Asking How You “Do Jewish” Isn’t Enough

Rabbi Ben Greenberg has an article at the Rabbis Without Borders blog about Jewish identity and whether, when we ask about someone’s congregational affiliation, we are asking the wrong question.

On the one hand, I agree with him: “Are you ______?” and “Which synagogue do you belong to?” are essentializing, unhelpful questions in many cases. Asking how you “do” Jewish may be a better place to start.

On the other hand, I cannot agree with him on his premise for the question, because he writes out portions of the Jewish community.

Greenberg’s premise:

We are commanded to perform mitzvot. In fact, there is a well known midrash, rabbinic homily, that has God declaring that in a choice between rejecting belief in Him and forsaking the Divine commandments, rather the people keep the commandments. What we do becomes more important than what we believe.

This is true for liberal versions of Judaism–but only to some degree. (Greenberg is a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which is a liberal Modern Orthodox yeshiva. This, perhaps, explains some of where he is coming from.)

Let’s be plain. Not all Jews believe in a god of any kind. And we do not believe we are commanded to do anything by the tradition.

This is not a small matter.

When you start to define “how you do Jewish” under the quantum of “what commandments do you keep,” you’re importing–whether you want to recognize it or not–the notion of commandedness. The midrash Greenberg cites reinforces that notion; the commandments are still divine and still must be kept.

There are nontheistic ways–and non-commanded ways–of doing Jewish. And pace the many who would assert otherwise, it doesn’t simply boil down to “bagels and lox” Judaism. We “do Jewish” by studying the whole range of Jewish cultural production. We “do Jewish” by learning Jewish languages, by exploring the history of Jewish ideas, by performing Jewish music, and in a thousand other ways.

Some people “do Jewish” by keeping traditional practices that they believe they have been commanded to perform. Others “do Jewish” in this way not out of a sense of commandedness, but because they don’t know any other way to be Jewish.

But there’s more than one reason to “do Jewish.” Jews may do Jewish out of a belief in commandedness, refracted through whatever variety of lens one uses. (Conservative and Reform Judaism have not, at bottom, rejected some of the traditional notions of commandedness.) We may do Jewish out of ethnic solidarity. We may do Jewish because one or more practices simply “ring true.” We may do Jewish simply out of love for a tradition handed down to us.

Given Greenberg’s conclusion–that we should stop asking identity questions and simply invite people to do Jewish–why am I picking at this? Because when you keep commandedness in the background of your invitation, you limit the invitation to people who sign on in at least some way to the notion of commandedness.

The simple truth is that ideas matter, because they reflect how we draw lines. And Greenberg’s way of expressing his ideas imply that Secular Humanistic Jews are not welcome to his way of doing Jewish. For that matter, it may exclude large numbers of Jews who do not believe in a god and do not believe in notions of commandedness, but who do Jewish things for any number of other reasons even as they are not Secular Humanistic Jews.

Sometimes, ideas–and not only actions–matter.

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