A Philosophical Retrospective: Facts, Values & Jewish Identity

How far does being Jewish shape you?

By David Conway, May 10, 2011
Alan Montefiore: engaging

Alan Montefiore: engaging

By Alan Montefiore
Columbia University Press, £20.50

Alan Montefiore is a scion of one of Anglo-Jewry's most illustrious families, the eldest grandson of Charles Claude Montefiore, founder of Liberal Judaism at the beginning of the last century.

It was, he tells us, from his grandfather - who died when our author was 10 - that he acquired the notion that his identity, as both a Jew and a Montefiore, conferred on him obligations from which he was unable to release himself, no matter how he tried.

Exactly what those obligations were is left unsaid. But it seems Montefiore did not, as a young man, take kindly to the suggestion that he was shackled by any commitment he had not freely assumed for himself. His outlook was also deeply coloured by the influence upon him of the philosopher Richard Hare, to whose radically subjectivist moral theory Montefiore was exposed at Oxford. 

The tension between his family's insistence that unchosen obligations issued from his Jewish identity and the moral individualism he acquired from his peers at Oxford formed the impetus for much of Montefiore's own, subsequent theorising.

His various attempts to decide whether a person's identity might prove sufficiently stalwart a bridge by means of which he or she might be transported - gladly or unwillingly - from facts about themselves to unsought, but undeniable, value commitments form the subject of this engaging and lucid book.

For those unschooled in philosophy, parts of it will prove difficult. But 30 years as a philosophy don at Balliol have left Montefiore supremely able to convey abstruse notions about as clearly as they can be conveyed. As to that question that drove him throughout his career, debated not so much at High Table as around the Friday-night table - often to tragic effect as some young, emancipated Jew announces to uncomprehending parents that he or she has decided to "marry out" - Montefiore concludes that the attachment of specific moral obligations to a person's unchosen identity depends on the milieu within which that person has been born and acculturated. 

In the kind of traditional, closed community exemplified by the author's elders, the answer will be affirmative. Members of such communities lack the wherewithal to conceive of individuals as morally unencumbered selves. If, however, like Alan Montefiore, as well as being born into such a family, one has simultaneously been acculturated within a secular, pluralistic society, then, to differing degrees, the idea that individuals are final arbiters of their moral commitments will also present itself as inescapable.

Such is the formative milieu of all but Charedi Jews today in Britain. For this majority, Montefiore's notion of an identity that somehow combines contending views of personal moral obligations does not provide a simple, straightforward guide to living. But, then, life isn't simple. If, however, there is one thing it confirms about being a Jew, and upon which all can agree, it is that it is never easy, no matter what sort one is.

David Conway teaches philosophy at the University of Essex.

Last updated: 9:57am, May 10 2011