diversity, observance of ritual in this manner can even be perceived as ‘cool’ and, thereby, even foster connections. In terms of a Jew’s acceptance within the general community, ritual thus can serve a further purpose in allowing for distinction while not, in any manner, challenging one’s acceptance by the general populace. The populace, in general, is even happy to see individuals expressing their ‘cultural’ distinction. As an example of this, one can look at the Vogue article, How to Host a Shabbat Dinner and Why You Should—Even if You Aren’t Celebrating. Ritual simply seen as distinctive Jewish behaviour, especially if selectively chosen, can provide for distinction without challenging even extensive integration of communal values – an answer for many Jews.
Given this perception and application of ritual mitzvot as basically reflecting identity, we must now, though, also re-consider our discussion of the swing to tradition in the Jewish world. We presented the idea that the force of traditionalism which spurred greater Church identification of this nature in the Christian world had similar effects in the Jewish world. The inference was that this furtherance of conservative ethics tied to traditionalism was also a factor in the advancement of Jewish identity, specifically leading people to Orthodoxy. This move to traditionalism within the Jewish world, however, may not have necessarily been associated with ethics but simply reflected a desire for traditional Jewish behaviour. If one perceives the strength of one’s identification as a Jew to be exhibited by distinctive Jewish ritual behaviour, and Orthodox practice is deemed to be the most powerful demonstration of this commitment through ritual, the result may be an attraction to traditional behaviour, not necessarily traditional ethics. In that ritual mitzvot are inherently associated with Orthodoxy and tradition, there would also be a natural merging of this drive for strong identity through behaviour with Orthodoxy and tradition. The Jewish move to traditionalism could, thus, be vastly different than the move to traditionalism within the Christian world expressed in the above noted article. The specific dynamics of ritual as an expression of identity tied to tradition could yield ethical results vastly different than the move to tradition described in the Christian model presented in that article. The move to tradition in the Jewish world may not correspond with the move to more traditional, conservative values in the Christian world which the article described as the basis for increased attendance in more Conservative churches.
This would explain the acceptance of more liberal trends also within Orthodoxy as individuals may abide by a strong commitment to Orthodox ritual while maintaining many ethical perspectives that reflect the thought of modern society. Even within the Orthodox world, ritual can provide for a distinction in Jewish identity while still allowing for the acceptance of certain elements from the universal moral agenda of the general society. In fact, it should be noted that this more positive attitude towards some of the general society’s ethical viewpoints may also not necessarily be outside the inherent purview of Orthodoxy. There has always been legitimate disagreements within Orthodoxy on variant ethical issues just as such disagreements have existed in regard to ritual matters. Simply, even as Orthodoxy may be defined as the more conservative and traditional branch of generic Judaism, it is not necessarily similar to the more conservative and traditional branches of Christianity.
Nevertheless, unlike the Reform movement where one will find a greater association with the universal, liberal perspective, there could still be more of a commitment to conservative ethical viewpoints within Orthodoxy – which is, in fact, the case. Traditionalism in this regard can still clearly be a motivating factor of Orthodox identity and, in many ways, Orthodoxy’s greater connection to what would be termed traditional values is obvious to most and can be a motivating factor in Orthodox commitment. Still, the legitimate breadth of Orthodox thought does recognize a wider spectrum of acceptable ethical viewpoints than what would be accepted within conservative Churches. Ethical stances within Orthodoxy can be flexible. The growth of Orthodoxy, which may be seen as reflective of the influence of traditionalism within the Jewish world, may indeed still also be primarily an interest in traditional ritual behaviour. Orthodox identity may, thus, also be chiefly defined through behaviour, specifically ritual behaviour. Traditionalism within a Jewish context may indeed primarily reflect a focus on traditional behaviour.
Such an overarching concern with ritual can, in fact, also allow for the presence within Orthodoxy – even if only self-defined by such individuals – of people who describe themselves as Orthodox while maintaining ethical perspectives even clearly outside the parameters of Orthodoxy – and this can be at both ends of the spectrum. In addition, the adoption of more conservative ethical perspectives by segments of the population may not be a result of a commitment to Orthodoxy per se but rather simply reflect their own personal perspectives. This may again reflect that the force of Jewishness may thus truly be, in many ways, overridingly ritual. It is such behaviour that may also tie one to Orthodoxy; in fact, the terms used to reflect Orthodox identity – such as Shomer Shabbat [Sabbath Observer] – would seem to be tied to such behaviour. This commitment to such behaviour is not just as a means of public demonstration of one’s identity. Even in private, it serves to reinforce one’s perception of self-identity. The Shomer Shabbat person does not just observe Shabbat in public. He/she does so in private because it is a reflection of self-identity. The point is that this identity is specifically expressed in ritual action.
What may also occur through such a focus on ritual, however, is a consideration for ritual almost to the exclusion of a consideration of the Orthodox ethical perspective; Orthodox identity, in fact, becoming so strongly defined by ritual behaviour with a result, to some extent, of limited concern for ethical perspective. The result would thus be an allowance for greater variance in ethical perspective, within the identified Orthodox world of practice, than may actually exist within Orthodox halachic parameters even given the possible breadth of spectrum in this regard. The move to tradition within the Jewish world may really just mean a move towards traditional ritual behaviour.
There are also people who actually do not even believe that a commitment to Orthodoxy demands an investigation of Halacha in regard to ethical issues as one would undertake in regard to a halachic issue reflecting some ritual law. What can also occur, given this lack of focus on the breadth and depth of Torah ethical study, is that whatever one may consider to be ethically correct would also be self-defined as the Torah perspective. As such, people at either end of the spectrum, to upkeep their identity as Orthodox, may assert that they are abiding by Orthodox ethical perspectives even while these perspectives are actually based on their own considerations rather than a breadth and depth of Torah study. One can almost always find some source in a vacuum to support almost any viewpoint. As ritual becomes even more so the sign of distinctive Jewish identity, and distinctive Orthodox identity, for connection with the group, a greater allowance for variant ideas can become more accepted. This does not mean that the ideas themselves become acceptable but that the effect of such ideas on identity are given less weight. It is simply ritual behaviour that is applied in defining identity.
Seeing ritual behaviour as the expression of Jewish behaviour, furthermore, does not only distinguish a liberal Jew from others who share that opinion but also can distinguish a politically conservative Jew from others who share that opinion. Many politically conservative Jews may, as such, strongly believe that their ethical views are in line with Torah but such views still place them in concert with similar non-Jewish individuals. It is, thus, ritual, that still also distinguishes them as Jews – and, thus, given this greater weight in identity. The further significance of this is that these same individuals may still feel more connected with Jews of all stripes than those who share their ethical/political perspective. This is an indication of the force of ritual identity: it allows for Jewish connection without the potential perceived negativity of a battle over ideas.
This may also explain why, in fostering Orthodoxy’s growth, or Jewish identity in general, we find Orthodox institutions highlighting ritual behaviour to the extent of even ignoring Torah instruction on certain ethical issues. In regard to ethical matters, individuals may already have opinions so why introduce this subject and possibly face disagreement and subsequent disinterest in any aspect of Orthodoxy in particular or, even, Jewishness in general given the possibility of conflict. Ritual, especially if just presented as the mark of Jewishness, is much easier to promote. The advance of Orthodoxy within the Jewish world may, thus, also not really fully parallel the growth of traditional, conservative churches in the general society for another reason. As presented in this article, the growth of conservative churches in the Christian world reflects ethical distinction. Jewish distinctiveness, however, can be achieved through ritual. Even in regard to the Orthodox, ethical distinctiveness may not be a strong element of identity – and if it is, it may not be because of specific Jewish motivations.
The bottom line is that the continuing strength of a sub-group within a society is often dependent on the ability of its members to distinctly express themselves in a manner separate from the general populace. The furtherance of Jewish identity thus demands a reason and motivation for such identity but also a form of expression that gives strength to its continuance. Ritual provides such a possibility without necessarily challenging a person’s overall outlook on life because ritual can be performed without a consideration of underlying value principles. Of course, within Orthodox thought, these actions are intended to convey or reflect certain ideas and values but that does not necessarily mean that the one who may be performing these actions is doing so with these thoughts in mind. This is especially so when these actions are performed by individuals outside of Orthodoxy. The result is an interesting spectrum of possibilities in how one can integrate distinctiveness and universalism – in fact, distinctiveness and almost any underlying ethical/moral perspective -- within a Jewish identity.
And here we get to the further point of this presentation. Our focus so far has been on the expression of Jewish distinctiveness, not on why one may value such distinctiveness. We have thereby avoided the issue of how people actually define the nature of their Jewishness. Our discussion has thus not included a consideration of variant concepts touching upon this issue: such matters as theology, nationalism, anti-Semitism and/or values. What we have shown, though, is the actual strong possibility for people to have variant and, even, contradictory views on the essential nature of Jewishness as ritual behaviour becomes the dominant force for expressing an identity as Jews. Jewish distinctiveness can be, as such, powerfully expressed regardless of how one may wish to define it – and even as one may wish to simultaneously identify with the values of the general population. Jewish ritual seen as, simply, Jewish behaviour in a vacuum, simply, can allow one to express a Jewish identity with the possibility of defining this identity with a great flexibility.
This, indeed, may foster the development of Jewish identity in that it can also sustain one’s self-defined view of Jewishness but it raises further issues in that Jewishness can be, as such, most broadly defined. In the extreme, think of how groups such as Jews for Jesus can try to present themselves as Jewish through the use of traditional Jewish rituals in their gross misrepresentation of such matters as the Pesach Seder. Jewishness, to ultimately have sustaining value, must also present a parameter on ideas and demand of us to face the challenge of drawing the line on the nature of its identity. ‘What is Jewishness?’ – asked in its modern, generic sense -- is truly a most complex question. The answer still cannot be found by ignoring any borders. (This issue also applies within Orthodoxy and the questions of defining Orthodox identity and the Orthodox understanding of generic Jewish identity.) The issue is not just what I think but what I am willing to accept in the other as an expression of Jewishness even as I may disagree with it. This tension is, in fact, heating up in our present Jewish world – and is becoming more pervasive. This is a matter, though, that I leave for my next presentation on this subject. I conclude this part with a call to think about this most important issue.
Rabbi Ben Hecht