Anatomy of our identity — what JFS case exposes

The idea that Jewish identity is conferred at birth irrespective of practice or belief is fundamental to Judaism.


By Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer, August 6, 2009
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The Jewish educational establishment in this country has been gripped by alarm since the seminal JFS ruling last month. The Court of Appeal determined that it is unlawful for Jewish schools to admit pupils on the basis of a parent’s Jewish status. Much has been written about the practical administrative ramifications of this ruling as well as its wider social repercussions. What so far has been missing from this wide debate is theology, the religious rationale for retaining the original entry policy. What lies behind the counter-intuitive Jewish position that something as profound as religious identity can be transmitted at birth?
Most Jews instinctively know that their Jewish identity is not bound to either deed or creed. Yet, if pressed to explain in exactly what way a non-believing, non-practising Jew can be defined as Jewish, most would shrug their shoulders and mutter something vague about a shared history.

So what is it that defines one’s core Jewishness? In order to better appreciate the meaning of Jewish identity, try imagining three concentric circles. The smallest circle at the core represents identity. The middle circle surrounding identity represents practice. The outer circle surrounding practice represents belief.

For Christians, Muslims and other non-Jewish faiths, the point of entry into religious identity is at the edge of the outer circle, beyond which is a religious void. The religious initiate’s first step along the journey is belief, without which there is little point in proceeding any further.
Once a Christian achieves belief in God (and Jesus) and a Muslim in Allah, they are ready to occupy the middle circle by expressing their belief through ritual practices such as prayer, pilgrimage and charity. Only after this circle is fully occupied can the practitioner penetrate to the core and fully assume religious identity.

For Jews, strangely enough, it works the other way around. A Jew is born with full Jewish identity, thus assuming the core circle as the point of departure. The ensuing journey is not in pursuit of identity, which is unconditionally conferred at birth, but rather in pursuit of expression and celebration of that identity. Therefore the next step in that journey is religious practice.

It is through the practice of Judaism that one’s Jewish identity is expressed, paving the way for entry into the outer circle of belief in and awareness of God’s presence.

That is not to say that the only way to achieve belief is through practice. There are clearly some Jews who have unshakeable faith in God despite the fact that they do not observe any Jewish rituals, just as there are some who observe ritual only to find that true faith eludes them. Yet, most of the time, a steady journey from identity to practice will invariably lead to the acquisition or deepening of faith.

It was so at the beginning of Jewish history. God extended Himself first by choosing the children of Israel as His people. He did so by extricating us from Egypt and bringing us to Mount Sinai to receive His Torah. At that point the Jewish people had done nothing to elicit such divine favour. They were passive recipients of God’s unconditional love. Only after God had made His choice did he present His people with a Torah to practice, to which they responded “We will observe and we will hear” (Exodus: 24:7) — symbolising how observance precedes and stimulates true faith, that leads the practitioner to hear the voice of God in the Torah he studies and practises.

This unique Jewish theology has two radical implications.

Firstly, there are no multiple levels of Jewishness. One either is or is not a Jew. One can be a non-observant Jew, an apathetic Jew, an agnostic Jew, even an atheist Jew but in the end; always a Jew. Since Jewish identity is unconditionally rooted in one’s being from birth, there is no way to cast it off. There are clearly huge differences among Jews in terms of observance and faith but then we are talking about the outer circles of Jewish expression, not core identity.

This is why so many Jewish schools deliberately avoided religious practice tests in determining their pupil intake. Far more important for these schools was the simple religious identity test determined by Jewish parentage.

By forcing schools to adopt religious practice tests, governing bodies find themselves in the untenable position of having to rank levels of Jewishness, which at best is absolutely meaningless and at worst is devastating to those families who fall short of the new requirements.

Secondly, the Jewish concept of teshuvah is rooted in the idea that at our core we posses an indestructible Jewish essence. Teshuvah is often wrongly translated as repentance when in actuality it means return. The idea behind this is that no matter how far a Jew may stray from their Jewish heritage, there is always a way back. That is why a Jew who rediscovers his faith is called a ba’al teshuvah; one who returned.

In Christianity one is born again. In Judaism all one needs to do is to return to who one really is and, deep down, has been all along. It was this doctrine, as distilled and promoted by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, which motivated thousands of young Chabad couples to abandon their own comfortable religious enclaves in order to travel to the furthest parts of the world in pursuit of Jews who had fallen out of religious practice in the hope of helping them to return.

The weeks and months ahead are sure to present many challenges for Jewish schools. Yet every challenge is also a hidden opportunity. The debate sparked by the court case can help us better understand and appreciate who we really are as Jews.

Rabbi Brawer is the author of A Brief Guide to Judaism

    Last updated: 4:16pm, October 19 2009