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by Adam King Skrzynski
Who is a Jew? The question of Jewish identity has never been far from my mind. I grew up in an intermarried family, with a Jewish mother and Polish Catholic father (who were married by Sherwin Wine in 1978), and now have a multicultural family of my own. Neither of my parents embraced their religious heritage, and we were raised in a largely secular environment with mainly cultural observances of Chanukah, Christmas, Passover, and Easter. Nevertheless, from an early age I strongly identified with my Jewish heritage and knew that, in fact, it was my primary identity. Growing up apart from Jewish institutions and the Jewish community forced me to create a Jewish identity for myself, and in my high school years, I began to read the Hebrew Bible (which I viewed most of all as a historical and literary document), independently study Yiddish and Hebrew, associate strongly with Israel, and learn about the Jewish side of my extended family. This is all to say that the identity that I crafted for myself based on my Jewish interests was a largely secular one. However, as I branched out into the establishment Jewish community, I began to doubt that personal identity, fearing that I would not be accepted, having internalized the idea told to me on multiple occasions that I was “only half-Jewish.” Perhaps partly out of intellectual curiosity and partly out of an effort to prove the naysayers wrong, I embarked on what has become a lifelong exploration of Jewish identity, both my own and official definitions. Through this effort, in reading and asking questions, it has become clear to me that any definition of Jewish identity needs to be open, inclusive, and adaptable.
Any exploration of Jewish identity begs the question, what is the definition of “Jewish,” and what does it mean to be a Jew? Ask any two Jews, and you are likely to get three answers, but depending on who you ask, you are likely to get responses centered around bloodline (i.e., matrilineal versus patrilineal descent), belief system (i.e., Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith), tribal affiliation, national identity, and peoplehood. Membership in “the tribe” can be fluid, but even issues of conversion, and in our case adoption, are subject to intense disagreement and scrutiny. Complicating matters even further, people who are not Jewish seem almost as interested in defining someone else’s Jewish identity as people who are. The Nazi Nuremberg Race Laws attempted to do this on a pseudoscientific basis, but long before Hitler, the Christian Church was interested in setting the Jews aside as a distinct and suffering group as an example of what happens to those who reject Christ. The Black Hebrew Israelites claim to be the descendants of the ancient Israelites and would negate the Jewish identity of those who trace their Jewish heritage back for generations. In other words, different groups, Jewish and not, espousing varied manifestos and motivations, have at times sought to define and assume Jewish identity in a way that oftentimes works to their own advantage. The ability to act as gatekeeper is a very effective way to maintain power within a group, and whether it be the real or imagined leadership under the patriarchs and matriarchs, judges, kings, prophets, priests, or rabbis, various definitions of who fits within the Jewish ingroup of the time serve to make laypeople dependent on the existing powers that be and subservient to their needs. No matter whether the definition remains consistent over time (i.e., patriarchal versus matriarchal descent); to quote Aaron Burr, “the law is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.”
Jewish identity also seems to be part of an interesting paradox involving the ongoing conflict between the struggle for Jewish survival and the idea of Jewish exclusivity. The Jewish existential crisis concerning survival is well-earned, and because of our traumatic history, it makes sense that the Jewish community would, at times, close itself off from hateful outsiders. However, in the modern world, this prior adaptation has become a liability. Jews have never been freer and more accepted in the societies of the Western world, even given the events of October 7, 2023, and their aftermath, and since emancipation, have been more and more offered the option of assuming new identities tied to the countries in which they live. The fear of assimilation springs from this fact and has led certain leaders of the organized Jewish world to continue to advocate for the maintenance of an exclusively Jewish identity, an argument which, in my opinion, springs more from fear than chauvinism but perhaps has the same effect. Many people in the modern world, including Jews, are increasingly repulsed by ideas of bloodline and exclusivity based on group affiliation and wish to lead an egalitarian life based on liberal democratic values. The persistent gatekeeping that occurs, especially among the more conservative movements of the Jewish spectrum, reinforces this self-legitimizing power structure; ultimate control is not just the ability to influence Jewish behavior, but to define who is Jewish in the first place. This viewpoint ignores not only the mutable definition of Jewish identity evident in tracing the patrilineal descent of the Hebrew Bible to the matrilineal descent of the rabbis, but also the historical, archaeological, and anthropological evidence of the mixing of Jews and surrounding cultures throughout history.
If we are to ensure Jewish survival into the future, I think that we ultimately need to stop obsessing over the question of “who is Jew?” If the goal is the continuity of Jewish civilization, and the passing down of Jewish values and traditions to future generations, then what does it matter if the source is a mother, a father, or someone not born to a Jewish “lineage” at all? Perhaps instead of worrying about bloodline and halakhic definitions of Jewish identity, when most Jews do not adhere strongly to many of the other halakhic laws to begin with, we should be concerned instead with measuring Jewish commitment and passion and letting these set the tone of Jewish identity. Among members of the younger generations, there is no more sure way to turn off potential interest in Judaism than to emphasize points of exclusivity and chauvinism (and this was true for my mother and many of her family members as well). The idea of hereditary privilege based on blood quanta is anachronistic. The modern Western world emphasizes individual choice and self-actualization, and any successful mainstream Judaism will, too. How many potential contributors to Jewish civilization have been turned away over the years because of the narrow definition of “who is a Jew” espoused by mainstream organized Judaism? I know many people in my own family who were. How much more vibrant would Jewish civilization be today if these people had been allowed to contribute their energies and numbers to the Jewish project? There would at least be much less tsuris (Yiddish for “trouble or woe”) about Jewish survival; that much is certain.
So, in proposing a satisfying, egalitarian, and inclusive definition of “who is a Jew,” I turn directly to the definition proposed at the Second Biennial Conference of the IFSHJ in October 1988: “A Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” This is a definition that I intuitively supported long before I ever encountered it in the world of Secular Humanistic Judaism, and which presents a relevant description in our open and modern society. It is also a definition that maintains an integrity surrounding the boundaries of Jewish identity without being unnecessarily punitive to those striving to be a part. The halakhic definition will continue to serve the ends of Jewish groups who need to maintain their separateness to survive, but that should neither concern us nor force us to accept any aspect of it. This is where Secular Humanistic Judaism has a distinct advantage, for while our progressive colleagues in the Reform and Conservative movements still angst over definitions of Jewishness and appropriate marriage partners, all the while suffering from declining membership, we have long since moved on to more pressing matters. The idea that an expansive version of Judaism would dilute our identity has not been borne out. Accepting a wide range of potential adoptees into our midst and allowing for a creative Jewish expression is the surest way of creating a positive Jewish identity that will survive the test of time.
Outside of the ghetto and the shtetl, a new way of answering the question of Jewish identity is needed, based not on walls and strict division, but instead reflecting our current reality of integration and acceptance. Whether or not it was repressed or denied in the past, human beings are complex with many different parts, and every member of the Jewish people has, at one time or another, been “Jewish and…” People want to marry us and incorporate our sense of peoplehood into their lives. To refuse this would be to reject one of the great positive developments in Jewish history, a potent antidote to the anti-Semitism that thrives on seeing us as “the other.” Similarly, to refute the fact that the modern Jewish people need the outside world is willful ignorance. In our globalist society, we are all more interconnected than ever, and our success will depend on convincing both Jews by birth and Jews by choice that choosing Judaism is still a relevant and worthwhile option among the smorgasbord of potentially available identities. To be Jewish is to be unique, but we also bathe in a sea of other unique peoples. Let us not restrict our numbers or our potential through a narrow definition based on antiquated concepts. Let us grow and accept all of those who would, with integrity and passion, enrich our Jewish civilization, regardless of where they have come from. Let us present a vibrant and relevant Judaism that can be embraced and looked to for wisdom and guidance in difficult times. Let us create a Judaism that is connected to and influenced by the modern world while at the same time living with self-confidence in its present and future. For, to paraphrase our creation myth, it is not good for the Jewish people to be alone.
Adam Skrzynski is a husband, father of 3 daughters, physician, and student in the IISHJ Leadership Program. A Detroit native, he currently lives in South Jersey outside of Philadelphia. You can say that Adam’s connection to Humanistic Judaism began before birth with his parents being married by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, and he has found no better synergy between his personal beliefs and love for his Jewish heritage.