Why We Don´t Want ‘Strong Jewish Identities’
Imagine, if you will, Jewish educational hopes in the 1950s and 60s. Back then, the Jewish world – unconsciously, no one talked about it – was still reeling from the Shoah. Israel was uncontroversial but hardly easily accessible and a bit of an esoteric interest to many Jews. We kind of knew we couldn’t go on as we had but no-one much had any idea as to what to do instead. So for another decade or two we continued doing what we knew didn’t work in the absence of any better ideas.
But hey, this was the threshold of a major social and cultural upheaval in the western world. Soon, the mood would be letting it all hang out, and, in the famous phrase, ‘tuning in, turning on and dropping out’. What to say to Jewish youngsters now? The old certainties of the pre-war years had gone. Surely it was pointless – even wrong – for anyone to try to tell anyone else what to do or how to live. Didn’t that sound like the totalitarianism we’d all fought a war to defeat. Anyway, was anyone sure any longer what constituted ‘the good life’? (Of course, there were some Jews, not least teachers and rabbis, who did remain sure, but that only made them seem ever more out of touch and doomed to failure.)
To add to the problems of the age, Jewish adults were becoming increasingly ignorant and, worse than that, apparently more than satisfied with their ignorance. If parents didn’t see the point of conventional Jewish education, how on earth was anyone going to get young people to listen for long enough to have any useful effect?
So if we can’t tell children to keep Shabbat or kashrut or something else arcane, what else can we make the goal of our Jewish education? It was at this point that we, the Jewish establishment and Jewish educators, made a decision which still haunts and bedevils us. It became so axiomatic that most people don’t question it even now, though the thorough uselessness of that decision stares us in the face daily.
No longer able to use the language of commandedness, no longer able to assert the incontrovertability of Jewish distinctiveness as more and more Jews found it easy to assimilate and even disappear altogether, no longer able to speak of the purpose or the destiny of the Jewish people, since firstly, hardly anyone was sure what that might be and secondly, it might even sound like a strangely twisted mirror image of what Hitler said about us – we turned to the language of the emerging and increasingly popular social sciences, in particular psychology, to help us.
The purpose of Jewish education, we said, is to develop in Jews a ‘strong Jewish identity’. No longer the shrinking, self-denying Jew; from henceforth, all and any Jews should stand up and be counted when required. In some ways, this was a diaspora version of what we imagined Israeli Jews to be – out and proud, and it’s no coincidence that Israeli agencies and Zionist youth movements enthusiastically espoused this solution to our problem of not actually having a goal for our programmes if not Aliya. (Of course, more recent events have shown that Israeli Jews are more like the rest of us, truculent and occasionally aggressive because they haven’t forgotten that the world is an unpredictable and sometimes hostile place. Out and proud maybe, but more often than not, also whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up!)
And to be fair to those who worked on this project during the succeeding decades, they’ve not been unsuccessful. There are plenty of out and proud Jews all over the place. Being Jewish is certainly not something to be ashamed of and indeed, quite obscurely Jewish Jews – take Stephen Fry for example, (or lots of other Jewish celebrities in whatever country you happen to live in) are more than happy to assert their Jewishness proudly when they feel the need to.
So if we’ve been so broadly successful, why does it so often feel like failure? With all these proud Jews striding the landscape, how come the Jewish world still worries about its own sustainability?
It was actually a failure of English language and vocabulary. Not only was the goal wrong and even self-defeating, we actually meant or hoped for something else but said it wrongly, so that we forgot to notice that we weren’t actually achieving what it was we really wanted.
It was not strong Jewish identity we wanted, but strong Jewish identification.
When you think about it, it’s obvious. Firstly ‘identity’ is a shifting thing and anyway people have multiple identities which they take on and put off as circumstance requires. Nothing much firm or helpful can be built on people’s sense of their own identity, not least because, if it starts to feel too uncomfortable for them, they’ll simply amend their sense of identity.
Secondly, ‘identity’ is entirely personal. Though it might have appealed to the non-directive mood of the times, ensuring that young Jews grow up confidently asserting that they’re as good as the next Jew and no-one can tell them otherwise, such ignorant and uninformed insistence on the right to define and determine achieves the exact antithesis of what a good Jewish education should – a discerning understanding of what constitutes good Jewish behaviour and what does not. But since we’ve put the locus of authority of what constitutes a ‘good’ Jew in the hearts and (poorly educated) minds of each individual Jew, we’ve ended up with the ‘no-one can tell me how to be a good Jew’ thing, which is not only philosophically an utter nonsense but also sociologically extremely unhelpful too!
What we always wanted, in fact, was strong Jewish identification. We wanted young Jews to grow up feeling associated with and responsible to/for their community and fellow Jews. We neither need nor want armies of Jews banging their chests and asserting that ‘I might eat treif on Yom Kippur and hate Israel, but that doesn’t stop me being a proud Jew.’ We ought to be able to say that it’s fairly stupid for a parent to think that giving their child a free choice about Christmas and Hanuka is a responsible stance, (rather than the unhelpful transmission of incoherence) because it’s all fine so long as they are proud of their Jewish identity.
But equally, it is not good enough simply to note the absurd cul-de-sac we’ve gone down and bewail it. We should do something to reverse the trend too, and wringing our hands is not enough. We should face up to the fact that hoping that a ‘strong Jewish identity’ will turn young Jews into useful Jews has failed. We need a much more conscious and fit-for-purpose curriculum to address this.
We note and regret how many young Jews turn their backs on the community and its institutions. Recent figures show that young Jews, in the West at least, are far less likely to give to Jewish causes than their parents and grandparents. But have our curricula changed in the light of this hugely consequential trend? Of course they haven’t. I doubt there are many schools on the planet that actually teach their children why they should join a shul. I don’t suppose there are many Jewish Studies programmes that explore the budget and priorities of their local Jewish Welfare organisation and discuss what’s to be done about growing deficits. I don’t suppose many Jewish children have put before them the range of jobs and professions available to them working for the Jewish community – worldwide – when they are considering careers.
Back in 1981, at the second ever Limmud Conference in the UK, I presented a session called ‘Towards a new curriculum area – Jewish Civics’. You will have noticed that nothing happened as a result of that session. Well, I’m trying again now… Over to you…