Non-Traditional Jewish Identities

A look at the many different ways Jews define their Judaism today.

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Reprinted with permission from the website of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Is there any reason to be Jewish if you don't believe that Torah is the word of God? I would have thought that this question had long ago been answered in the affirmative until I read a recent book review in The New York Times.

In his review of a new book on Jewish culture, the writer David Klinghoffer takes a dim view of those who experience their Jewishness as consisting of anything other than the divine word revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai. "Whatever pragmatists insist to the contrary, it's hard to see why anyone would embrace a religion if it comes down to us ultimately not from God but from some long-dead Middle Eastern guys," he writes.

Or, as Klinghoffer argues even more pungently in his own book, The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy, "the defining Jewish criterion must not be blood, or culture, or nationhood, or any of the innumerable substitutes for Judaism that have been proposed by factions among our people-compassion, tolerance, freedom, socialism, Zionism, Holocaust veneration, Jewish self-defense, Jewish unity--but Truth alone."

jewish identityKlinghoffer's dismissal of the various ways some 83 percent of North American Jews live their Jewish lives brought me back to a conversation I had in a Jerusalem yeshiva almost three years ago. Wherever the conversation had started, it ended up being about the Jewish contribution to the world, which my classmates equated almost entirely with yeshiva learning.

A proud product of the post-war, suburban baby boom, I grew up in a world that was intensely and proudly Jewish, infused with meaning and connection, despite the distance many of our friends and neighbors put between themselves and the "tradition." And while I now belong to an Orthodox synagogue and send my kids to an Orthodox day school, my upbringing helped me see the innumerable ways Jews find meaning in their Jewishness--yes, outside the yeshiva, outside the synagogue--even as they maintain the shocking position that no one can know the Truth.

In recent years CLAL [the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership] has been exploring the many forms Judaism has taken in 20th century North America, looking beneath the surface of seemingly secular behaviors and events to discover the kernel of Jewish values at their core. With the help of my colleagues, I present below a partial list of what a traditionalist might regard as "substitutes for Judaism," but what a more generous observer would see as the glory of Jewish creativity and re-invention, from Sinai until today.

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Andrew Silow-Carroll

Andrew Silow-Carroll is a newspaper editor and widely published writer on contemporary Judaism.