pride marchers carry lgbt pride flags with stars of david on them
Jewish identity in American today is just one of many identities one person can have, as seen in this image from 2014 San Francisco Pride. (Photo/Wikimedia-Sarah Stierch CC BY 4.0)

American Jews have many identities, including Jewish identity

Identity is not a psychological category that describes who one is, but rather a sociological category that describes one’s affiliations, or encounters. As such, it should be no surprise that identity in the United States has transformed significantly over the course of the past century as Americans have had an unprecedented opportunity to interact with a diverse array of individuals who are different (ethnically, religiously, culturally, etc.) from themselves.

Today, in what is sometimes referred to as the era of post-ethnicity, Americans are able to choose freely from an almost unlimited number of overlapping identity categories (culture, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, etc.) that reflect their various affiliations and encounters. Moreover, we are not limited to just one identity and can, and often times do, claim multiple identities.

When this logic is applied to American Jews, it becomes clear that Jewish identity is hybrid in nature; something the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “derived from heterogeneous sources, or composed of different or incongruous elements.” The same also can be said for the rest of American society: just as Jews have incorporated various other identities into their own complex mix, so too have non-Jews, with some incorporating aspects of Judaism into their own identities.

Given this reality, it is fair to state that the binary distinction between Jew and non-Jew is an increasingly ineffective way to describe those people found in and outside of the American Jewish community. A better approach would be to describe people in terms of their affiliations. In this sense, affiliation doesn’t refer narrowly to organizational membership (although that too can be a part of affiliation), but rather to the individuals, groups and institutions among which one lives.

While some will surely lament these developments, they hold within them the potential for a transformation of messianic proportions. To paraphrase the writings of Rabbi Dr. Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, the diverse and open society in which we live means that citizens can encounter one another freely and recognize “the other as no longer other but as the image of God.”

For Greenberg, being in the image of God means that all human beings are endowed with three fundamental dignities: infinite value, equality and uniqueness. If we try to imagine what reality would look and feel like if we all encountered one another informed by these three dignities, it would quickly become clear that we would be living in a perfected world.

To achieve this, we must be open to the possibility that we may — and very likely will — be transformed by the encounter. In Greenberg’s words, encounter means that “… while I may come to refute or reject some contradictories, I may also learn from others’ insights and may even integrate them, thus improving my own system.”

The humility to recognize the limitations of our own worldview and the openness to the possibility that others may possess some insight that could improve our own understanding are precisely what are needed so badly today.

Here is what it will take for the American Jewish community to commit to a program of transformative encounters:

1. Three thousand years of Jewish wisdom and values have a great deal to offer to all people in contemporary American life. Unfortunately, precious few American Jews appreciate this fact. We need to double down on a wide array of programs to expose Jews and non-Jews alike to the very best of Jewish wisdom and values.

2. Community Jewish schools should consider changing their enrollment policies to allow for the admission of Jews and non-Jews alike and should re-think their Jewish studies curricula to communicate the best of Jewish wisdom and values in a more universal language that will inspire all comers.

3. Synagogues that aren’t bound by halachah (Jewish law) should remove all distinctions among participants. If people are coming to participate in the community, they should be welcomed wholeheartedly and indiscriminately. This means that all participants (including, for example, a non-Jewish spouse) should have full access to all ritual and leadership opportunities.

4. Jewish Community Centers need to do a better job of serving their non-Jewish members and also create opportunities for Jews and non-Jews to encounter one another. After all, every JCC member is affiliated with Jewish life, so let’s do a better job of serving them all.

5. Jewish advocacy and political organizations need to reignite the best of the Catholic- and Christian-Jewish dialogue movement of the 1960s and ’70s by investing significant resources toward Jewish-Muslim dialogue. The Second Vatican Council’s decision in 1965 to abandon the charge that all Jews are guilty of deicide makes clear the potential of such encounters.

To be clear, while the result of such changes will necessarily be a transformation of identity, surely the greatest act of idolatry we can commit is to ensure the continuity of our particular group in its current (or imagined) form at the expense of the perfection of humanity.

Darren Kleinberg
Darren Kleinberg

Darren Kleinberg is the author of “Hybrid Judaism: Irving Greenberg, Encounter, and the Changing Nature of American Jewish Identity” and head of school at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto. He can be reached at dazzaroo@gmail.com. A longer version of this essay appeared at ejewishphilanthropy.com.