The Jewish Authenticity Crisis
In 2023, what does it mean to be authentically Jewish?
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In the age of deepfakes and post-truth, as artificial intelligence skyrocketed and Elon Musk turned Twitter into X, the dictionary company Merriam-Webster just announced its word of the year for 2023 — “authentic.”
Searches for the word are routinely popular on the company’s website, and were elevated throughout this year, according to its editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski.1
In the Jewish world, authenticity has had its critics and advocates, too. Famed political scientist Daniel Elazar claimed that Israel is “the only place in the world where an authentic Jewish culture can flourish. Even the more peripheral of Jews are touched by the Jewish authenticity of Israel, while the more committed find the power of Israel in this respect almost irresistible.”2
“Israel generates authenticity in uniquely powerful ways because of its location at the nexus of the imagined and the concrete,” added Ari Hoffman, an associate editor at The New York Sun, “that like a magnet attracts and holds the most important conversations about Jewish authenticity.”3
As a response to such typical Zionist authenticity claims, one of famed novelist Philip Roth’s literary alter egos proposed that Europe, not Israel, is “the most authentic Jewish homeland there has ever been, the birthplace of rabbinic Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, Jewish secularism, socialism, on and on.”
Stuart Charmé, a professor of religion at Rutgers University, wrote a book called “Authentically Jewish” in which he argued that the traditional paradigm sees Jews as “a people apart that has persevered in the face of hostility in their host countries and preserved their culture and heritage and community by remaining insulated and isolated from the surrounding cultures where they lived.”4
Assuming a postmodern paradigm, there is a recognition that boundaries between Jews and non-Jews have allowed various degrees of cultural mixing, Charmé wrote. It is this hybridity or cultural mixing that has become a new touchstone for Jewish authenticity. While traditional Jews still define Jewish authenticity in terms of religion, ethnicity, culture, or attachment to Israel, postmoderns emphasize fluidity, hybridity, and blurred boundaries as hallmarks of a modern Jewish identity.
What’s more, the establishment of the State of Israel and the simultaneous thriving of Jewry in the post-world wars Diaspora provoked another conflict over authenticity. The appearance of a Jewish state in the ancient Jewish homeland speaking Hebrew as its language necessarily changes how non-Israeli Jews think about the strengths and limitations of their own cultures.
Or not. In some ways, one of the most impressive developments has been the insignificant amount of friction and maintenance of an authentic Jewish identity in the Diaspora, through engagement (i.e. philanthropy, formal education, youth groups, political lobbying) rather than relocation.
But, what exactly is authenticity?
In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which a person’s actions are congruent with their values and desires, despite external pressures to social conformity.
There’s also the condition of Geworfenheit, introduced by German philosopher Martin Heidegger, which he describes as human beings thrown into an absurd world, without values and meaning, and not of their own making — thereby encountering external forces and influences different from and other than the authentic self.
In the 18th century, Romantic philosophers recommended intuition, emotion, and a connection to nature as the necessary counterbalanced authenticity to the intellectualism of the Enlightenment.
Among psychologists, authenticity identifies a person living in accordance with their true self and personal values, rather than according to the external demands of society, such as social conventions, kinship, and duty.
Yet, authenticity has been under attack for quite some time now, due to a variety of factors, namely: globalization, the 24/7 news cycle, the unlimited accessibilities and capabilities of mobile devices, social media, the politicization of every problem, and an undying effort towards the one-size-fits-all “virtue” of universality.
Notwithstanding, one such factor that troubles me ad nauseam is the propensity and intoxication of identity politics: the tendency for people to form exclusive political alliances based on who they perceive themselves to be, a move away from traditional broad-based party politics.
There is nothing wrong with being unapologetically passionate about certain political parties or movements, wherever they are on the spectrum. Instead, the problem with identity politics is when people agree with a particular political alliance on certain issues, and therefore adopt all of the political alliance’s positions across the board.
“If I agree with X political alliance on Y issue, I must agree with them on all issues,” the thinking errantly goes.
When we behave in this way, we relinquish our authenticity in deciding why and how we think about different issues, irrespective of our political alliances. When we behave in this way, we terminate our individuality for the sake of a group, which is precisely how cults work.
French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre had something to say about this: People have the freedom to interpret themselves, and their experiences, however they like.
Indeed, politicians support and even contribute to identity politics, because it makes their jobs much easier. Why develop a nuanced, multi-issue program when they can just hone in on a few core issues that will convince people to get onboard with the entirety of their platform?
What’s more, many of these politicians focus less on why we should align with their positions on certain issues, and more on why we should despise the positions of opposing political alliances. With this in mind, Steve Schmidt, a political commentator and strategic advisor, aptly said:
“You can’t love your country if you hate half of the people in it simply because they disagree with you.”5
I would take Schmidt’s words a step further and unapologetically say: You can’t love Judaism and being Jewish if you fervently disagree with half of the world’s Jews simply because they don’t think, act, and live like you.
To regain our Jewish authenticity, we ought to do some serious soul-searching, especially now that Israel very much faces an existential threat — a threat that many Jews don’t realize is actually a stark warning to world Jewry, regardless of which “team” you support.
But many Jews are understandably confused right now, especially in “the West” where Jews are not considered an oppressed group. Overwhelmingly, Jews are considered oppressors. On the Right, they think we control the world, and on the Left anti-Zionists claim we are lording over our Arab brethren via the so-called Israeli occupation.
As such, it is painstakingly clear that identity politics does not accommodate specifically Jewish concerns. Even those in U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration cannot speak about antisemitism without mentioning “Islamophobia” in the same sentence.
Identity politics ultimately leads to the antithesis of Judaism: individualism, a “you” versus “me” or “my group” versus “your group” paragon. Interestingly, the rise of identity politics in the 1970s coincided with a rise of the ratio between the words “I” and “we” used in English literature and pop songs.
Until 1964, the ratio was relatively steady, when suddenly the word “I” started to dominate the word “we” — less emphasis on “we,” more emphasis on “I.” An analysis of older and newer pop songs using the words “I” and “we” has yielded similar results — more “we” in older songs and more “I” in newer ones.
Identity politics doesn’t welcome the “we” — as in the collective, the whole of society. It groups society into “us” and “them,” forcing people to “pick a team” they feel more inclined to cheer for. Individuals are defined uni-dimensionally: black, female, Japanese, et cetera. Politics becomes a stage for teams, where the participants are “team” representatives. The outcome is that issues which affect all teams are overlooked.
As I mentioned, this societal fragmentation is the very antithesis of Judaism, and it increasingly challenges Jews who are immersed in environments of identity politics to be authentically Jewish, which I define as the understanding that we Jews are part of a historically rich lineage of people, formerly called the Israelites and Hebrews, and now known as the Jews, who are tasked with perfecting the world regardless of what team you and we are on.
Up until our great emancipation at the beginning of the 19th century, being a Jew meant being a member of a particular people. Once upon a time, we were slaves in Egypt, left Egypt for Mount Sinai to meet the creator, and then signed a covenant with him, by which we would be his people and he would be our God; he would take care of us and give us rain in the right season, and we would keep his commandments.
“I know of no Jewish philosopher before the emancipation who understood being Jewish as anything other than this covenant of Peoplehood,” according to Avraham Infeld, the great Jewish educator and former president of Hillel International. “This is why for thousand of years every Jew understood inherently that our role in life was to keep ourselves distinct as a People, which was why Jews lived in ghettos.”6
Then, around 250 years ago, along comes modern nationalism, and with that, modern liberalism. Suddenly, Jews have the opportunity to leave the ghetto, and many of them change their understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Some simply stopped being Jewish. The ultra-Orthodox became more ghettoized.
The majority of Jews, however, accepted two new meanings of being Jewish. One is that Judaism is a religion, which most of “the West” still believes today. And the second is that Jews are a nation, which produced Zionism.
For many who left the ghetto eager to become assimilated, they adhered to one non-written rule: We can act like them, but we can’t accept their God. For Zionists, the manifesto became: We are a nation.
“And so it was that the basic idea of who we are started getting lost,” Infeld said. “Only when we understand Judaism in the context of Peoplehood can we begin to understand what it means to be Jewish. And only when we see ourselves as part of a People will Judaism unite — instead of divide — us.”
In the Talmud, it says all Jews are responsible for one another, or quite literally: “All Jews are guarantors for one another.” But in the hyper-modern Western world, where anything ancient like the Talmud is considered outdated, irrelevant, or politically incorrect, Judaism is quickly deteriorating — despite the extensive and meaningful contributions that Judaism and the Jewish People have gifted “the West.”
Almost a quarter century ago, a monograph on changing patterns of Jewish identity, titled “The Jew Within,” observed a turn away from more collective and communal ways of being Jewish, and a turn toward expressions that are more private and personal, if not highly idiosyncratic.7
Some of these more recent expressions are a logical response to looking at both historical and modern-day antisemitism — how Jews have coped, survived, and even thrived in the face of incessant persecution, centuries of general oppression and prejudices, and inherited generational traumas.
Many Jews, for example, responded to antisemitism in the 20th century by attempting to assimilate. They changed their names, altered their noses and hairstyles, married non-Jews, didn’t teach their children traditional Jewish languages, downplayed the communication styles which were perceived to be too loud and expressive, and at times incorporated Christian traditions into religious services (see: Reform Judaism) to minimize their Jewishness.
Many Jews also shared the anti-oppression emphasis of the political left, and here, too, they assimilated. These Jews believed they would be better off and less likely to be persecuted as Jews if they could show their non-Jewish neighbors that they were just like them, that they could behave in ways which weren’t different from the behavioral patterns of their non-Jewish neighbors.
They did so, in part, by making Jewish principles like tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) quintessentially less and less Jewish, “a banner for almost any laudable value, including energy conservation, recycling, government healthcare packages, the fight against terrorism, better nutrition, looking after stray animals, and the list goes on,” according to Levi Cooper, a Jewish teacher, author, and community leader.
In liberal democracies, some Jews who are Ashkenazi (of European origin) or simply “white-looking” have tried to blend in as “white people,” with the privileges that so-called white people enjoy. In pre-war Europe, for instance, Jews were never blond enough or blue-eyed enough or tall enough (the Aryan type). They were too dark. Now, anti-Zionists claim we’re too white.
Hence why many of today’s Jews are finally starting to realize that authentic Jewishness is inherently counterculture. Heck, Judaism has always been counterculture — and despite our well-intentioned attempts, it’s why Judaism and Jewishness have never fit other programs, be it liberal and conservative, or “the East” and “the West.”
We were discontent with polytheism, so we created monotheism. We were discontent with boundless labor, so we created the Sabbath. We were discontent with being slaves in Egypt, so we went back to our homeland in ancient Israel. We were discontent with centuries of Jewish persecution and discrimination across the world, so we returned to our indigenous homeland to found the State of Israel.
To be authentically Jewish is, therefore, to embrace Judaism as proudly counterculture. To be authentically Jewish is to stop looking for meaning, purpose, traditions, and values in every place except Judaism. To be authentically Jewish is to develop emotional and physical attachments to Zionism, the moral right and historic need for self-determination in our indigenous homeland.
And to be authentically Jewish is to share Judaism and Jewishness with our non-Jewish family and friends, not to proselytize, but to harmonize. After all, this is one of the Jews’ core purposes, a sentiment that Menachem Mendel Schneerson (better known as “The Rebbe”) once conveyed to a Russian Israeli pioneer in magnetohydrodynamics.
“What is the unique quality of the sun, which makes everyone consider it a blessing?” The Rebbe asked the engineer. “It is, of course, its capacity to give light to the earth. What would happen if the sun had the same temperature, the same energy, but did not radiate or give heat? Indeed, there are such stars, called black holes, the force of attraction of which is so strong that not even one light ray can depart from them.”
“If the sun were such a star, whom would it benefit then? Of what use would the sun be if it were a black hole? So it is with the Jew whose primary function is to put forth light, to radiate, to better a fellow. Without this, such a person would turn into a black hole, when he or she was created to be a sun.”
“What’s Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2023? Hint: Be true to yourself.” The Associated Press. November 27, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/merriam-webster-word-of-year-2023-a9fea610cb32ed913bc15533acab71cc.
Charmé, Stuart. “Authentically Jewish.” Rutgers University Press. August 12, 2022.
Hoffman, Ari. 2016. This Year in Jerusalem: Israel and the Literary Quest for Jewish Authenticity. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/33840682/HOFFMAN-DISSERTATION-2016.pdf.
Charmé, Stuart. “Authentically Jewish.” Rutgers University Press. August 12, 2022.
Schmidt, Steve. “Americans celebrate freedom on July 4th.” The Warning. July 4, 2023. Substack.
Infeld, Avraham. “Who is a Jew? Peoplehood Versus Religion.” eJewish Philanthropy. September 4, 2012, https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/who-is-a-jew-peoplehood-versus-religion-2.
“The Takeover.” Tablet. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/the-takeover.