What does it mean to be Jewish? The answer evades us. Rabbis are less than unanimous in defining what a Jew is. For some, being Jewish means a lifetime of wandering through the Sinai wilderness of identity. I remember a major debate that I shared with other young Hebrew school students my age. The question was: Are you an American first and a Jew second, or a Jew first and an American second? The loyal answer was not the patriotic answer, because it was expected at my Orthodox Hebrew school that we were committed to being Jews first and Americans second. And yet, most of us couldn’t have told you what it meant to be a Jew first.
Have you ever been embarrassed about being a Jew? Somehow, you knew you were part of a unique people, but you could not quite define or articulate what this meant. Jewish leaders call our attention to this problem of Jewish identity. The apparent confusion felt by many Jews ranges in intensity from simple identity confusion to outright self-hatred. Jerry Diller, writing in the Journal of Psychology and Judaism, calls the phenomenon identity rejection”:
The term identity rejection is used here to denote a state of psychic imbalance in which an aspect of identity, namely the fact of one’s Jewish background, is not fully integrated or accepted by the self. So defined, it may range in occurrence from apathy or total indifference to complete rejection and denial.1
Identity rejection, whether in a Jew or a non-Jew, is self-destructive. If we cannot accept ourselves for what we are, then we cannot possibly accept others. It is difficult to live life to the fullest when we are uncomfortable with our own identity, not understanding who we are, and perhaps even denying an important part of ourselves. Some of us repress the problem, but that only leads to greater confusion and alienation from ourselves and our community. Eugene B. Borowitz, editor of Sh’ma, reflects on this phenomenon of identity rejection:
Self-hate arises when the minority-group member, who takes so many of his values from the majority group, learns to think of himself in its terms. Because his group is strange in their eyes, he comes to believe himself strange. Since they look down on him, he begins to look down on himself, particularly on that which differentiates him. So, among Jews it was truly a compliment not to “look Jewish.” Similarly, in the black community until recent years, the lighter one’s skin, the higher one’s social status was likely to be.2
It is critical that we discover who we are as Jews and, in coin so, integrate this understanding within the core of our being so we can be comfortable with ourselves and with other.
Expressions of Jewish Identity Conflict
History affords us numerous examples of Jewish people confused over their identities and even of those suffering from self-hatred. Perhaps the phenomenon began with those Jews who chose to remain in Babylon rather than return to Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah. Maybe we can trace the origins of this malady to the Jews who accepted Hellenization and worshipped the graven images of the Greek gods.
History is not without specific examples. The historian Flavius Josephus was a Jewish general who chose to join the side of the Romans rather than lay down his life on the side of the Jewish people. He later wrote Jewish history, or more accurately “anti-Jewish history,” to please the Romans. Josephus is a “Benedict Arnold” of his generation, and he exemplifies disloyalty to Judaism.
Unfortunately, some of the most vehement self-professed haters of the Jewish people were so-called “converts to Christianity.” Johannes Pfefferkorn was allegedly converted to Christianity by the Dominicans in 1504. Only three years later, he began writing anti-Jewish tracts which called for “the suppression of the Talmud; prohibition of usury; forced attendance at sermons to Jews…; expulsion of the Jews from the last German cities which had sizable Jewish communities…The name Pfefferkorn became proverbial for unprincipled denigrators of their own origin and faith.”3
There were also great Jewish philosophers who suffered from an aggravated confusion over their Jewish identities. Karl Marx is perhaps the most extreme example of this. It is curious to note that both his mother and father were the offspring of rabbis. Marx’s father, who became a prominent Russian Jewish lawyer, converted to Protestantism because of an edict prohibiting Jews from being legal advocates. In Marx’s own materialistic interpretation of the world, he found no place for a valid Jewish experience. In his essay “Zur Judenfrage” (“About the Jewish Question”) he wrote:
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money…Out of its entrails bourgeois society continually creates Jews.4
How ironic that Marx’s view of his own Jewish people became a view of Hitler, who boasted of his anti-Communism.
Sigmund Freud also suffered from identity rejection, as Leon Vogel points out:
We can perhaps conclude that Freud, victim of his own inferiority complex, did not completely resolve his conflicts by self-analysis, and was ultimately unable quite to accept his own identity as a Jew. He proved unable to overcome his rejection by the world of German culture, whose spiritual son he was, which gave rise to immense feelings of frustration. It was to resolve that dilemma that Freud wrote his book on Moses and monotheism.5
In recent times, popular writers such as Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint) have parodied Jewishness by depicting Jews with all too human faults, yet with none of the divine nobility or redeeming traits which have characterized Jewish life through the ages. Marie Syrkin writes:
Roth’s chief contribution to the Jewish mother routine is the picture of momma threatening her son with a long bread knife to make him eat. To make sure that this maniacal bit is viewed as characteristic of the type rather than as an individual aberration, the Jewish ladies who come to play mah-jongg applaud this technique in child care.6
An Analysis of Jewish Identity Rejection
Jews are known as the “chosen people” of God. Yet Judaism has traditionally interpreted her election as a burden to bear rather than a privilege to enjoy. At Sinai God covenanted with our forefathers to keep his Torah; but our national promise of obedience, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8), never came to fruition. We have never fully enjoyed the promised blessings of obedience; thus, our “chosenness” has produced more liabilities than benefits. Many would agree with Reb Tevya of Fiddler on the Roof, who, looking up to the Father in heaven, cried, “Lord! Maybe next time You can choose somebody else!”
Most Jewish people are simply bewildered about their “differentness.” Although we have blended into mainstream Western civilization over the last 200 years, we are still perceived as “different.” Often, we gain this sense of “apartness” from the very ones who perceive us as different. Although most Jews have not undertaken the obligations of the Law to remain distinct from the other nations, the nations have nevertheless labeled us as distinct. Although anti-Semitism and segregation have dramatically diminished in the United States, and Jews have taken firm root in American society and culture, we are still viewed as Jews.
Some Jewish people resent this sense of “apartness” imposed upon them. Even though there has been a resurgence of cultural pride among America’s ethnic groups, many Jewish people still dislike the fact that they are perceived as “different.”
Jewish psychologists have struggled to identify the rationale for the identity crisis which plagues us today. Diller notes four patterns of experience common to “identity-rejecting” Jews:
1. Intergroup conflict
As a result of growing up between conflicting cultures, the person may experience limited access to certain aspects of mainstream culture based upon Jewishness. If the satisfaction derived from being a Jew does not compensate for what is lost, one may ultimately begin to resent that part of one’s identity.
2. The quality of Jewish experience
In certain circles the practice of Judaism has become hollow and diluted. This phenomenon has taken two forms: an unfeeling and rigid orthodoxy of rule following, and a blend of muted religiosity and affluence. These patterns are well portrayed in the novels of Chaim Potok and Philip Roth, respectively.
3. The mistrust of religion and religious experience
Contemporary culture prizes rationality and logic over the emotional, spiritual and religious sides of human experience. Internalizing this preference, most young people, Jews included, learn to be suspicious of and uncomfortable with the nonrational modes of experiencing, which form the basis of religious practice and observance.
4. The relationship between Judaism and the drive for independence
Adolescence is a time of striving for independence and a unique existence apart from the family. However, many parents have a difficult time letting go and providing this freedom. This is particularly true of parents who come from cultural traditions, such as Judaism, which place great importance on the family and family ties…it is quite possible that the young person will equate Jewishness with one’s familial problems and reject it as a symbol of one’s drive for independence.7
Many Jewish people have reacted to what they feel are the negative aspects of our distinct culture. Some Jewish people feel that while many of the traditions are “nice,” their purpose has become obsolete. Others feel political embarrassment over some of the aggressive military strategies of the nation of Israel. We laugh about the traditional “Jewish mother’s guilt trip,” but many of us resent the institutionalized place of guilt in Jewish culture. Moshe Adler, in his article, “Alienation and Jewish Jesus freaks,” uses this illustration of the prohibition on intermarriage:
Thus, for example, when parents tell their child, “We don’t care whether or not you keep Jewish practices, as long as you don’t marry a non-Jew or convert to another religion,” they are presenting their child with a stated rule (Jews must never leave the Jewish people or marry outside it) and an observed behavior that clashes with it…The uniique religio-nationalistic context which alone gives meaning to the ban on marrying a non Jew has been all but eroded away for these parents. They sense that it is somehow treasonable for a Jew to leave his people but are unable to communicate this sense to their child.8
The rising rate of intermarriage is a clear indication of Jewish identity confusion. The low level of attendance at synagogue and low membership in Jewish organizations also show a continued decrease in identification with Jewish values. Stripped of religious and cultural ties, the modern Jew finds little or no transcendent meaning in his Jewish identity. This causes a broad range of feelings, from apathy to confusion to outright Jewish self-hatred.
The Solution to the Jewish Identity Crisis
It has been reported by various sources that Jewish identity rejection is a major impetus in Jews’ turning to Jesus. It is alleged that “conversion” forms the quintessence of rebellion and rejection of Judaism. The greatest act of self-hatred one can commit is suicide, and Jewish belief in Jesus has been likened to ethno-cultural suicide.
The liberal wing of the traditional Jewish community assumes that those Jews who have become believers in Jesus were previously alienated from the Jewish community. Thus, faith in Jesus is seen as merely one expression of a problem these “proselytes” allegedly had with their Jewish identity. Jewish Christians are looked upon as cultists who have abandoned their Jewish identity.
Curiously, statistics have proven the opposite to be true. In a recent survey of Jewish people who believe in Jesus as the Messiah, 75 percent indicated that they celebrate the Jewish holidays. More than 80 percent said they still identify themselves as Jews.9 This trend among Jewish believers in Jesus has mystified Jewish leaders. They must ask: If it’s true that Jews believe in Jesus out of self-hatred, then why—once they believe—is their sense of Jewish identity heightened rather than diminished?
It would seem that if Jewish believers in Jesus experience a degree of identity confusion prior to their faith in Jesus, it is no different than that felt by other Jews. But the reinforcement of their Jewish heritage after they believe in Jesus is a stabilizing force in retaining a healthy sense of Jewishness.
This phenomenon is difficult to analyze. Several factors may account for the growing sense of Jewish pride among Messianic Jews. Jewish believers in Jesus view God as the true Author and Creator of the Jewish people. This results in a renewed belief in the integrity of the Holy Scriptures and therefore in a divine mandate for Jewish existence. The Jewish believer realizes that his identity as a Jew is a continuation of biblical history. His own Jewishness is not a human invention, but divinely ordained. These biblical roots provide the modern Jew with an anchor of strength in a fast-paced, changing world.
Believers in the Messiah have also found a renewed purpose for their lives as Jews. In my own traditional Jewish home in New York City, I felt that my responsibility as a Jew was limited to my own people. Yet in the Scriptures, God promised Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to the whole earth: “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Contrary to this promise, I had always been told as a child to keep a certain distance from gentiles. When I later became a believer in Jesus, I saw a whole different purpose for my role as a Jew in this world.
Isaiah called upon Israel to be God’s witnesses (Isaiah 43:12). We were to shine the true light of God to gentile nations enmeshed in darkness. A holy and obedient life would teach gentiles about the God of Israel and lead them in faith to trust in him. By turning inward, the Jewish people have been emissaries without a message for the world. Although Jewish leaders have been actively involved in important social causes, the Scriptures called upon the nation of Israel to go beyond relief work, to do more than ethics—to actually be a reconciling force revealing the way of God’s blessing for the world. As a follower of Jesus, I can now fulfill this role because God has called his disciples to proclaim his truth to every nation (Matthew 28:19-20). By telling others about God and his Messiah, I fulfill the destiny of my ancestors and of my people.
The basic problem of self-acceptance plagues all of humanity. The key to self-acceptance is knowing that we ourselves have been accepted by a loving God. He has made us precisely the way he intended. Tall or short, Jewish or gentile, black or white, the living God has made us and fashioned us as he pleased. Knowing this, we come one step closer to a healthy sense of self-acceptance. To hate ourselves or any part of ourselves would be rebellion against God. He is the one who made us Jewish, and we don’t have the right to despise or forsake that part of who we are. It is his sovereign will that we were born of Jewish parents, and it is up to us not only to accept this, but to delight in it.
But beyond this, God has provided a way for us to accept ourselves with all of our self-acknowledged personal shortcomings and weaknesses. He sent the Messiah, Yeshua, to bear our infirmities (Isaiah 53) and to take our weaknesses upon his strong shoulders. By suffering in our place, being our atonement, the Messiah paved the way for our acceptance by our Holy Creator God. Because he accepts us and forgives our sins and shortcomings, we can fully accept ourselves. I know that he has received me in Yeshua and forgiven my sins. His acceptance allows me to freely accept myself for who I am—a Jewish man forgiven of his sin by the Jewish Messiah.
The dilemma of Jewish identity should be viewed with compassion and empathy. It has never been easy being Jewish. But I consider people like my grandfather, who suffered intolerably for the Jewish faith, to be true heroes. He left Russia after a pogrom, lost his 12 brothers and sisters to holocaust murderers, and yet he taught my mother to be proud of her Jewishness. She passed the mantle of Jewish pride down to me. For this reason, I was always quick to be counted as a “Jew first and an American second.”
But Jewish pride is not enough. A history of common suffering cannot give a young man or woman a secure and reasonable Jewish identity. The memory of the holocaust serves to enrage, but not to unite Jews in a common self-awareness. Nor can our self-concept be rooted in the restoration of our ancient homeland. That which once held Jews together—family, community, tradition, social and religious institutions—is being swept away in the swirling riptide of modernity, leaving only the soft sand of doubt and identity confusion behind. The wandering Jew—secular, assimilated or cultural—is yearning for a better rationale for Jewish loyalty than tradition. We live in a society which is catapulting its way into the 21st century; the present is rapidly becoming the past. The solution to our Jewish identity problem must be harmonious with our present, yet able to unite us with our history.
We must find meaning in our Jewishness which goes beyond ourselves, which transcends past and present and gives meaning to the future of our children. Borowitz makes this point as well:
Sensitive people are, to use the mechanistic jargon of our age, turned off so regularly by our synagogues and our rabbinic style that they never find out what the Jewish religion teaches about God and how that might relate to what they have sensed in themselves. In a technologized, increasingly amoral world they seek a teaching that would keep our lives steady in the pursuit of value and a community that would strengthen their resolve and influence society. The synagogue, instead of sensitizing persons, emphasizes decorum; instead of creating community, it builds an institution; instead of changing society, it serves itself.10
The source of a healthy, holistic identity as a Jew can only be found in a personal relationship with the God of the Jews. He made us, covenanted with our ancestors, and will have it no other way. Those of us who recognize God’s claim on our lives must ask the question: “What does God want me to do about being Jewish?” At the very least, we should conclude that he does not want us to deny or resent our birthright. We must rejoice and praise God with the Psalmist who said, “I will give thanks to thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are thy works, and my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:14).
By accepting that God made us who we are, we begin the journey of healthy self-acceptance. By accepting Yeshua as our Messiah and trusting in his grace to forgive us of our sins and shortcomings, we can freely accept ourselves as human beings. We can love God, love ourselves and love our neighbors, because God first loved us.
- Jerry V. Diller, Journal of Psychology and Judaism, “Identity Rejection and Reawakening in the Jewish Community,” Vol. 5, No. 1, Fall/Winter 1980, New York, N.Y., p. 41.
- Eugene B. Borowitz, The Mask Jews Wear—The Self-Deceptions of American Jewry, 1980, paperback edition by Sh’ma, Port Washington, N.Y., p.38.
- Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd., Jerusalem, Israel, 1972, Vol. 13, pp. 355-357.
- Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, pp. 1071- 1074.
- Leon Vogel, “Freud and Judaism: An Analysis in the Light of His Correspondence,” from Judaism, Issue 94, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring 1975, New York, N.Y., p. 191.
- Marie Syrkin, “The Fun of Self-Abuse,” from Midstream, April 1969, New York, N.Y., pp. 64-65.
- Diller, p. 41 -42.
- Moshe Adler, “Alienation and Jewish Jesus Freaks,” from Judaism, Issue 91, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer 1974, New York, N.Y., p. 293.
- Beverly Jamison and Mitchell Glaser, Jewish Believer Survey: A Demographic Profile of Jews Who Believe in Jesus, 1983, San Francisco, Calif., pp. 8-9.
- Borowitz, p.176.