(Tapping) Testing. Sibilants.

Is this thing on?

Hey! I’m back! Again.

Seriously, I’ve been very, very busy. Sorry about that, but job, other job, editing, weddings (including officiating a Star Wars-themed wedding!)–I’m a busy person.

I came across something on Tablet that I thought was interesting. Mark Oppenheimer, who has written at some length on religious issues, particularly on Judaism and on the secular movement’s apparent issues with sexism, has a review of the late Edgar Bronfman’s book, Why Be Jewish?. The review is interesting in its way–it compares Bronfman’s book with two others bearing the same title, one by Meir Kahane and the other by David Wolpe. I suppose if you were looking for a study of the “Why should I be Jewish?” genre it would be a good place to start. (Spoiler: there really aren’t any books in this genre that I would give to someone who asked, “Why be Jewish?,” and I get the sense Oppenheimer wouldn’t, either.)

But what I found particularly useful is Oppenheimer’s characterization of what it means to be a Jew–that it’s a sort of family status.

But the Jew, as opposed to the Jewish person, is simply a member of this family that was, according to Kahane, chosen by God and given the Torah at Sinai—the family that, according to Bronfman, somehow kept its identity over millennia and developed a rich heritage worth perpetuating. Neither understanding of my family story satisfies me perfectly, but I think they are onto something. They’re mishpochah. Not Jewish, but fellow Jews.

What Bronfman feared, Oppenheimer suggests, was that Jews would become “Jew-ish” rather than “Jewish”: someone who is a Jew and is perhaps peripherally associated with the family, but not involved in or with it.

It strikes me that there’s something to this family analogy that I like better than others.

In Humanistic Judaism, we talk about Jewish culture and Judaism as a culture (versus a civilization in the mode of Reconstructionist Judaism). But I think family gets at something too, and maybe gets at it more cleanly than culture.

For example: one can join a culture, but, at a certain point, we worry about appropriation, the idea that someone not part of the culture (especially a minority one) is taking pieces out of context and in a manner that exploits the source culture. (This is why, for instance, many Jews get really upset about churches that conduct Passover Seders around Easter.) Appropriation of a family identity is something else entirely. Yet family lines are porous: people marry in and out, are recognized as family even without genetic ties, etc.

And the notion of family explains the internal response many Jews have when another Jew does something wrong. Yiddish has an expression, shande far di Goyim–a shame in front of non-Jews–that is often applied to Jewish criminals, as in this article about the Yiddish word shande in the context of Bernie Madoff. It feels like a familial shame: not simply a recognition of membership, but a kind of embarrassment, carrying the sense of, “I can’t believe I’m related to that guy.”

It also comes through in the way, in Humanistic Judaism, we sometimes talk about people who aren’t born Jews becoming members of our communities. We don’t necessarily talk about conversion, as though one suddenly becomes something entirely other than what one was before. Rather, it’s often spoken of as adoption: the idea that the person is making a choice to identify with a family, and the family is identifying that person as its own.

The problem, of course, is that there’s slippage between “Judaism” and “Jewishness.” These aren’t always plain terms, and it’s worth noting (for those who say that Judaism is akin to other religions) that Christianity has similar problems with in- and out-groups and definition, even as Jews sit back and say, “Eh, you all seem Christian to me.” (Ask a Seventh Day Adventist if Roman Catholics are Christians. You might be surprised by the response you get.)

This is the “leaky bucket” part of the analogy. There isn’t “O’Leary-ism” or “Smith-ism” or the like–that is, we don’t describe being a member of a family as an ideology. So what is it, exactly, that we mean by Judaism vs. Jewishness? I think we may be best off simply to say that Judaism describes the spectrum of approaches–some more formal, organized, or able to be named than others–to expressing and engaging in Jewish identity and life.

No analogy is perfect. But as I think it over, I suspect I’ll employ family more often.