The Two Poles of Being Jewish

March 16, 2014 at 1:48 pm (By Amba)

Cosmopolitan universalism (often to the point of no longer regarding oneself as Jewish) and clannish separatism are the extremes. In between is a spectrum of compromises, degrees of more or less permeable participation in the polyglot world while still holding oneself to be Jewish. (It goes without saying that other people who care about such things will regard you as Jewish regardless of how you slice it, as many patriotic, Goethe-revering Germans realized too late. I am grateful to be living in the rare time and place where I can say, “That’s their problem.” I don’t take it for granted. But neither am I persuaded to say “Got the name, might as well have the game.”)

I was the cosmopolitan universalist who no longer identified as Jewish until, as I wrote on Ambivablog, I discovered that . . . nothing could be more Jewish! (Here’s the full George Steiner piece that brought that home. The link to it in the blog post leads to a paywall. And here’s the Hillel Halkin article I quote in the update.) It’s a Moebius strip; there’s no getting off it. OK.

Now, in a Sunday New York Times article about Lab/Shul, a “god-optional” mobile community/performance/ritual thingie comparable to an “emergent church,” its originator, a 44-year-old, gay rabbinical student named Amichai Lau-Lavie, again states the two poles succinctly. Here’s the one I identify with:

What matured in me is the sense that Judaism, like all religion, is not the bottom line . . . That it is a tool in our toolbox for human well-being and being helpful beings, and that there is a difference between many people who really view Judaism or religion as the end goal: In other words, keep the Sabbath or marry a Jew so the Jewish story continues. That’s of course how I grew up. I realized that that’s missing the point.

I’m not flying Delta because I’m interested in Delta. I’m flying Delta because it’s convenient or I got the miles on it. The idea is to get somewhere. I’m practicing Judaism because that’s my airline, because I was born into it and I think it’s got a deeply profound, ancient and relevant toolbox for a good life, but the end goal is a good life, not to be Jewish. To be human. To be there for myself and others. And that’s a totally different proposition.

(Except that Judaism isn’t even my airline. It’s the one I flew in on, but I fly on a variety of carriers nowadays . . . and sometimes I just flap my arms.) And here’s Lau-Lavie’s (admittedly biased and condescending) take on the other pole:

The pews are filling with people who just want some structure . . . ‘Just tell me what to do. Give me order in the chaos.’ In an age in which we have more and more privileges and choices, the allure of a system that tells you what to do and what not to do, and what to wear and what to eat, and the consequences and limits of your choices, for some mental types, is essential. I get it. It’s a suspension of disbelief in its deepest sense. I’m judgmental of it and I have a lot of respect for it.

We have both poles in my extended family, and a lot of the spectrum in between. We even all get along.

C’est Lavie!


  1. brunobaby said,

    I flew in on two different airlines, each one of which wants sole claim to where I’m going, and both of which think I’m a disreputable passenger.

  2. amba12 said,


  3. wj said,

    Just be clear that the “looking for structure in life” motivation is what brings people to lots of churches/religions, not just Judiasm.

    And then there are those who aren’t even that motivated. A long time ago, a friend of mine said “If I moved to a new town, and wanted to meet people (or find a girl firend), I’d join a church.” He wasn’t religious, and clearly didn’t see joining a church as a religious choice; he didn’t much care which church it was. He saw it as a convenience, a way to meet new friends. Somehow, I suspect that he is not unique in that motivation.

  4. amba12 said,

    I bet you’re right. (Although he probably wouldn’t have gone to a synagogue for the same purpose.) Unitarian Universalism may have been invented to provide all the benefits of church or synagogue, including community and spirituality, without the sectarian or the supernatural.

  5. kngfish said,

    Brunobaby, both airlines think that you’re probably the person who wants to set their shoe on fire, hence you are to be avoided at all costs! And that phrase set their shoe on fire always makes me laugh when I say it even though I also know how it’s really, really not funny! After 9/11 anyway…

    I asked Ellen Barkin on Twitter “Bacon? or True to the Tribe?” and her reply was “True to The Tribe of Bacon!” Same type of thing…

  6. amba12 said,

    Best comment on the NYT article:

    “I learned in two yeshivos, have multiple Jewish-related university degrees and continue to learn Torah regularly.

    “What Rabbi Lau is doing is solidly within the Jewish tradition as are all the comments criticizing him.

    “No one has a monopoly on Judaism or what it means to be Jewish.”

  7. mockturtle said,

    Is being Jewish more of a ethno-cultural thing than a religious thing? In other words, are your ties to other Jews based more on common traditions and ethnic heritage than on spiritual beliefs?

  8. mockturtle said,

    more ofan ethno…..

  9. amba12 said,

    Who even knows what it is. But yes, I guess it is ethno-cultural (a matter of personal history) for everyone Jewish, while only some practice the religion. I am aware of it when I talk to friends who really belong to the Anglo and German Protestant heartland of the U.S. I am sharply aware then of being, very recently, a foreigner. (That feeling might be shared by some Catholics.) Genetically, there is continuity among Jews but very much diluted and admixed with all the populations we’ve passed through (forgive me for being politically incorrect, but I sometimes explain my blue eyes by saying “there was a Polack in the woodpile”). The argument among Jews is whether one should feel an obligation to maintain cultural as well as genetic continuity (and whether to relinquish the former is to irrevocably let go of the latter). The short answer is, some do and some don’t. I am by nature the latter. I’m glad the former also exist.

  10. amba12 said,

    KngFish, I love Ellen Barkin. I have a residual fondness for her from her ’80s movies “The Big Easy” and “Sea of Love.”

  11. kngfish said,

    I still like Ellen Barkin, but she was a bit too shrill for me on her Twitter feed! She got the major rocks in her divorce….Oddly, even though they’ve aged a bit, I still like “The Big Easy” and “Sea of Love” also.

  12. wj said,

    Actually, he might have gone to a synagogue. I suspect that he would indeed have started out with Episcopalians or something. But if he didn’t find the kind of people he liked there, I could see him working his way thru every church, synagogue, mosque and temple in town.

    And I can sympathize with his view, even if I have somewhat more defined theological views myself. After all, my whole family is blue-eyed blonds. But if you rattle off the Shema at me, I know the response — in Hebrew as well as in English. And when I was in college and attending Hillel regularly, I could pretty much sight-read Hebrew. Lots of people are way more eclectic, even in matters of religion, than you might imagine.

  13. karen said,

    “… but the end goal is a good life, not to be Jewish. To be human. To be there for myself and others. And that’s a totally different proposition.”

    Another ~totally different proposition~ would be that an Afterlife is the end goal- and how one lives the vehicle that gets one there. It’ not being Jewish(or any other Faith)- it’s not a good life(what is that?). It’s being a little less for self and a little more aware of how we impact others.

    Wow- that sounds almost like a Liberal Commandment-lol. The difference being(i think)that nothing is forced out of a person, even if the thought of Hell can be a great persuasion. Satan twisting your arm… gov’t is a type of religion, to my thinking. W/less and less ability to say no of their demands.

    I wonder if i ever could switch airlines. No matter the comfort, the speed or the fuel efficiency- it’s Tradition and it’s- of home. Is it in my blood, though? Being Jewish is blood. I would feel an intruder to Judaism- an imposter- because it’s deeper than Faith. Maybe that’s why the poles are so far apart, yet so aware of e/other? Like outstretched arms…

    ps- when i 1st saw “C’est Lavie” i thought it was a play on washing:0)
    Until i read the post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: