Los Angeles Graduation Address May 13, 2002 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Los Angeles Graduation Address May 13, 2002 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles

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Monday, June 3, 2002

"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 Isralite 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), pp. 8-10.
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), p. 204.
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), p. 202.
9 Thomas Friedman. The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999). p. xv. 
10 Friedman, Lexus, p. 27.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu