Los Angeles Graduation Address
May 13, 2002
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles
"Jewish Identity on the Global Frontier"
Dr. Paula E. Hyman
Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History
Yale University, New Haven, CT
The question "What is Jewish identity?," it seems, is always with
us. The latest version of the struggle with the meaning of Jewishness
that I recently encountered was in a national Jewish college student
magazine. It reported on the phenomenon of self-defined "half-Jews."
A national conference entitled "Mixed Identities" took place at
Brown University last fall, and a web-site (www.halfjew.com) now
exists for those who want it all--an identity as both a Jew and
a non-Jew at the same time.
The obsession with the meaning of Jewish identity is not found
at all times throughout Jewish history, though. From the time of
late antiquity, when the rabbis established the parameters of halakha
(Jewish law), Jewish identity was legally fixed. To be sure, the
Dead Sea scrolls and recent scholarship on sectarianism in the ancient
world have made it apparent that "who is a Jew" was a hot question
in the first centuries of the common era. And religious syncretism
was not unknown. Jewish Christians, for instance, straddled the
boundaries of two groups.
By the year 1,000, however, the triumph of the Church and of Islam
established firm boundaries between religious groups. In medieval
times Jews were not only members of a covenantal religious community.
They were also a recognized, and despised, minority, governing themselves
according to Jewish law and subject to numerous restrictions. The
status of Jews under medieval Christianity and Islam prevented virtually
all conversions to Judaism, and those Jews who converted to either
Christianity or Islam wanted the benefits of fully belonging to
the majority religious culture. No "half-Jewish" status for them.
In practice, the halakhic principle that a born-Jew remained a Jew
forever was even allowed to lapse when its enforcement meant that
Jewish converts to Christianity could refuse to grant their wives
a get, a divorce, thereby forcing them to either to convert themselves
or forever remain agunot, chained wives.2
Questions of Jewish identity emerged in full force in the modern
period when the legal status of Jews changed and Jews themselves
began to see western culture, presumed secular, as attractive. From
that time on, Jews have debated whether we were adherents of a religious
faith or members of a people, or perhaps both. A traditional Jew
in 1750 knew in his bones that he was both; not that he was ever
asked. Modern Jews, however, have often divided the religious and
peoplehood aspects of their identity.
As the countries of western Europe and the western hemisphere conferred
equality in the form of citizenship on Jews, they made it clear
that Jews could not be a people apart. As Count Clermont-Tonnerre
declared during the French Revolution, "To the Jews as a nation,
nothing; to the Jews as individuals, everything...They must be citizens
individually." Jews were expected to differ from their fellow citizens
by religion alone, and it was on that basis that France became the
first country in Europe to grant them citizenship. As a nation of
diverse immigrants from colonial times, America allowed more wiggle
room, but when American Reform Jews declared in1885 in the Pittsburgh
Platform that "we consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious
community," they were fully in step with American norms. If religion
became the central source of identity for most modern Jews in the
West, by the end of the nineteenth century, nationality, what would
later be labeled ethnicity, became the source of identity for a
growing number of Jews, especially those in, or from, eastern Europe.
Some defined nationality in political terms, whether Zionist or
Jewish socialist. Others saw ethnicity as the source of a secular
Jewish culture, rooted in Yiddish.
The period that began with the Jews' encounter with modernity,
then, was a pivotal one in terms of their identity. Modernity made
collective difference problematic and individual Jewishness a matter
of choice, a matter of assent as well as descent. It severed the
previously braided strands of Jewish identity, religion and nationality.
Because of the erosion of Jewish communal authority, it also permitted
the redefinition of Jewishness in each generation, a redefinition
that continues into our own time. The growing recognition of cultural
pluralism in America after the First World War enabled Jews to expand
their identity beyond religion. Cultural pluralism was a concept
that Jews wholeheartedly embraced, in fact had helped to create.
Of course, until the second half of the twentieth century social
discrimination and political antisemitism limited Jews' choices.
Disappearance into the larger society, for those who desired it,
was not always a viable option. But, today, we are standing again
at a pivotal moment in the definition of Jewish identity, not merely
because of the growth of intermarriage in our ranks, but because
we are living in a world where the very question of "boundaries"
is up for grabs.
Some forty-five years ago the sociologist Marshall Sklare and his
less well known associate Joseph Greenblum published a book that
they entitled Jewish Identity on the Suburban Frontier: A Study
of Group Survival in the Open Society.5 (The title of my talk today,
"Jewish Identity on the Global Frontier," was borrowed from this
important study.) Sklare and his sponsors at the American Jewish
Committee identified suburbia and all it connoted as a radically
new environment for American Jews. Suburbanization challenged the
urban neighborhood, which had been the locus of Jewish identity
in the modern world (and even in pre-modern times when Jews were
identified with the urban as much because of their occupations as
their place of residence). Investigating the new suburbanites, less
than twenty years after they left the city, Sklare questioned whether
they could retain a Jewish identity without the structural supports
of an immigrant kinship network and geographical concentration in
a neighborhood. He found that there was a substitute for the neighborhood;
the friendship ties forged with other Jews sustained Jewish identity.
Fully 91 percent of those surveyed reported that their circle of
close friends was either all Jewish (42 percent) or composed of
a majority or Jews (49 percent). But he wondered whether that social
phenomenon would continue in successive generations and what would
be the consequences of its anticipated decline. He was not optimistic.
Sklare doubtless would be critical of us, American Jews at the
beginning of the twenty-first century. He refused to take seriously
the Jewish renewal that was epitomized in the mid-70s by the Jewish
Catalogue, for example, and all he could see in feminism was a threat
to the American Jewish community. He would have laughed at my assertion
to a colleague on a Jewish board that feminism enabled me, and many
women like me, to be committed Jews. He was also skeptical of the
benefit of Jewish studies in the university. He saw Jewish culture
in static terms, as already complete. Change was synonymous with
abandonment of traditional Jewish ideals. To him, the cup of American
Jewish life was half empty, not half full. Yet, his pessimism is
not universally shared today by his sociological heirs. Later sociological
studies have concluded that "American Jewry is not about to vanish
either demographically or sociologically."7 However, there remains
much ambivalence about the state of contemporary American Jewry.
In their recent important study Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen acknowledge
that the younger generation of American Jews "are more open to religious
belief, more engaged in home ritual observance, and often quite
passionate about opportunities for serious Jewish learning." But
they question whether these private, personal traits, that reflect
American postmodernity, can compensate for what they see as the
lamentable decline in public Jewish commitment.
We must now face the implications of another social system--globalization.
The pronouncements of globalization, so often heard in our own time,
challenge anew the Jewish particularism which has always coexisted
in tension with our universalism. As Tom Friedman describes it in
The Lexus and the Olive Tree, globalization is a new interconnected
system "that tie[s] the world together into a single globalized
marketplace."9 It involves the integration of nation-states as well
as markets. It is, as its name implies, an economic system that
is based on rapid telecommunications, but it has cultural ramifications.
Its homogenization of civilizations and breaking of barriers between
them means that small groups, like the Jews, will have to go against
the grain to sustain ourselves as a defined entity.
American Jews are likely to participate fully in globalization,
for in the modern period most Jews have been attracted to the new,
to the universal. Not because of any innate quality of Judaism,
but because the progressive doctrines of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment
thought offered Jews, and others, an even playing field. The promise
of equality was seductive. Cosmopolitanism provided Jews an escape
from a social and cultural world that was seen as parochial. Distinctiveness
paled in comparison with universalism, especially when that distinctiveness
was associated with low social status. Jewish status has changed
in the past two generations in America, as Jews have achieved cultural
as well as financial success. It's now chic, for example, to have
Jewish ancestry. But at all times maintaining a particular identity
within a larger society required, and. still requires, resolve and
effort. Globalization presents even more formidable obstacles to
the retention of Jewish distinctiveness, especially with its undoubted
financial blandishments for those as well positioned as American
Jews are, and with its blurring of cultural boundaries.
Perhaps contemporary American Jews recognize not only the seductiveness
of the sleek Lexus but also the contributions of the modest olive
tree to human happiness. The olive tree in Friedman's title represents
the brake on globalization, "everything that roots us, anchors us,
identifies us and locates us in this world—whether it be belonging
to a family, a community, a tribe, a nation, a religion, or most
of all a place called home." Although Friedman links the olive tree
specifically to non-western countries, he recognizes the human needs
it meets even in advanced capitalist societies. Contemporary American
Jews, too, articulate the reasons for their Jewish identification
in "olive tree" terms. Judaism and expressions of Jewish culture
provide meaning in our lives and link us with family and with history.
Like many turning points, this period of globalization provides
opportunities along with its challenges. The technological advances
that accompany globalization may even allow Jews to create a truly
transnational community, a community that spans national borders.
Of course, Jews are probably the oldest transnational group. Our
Diaspora has always been far-flung; its center, the land of Israel,
for most of our history existed only in the imagination (and the
liturgy) of those who looked to Zion. It was necessary, however,
for Jews in various Diaspora communities to connect, however sporadically,
with each other. In the past, rabbinic elites performed the function
of binding together Jews from disparate places. Writing in their
common language, Hebrew, Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbis read each
other's work and consulted each other on truly vexing halakhic problems.
The Shulkhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code of Jewish law that
remains authoritative, was compiled by a Sephardi Jew, Joseph Caro,
who traveled around the Mediterranean, and glossed by an Ashkenazi
halakhic authority, Moses Isserles, who lived in Poland. Jewish
communal institutions, and their leaders, were also another source
of interconnectedness. They were able to blend the local and the
distant even before modern transport made face-to-face contact more
and more feasible. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Jewish
organizations, and their lay leaders, built educational institutions
for Jews who had no access to modern schooling and provided massive
philanthropic assistance to Jews in need throughout the world. Think
only of the network of schools established in North Africa, the
Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire by the Alliance Israélite Universelle,
based in France, and the relief efforts of the American Joint Distribution
Committee to the war-ravaged Jewish communities of Europe after
the First World War. By the turn of the twentieth century Jewish
women also became involved through their own organizations, like
the National Council of Jewish Women, in social welfare work and
political activity that transcended national boundaries.
Globalization provides you, our educators, and communal leaders,
whom we honor today, as well as our rabbis and cantors who recently
graduated, the tools to make a difference not only locally but also
transnationally. As you embark on your careers we hope that you
will pay close attention to the local but also help the members
or your communities to take their place in the Jewish world broadly
conceived. As a result of the system of globalization, the potential
connections of Jews throughout the world are no longer limited to
rabbinic elites or to communal leaders. American Jews can now communicate,
in real time, with Jews in Israel, or in France or New Zealand.
We can find, out about each other in internet chat rooms and discuss
issues of common concern. The richness of our Jewish cultures can
only be enhanced by these contacts.
But globalization compels all of us to ask about the meanings and
boundaries of Jewish identity. There are more options available
in our own time than in the past, and the debates about identity
have high stakes. I have a number of questions for us to consider.
How relevant are boundaries in a world which is seeking in many
ways to erase them? Will globalization, which privileges the prosperous
members of advanced industrial societies like our own, force us
to balance our identities as Jews and as middle and upper class
Americans more explicitly than we now do? Are different aspects
of our identity mutually exclusive? Do the self-declared. "half-Jews"
with whom I began this talk portend a disturbing wave of the future
or represent a way to honor different parts of our personal heritages?
What does it mean that they meet at Brown University's Hillel?
Each period of change brings potential for benefit and anxiety
about the unfamiliar. Based on what we know about the past, all
we can say is that it is likely that American Jewish identity in
the next fifty years will be different than it is now. But as historians
have repeatedly demonstrated, we are not merely the objects of historical
forces beyond our control. We can choose how we react even to anonymous
and intimidating trends like globalization, and we can shape identities
that give full expression to our values as Jews.
1 Michael Lukas. "Divisible Jewishness," New Voices (April 2002),
2 Gerson Cohen, review of Benjamin Netanyahu, The Marranos
3 As cited in Paula Hyman, The Jews of Modern France (Berkeley and
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), p. 27.
4 As cited in Jews and Judaism in the United States: A Documentary
History(ed. Marc Lee Raphael) (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1983),
5 Marshall Sklare and Joseph Greenblum, Jewish Identity on the Suburban
Frontier: A Study of Group Survival in the Open Society (New York:
Basic Books, 1997).
6 Ibid., p. 271.
7 Calvin Goldscheider and Alan S. Zuckerman, The Transformation of
the Jews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 187.
8 Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within: Self, Family,
and Community in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000),
9 Thomas Friedman. The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1999). p. xv.
10 Friedman, Lexus, p. 27.