Why Be Jewish? (Part 3) -- Roots and Beyond

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                In our opening discussions on this topic (please see Why Be Jewish? - Defining the Question and Why Be Jewish? - The Forces Within and the Forces Without), we effectively described the tension that exists between individual definitions of Jewishness and the collective definition of the group itself. The challenge is that when one describes oneself as Jewish, one is really defining oneself as a member of the Jewish group, the group that embodies Jewishness. The problem is, though, that we all are applying our own individual definition to this term notwithstanding that it may not necessarily be shared by others. We can then be left with a group of individuals each believing the other to share a similar perception of Jewishness when this is, in fact, not the case. And if and/or when this is discovered, many are then left wondering about the very idea of Jewishness. If we all simply believe Jewishness to be something different based upon our own personal definitions, what is, in fact, the very point of identifying oneself as Jewish? Why, indeed, be Jewish?

            The fact is that Jewishness, of course, does indicate a collective but, within this collective, there has always been much diversity. There are, in fact, many personal paths by which one may choose to define his/her Jewishness but the question still remains: how do they come together to form the collective? The reality is, though, that Jewishness has never been monolithic. Being Jewish, in fact, has always been built on a base of diversity for, while Torah applauds the value of the communal, it also recognizes the value and necessity of individuality. Diversity, as such, is actually somewhat inherent to Jewishness. How, though, does this diversity, flowing from individuality, come together into a collective?
To answer this question, we must first recognize that this acceptance of diversity does not mean that any possible divergent perception of Jewishness can then be included within the bounds of the collective. This diversity must still have its parameters. As much as Jewishness accepts diversity, it also necessarily demarcates a boundary on this diversity in the formation of the collective. This is what we may describe as ‘the inherent force of the Jewish collective’. This declaration as to boundary is not a result of some formal vote. It is, perhaps, somewhat  intuitive -- although connected to the principles of fate and destiny we introduced in our previous discussion (Part 2). The challenge is that, in a barrage of extreme diversity – such as exists today -- there is a greater need to more formally articulate and define this force of the collective. The value of our Jewish acceptance of diversity still cannot allow us to ignore our unified, collective Jewish essence. We also have an obligation to clearly recognize this essence. The fact is, though, that this essence is, in many ways, tied to this acceptance of diversity.
            To truly understand this ‘inherent force of the collective’, we must first return to our very roots – specifically that which makes our group unique; specifically, that which makes our nation unique. What is demanded, though, is not simply to show how the Jewish nation is different from any other nation – that is, as different as any nation is from another. The goal, as such, cannot be to simply show how our culture is unlike the culture of any other nation. To truly understand Jewishness, we must recognize how we are distinctive in our very definition of nationhood, how the Jewish nation is absolutely unique amongst all the other nations. In this regard, we must first recognize that, in general, nations are formed by people, drawn together because of the parameters of geography, who then develop a distinct culture which further bonds them together. All our ancient works describing the formation of the Jewish nation, however, declare, emphatically, that we were not formed and determined by a land. Our nation existed before it entered its land. Its formation was in its spirit.
We are instructed that the very force which drew the Israelite people together and bonded them initially was a specific collective consciousness. It is only once they were bonded as a nation that they then connected with a land which would further unite them. It is in this initial connection of the mind that we actually find the beginnings of the unique force of Jewish collectiveness. The nation was not pushed together through some external parameter of geography, separated from others simply by physical space. It was an internal sense of belonging, the heart of an internal idea, that pulled the people together -- and, this occurred in the context of the broader globe. As such, this force also contained elements of connection to all humanity. The emotions of particularism that were instrumental in the formation of the initial Jewish group also reflected an emotion of universalism which led Jews to think beyond their own group. Right from our forefather Avraham, we saw value in ourselves but, also, in the other. A recognition of a dialectic in human identity is inherent to the Jew. This recognition of the dialectic in life is a reflection of why diversity is part of Jewishness.  Such recognition of the dialectic is also reflected in the inherent force of the Jewish collective.
To see the dialectic demands of an individual to see the broadest picture and contemplate different possibilities because the elements of life are so broad. A dialectic only exists because we see beyond a singular possibility. From this dialectic existent in our very identity, the Jew, furthermore, finds value in the breadth of human existence. In the concept of monotheism, the Jew further recognizes how this breadth of human existence also reflects One Source. It is in this intellectual, as well as emotional, dynamic of recognizing the details of life and the overall picture – the gestalt -- that we find the inherent force of the Jewish collective. Oneness within Jewishness is not the result of simplicity and similarity. The Oneness of Jewishness emerges from the very complexity of existence. The inherent force of the Jewish collective flows finally from this recognition of this Oneness as its source and destiny. This is why unity is also inherently connected to diversity within Jewishness.
Being Jewish is being involved in this dynamic. Individually, we each find our own point along the spectrum of existence which we define as our own. As Jews, however, we still also recognize our place in the full spectrum of existence. We see ourselves and we see the other. Our collective respects diversity. Being part of the Jewish collective means we wish to bond with those of a similar perspective – who want to experience the dynamic of seeing the details as well as the greater picture – as we also co-exist with all others. Why be Jewish? Because we truly wish to respond and relate to true Oneness.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht 
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see and You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
Rabbi Hecht has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
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