Saturday, September 25, 2004

A reader’s interesting thoughts:

The issue of Jewish secularism vs. 'observancy' is one I've been intrigued by for quite a while. Every religion has its traditionalists and its secularists, but of course with Jews the meaning of it all is obscured to some extent by the tendency to equate
Jewish ethnicity and Jewish faith. (I just wrote that Israel is the most obvious example of this, but crossed it out because I realized it's not the same thing - just goes to show how difficult this concept can be at times.)

Is "Jewishness" only adherence to a religion? That would neglect an obvious Jewish secular culture. Is "Jewishness" an ethnicity that tends to practice a certain religion? That neglects the various faces and colors of practicing Jews around the world. Is
"Jewishness" a national identity, i.e. Israeli? To make it so would disenfranchise Israeli citizens who are non-Jews by religion or ethnicity. Is "Jewishness" simply an inherited culture? Possibly, but is that a strong enough word for it?

I wonder if the roots of this seeming dilemma might be found in European history, extending back at least to the Middle Ages, where Jews were segregated and
considered separate from the European Christian population as a "people apart", regardless of religious observance or native language or outward appearance - the latter of course tended to be regulated. If a group is seen as "different" for long
enough, perhaps the reason for that difference can begin to seem inherent, rather than attributable to a specific original cause such as religious difference.

As I said above, I find this very intriguing because I can't offhand think of another case where religion and ethnicity seem so blended in terms of identity, and
I'm not even sure that's as fair and accurate a description of "Jewishness" as it might seem at first glance.

If a Jew 'converts" - to Christianity, to Buddhism - is s/he still a Jew? If an Eskimo 'converts' – to Judaism - does s/he become a Jew? I suppose that Israel is the place that would bring these questions into highest relief.

Also interesting, the above-mentioned concept of "common culture" is generally accepted as the best available definition of "Arabness", although the parallel stops just about there, as Arabs practice a number of different religions in addition to being
composed of myriad ethnicities.