Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

American Jews have forgotten their letters and words.

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The following working paper was written for the Bronfman Vision Forum’s Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

I.
The afternoons are sometimes very long when you are a graduate student, and there was one long afternoon, 20 years ago, when a few graduate students in Jewish history sat around a seminar table in a musty room in Widener Library and, half to amuse ourselves and half to make sense of the profusion of the forms of medieval Judaism, invented a field of inquiry that we called Comparative Diasporalogy.

Our study of Jewish history was teaching us to call into question one of the axioms of Jewish consciousness, which is that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew; that we are all in some essential way the same; that a Jew in 16th century Fez had more in common with a Jew in 16th century Cracow than with a non-Jew in 16th century Fez.

There is some truth, of course, to this axiom of the unitary nature of the Jewish people. Spiritually, certainly, we base our self-definitions on the same texts and the same myths and the same hopes. And from the standpoint of what we now call "Jewish identity," the notion that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew is a necessary fiction, an indispensable foundation for our universal solidarity with each other. We must define ourselves in a way that provides a moral foundation for our assistance to each other. 

a letter from moses mendelssohnBut the requirements of identity are usually not the same as the requirements of history; and the study of Jewish history shows that different Jewries have different characters and different emphases and different tones. We are one, but we are also many; and our plurality is as much a strength, as much a cause of what we are, as our singularity. In certain critical ways, the Jewish culture of Fez in the 16th century was not at all like the Jewish culture of Cracow in the 16th century; and a similar diversity may be found in other Jewries in other times.

In Spain, where the Jewry of the Middle Ages enjoyed its glamorous "Golden Age," Jewish culture included courtiers and warriors and love poets and drinking songs and radical philosophers alongside its great scholars and jurists.

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Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.

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