Jewish Identity; Halachik Identity

March 8, 2019 in Rabbi Greg Harris

We live in a time of personal searching.  Bookshelves are full of titles encouraging us to find our true path, inspire our soul or discover our inner resilience.  We are in a time which Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary calls, a search for “our sovereign selves.”  (The Jew Within by Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen)  Throughout our lives we curate our experiences, preferences, communities and even our identity.  Cultural and community boundaries are porous and frequently shifting.

It is within this modern ecosystem we shape our Jewish identity(ies).  I left the possibility of identity being plural because even within a single facet of ourselves, there is a likelihood we maintain multiple self-perceptions – even within our Jewish sensibilities.

I often think about two distinct frameworks of Jewish living today: a) our manifested Jewish identity and b) Judaism’s framework of halachik (Jewish law) identity.

Our manifested Jewish identity is how we choose to practice / observe /celebrate / recognize / study / incorporate Judaism into our lives.  Whereas this might have been previously gauged by traditional ritual observances like lighting Shabbat candles or attending services, Jewish expression is far more diverse today.  Reporting on a national survey he and his research partner conducted, Eisen wrote:

Jews today “emphasize personal meaning as the arbiter of their Jewish involvement…. Jewish meaning is not only personal but constructed, one experience at a time…. A related development is the emergence of Jews who combine great concern for issues of spirituality and meaning with the severely diminished interest in the organizational life of the Jewish community….”   (emphasis by the author; The Jew Within p36-37)

We incorporate Jewish practices and experiences which feel ‘right’ to us in the immediate.  In this paradigm, we are unbound by the expectations of Jewish law or tradition.

Halachik identity is based on the dynamic process of Jewish law over time.  It is the interplay of current circumstances and needs with the parameters of previous Jewish experiences.  While the former identity model relies on individual choice, halachik identity is focused on developing a Jewish societal ethos with common practices for a community.  This is based on a set of theological tenants which extend authority to the halachik process across time.

Today, we live within each of these systems.  Sometimes these modes of identity are discordant.

For example, when the halachik identity of a child follows the Jewishness of the birth mother, it might conflict with a family’s manifested Jewish identity where the mother in not Jewish but they incorporate Shabbat every week and attend religious school.

There are numerous other situations where profiles of identity might diverge from the other.

Community mikvah at Adas Israel in DC

Our task is to honor both expressions of identity – manifest and halachik, and to bring them closer together.  I do this through sensitive and clear conversations with people about our identity(ies), re-framing traditional rituals such as mikvah in order to create new opportunities for meaningful Jewish moments, and listening deeply to the diverse people who invite me (and each of the clergy) into their lives.

I will be holding a series of coffees to listen more deeply about ways we welcome interfaith families into Beth El.  I have written about this in the March Scroll, in previous blogs and sermons.  I hope you will join me at Beth El or Panera in Bethesda for one of these conversations:

Beth El

Thursday, March 14 at 9:30 am or Thursday, April 4 at 7:00 pm.

Panera in Bethesda

Friday, March 22 at 8:30 am or Tuesday, April 9 at 7:00pm

In a time of searching, knowing we are building off the richness of past Jewish wisdom gives me a sense of responsibility and confidence that we will find our way forward.  Together, we will assure our generation’s Judaism is vibrant, meaningful and authentic to our past and our identity(ies).