Blogging Avot: Wieseltier on Identity

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At the President’s Conference yesterday, I attended a session called “Jewish Identity: Unraveling or Renewing?” a panel discussion featuring — among others — Rav Yehudah Amital, the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion, where I spent two formative years in the mid-1990s, and Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of the New Republic.

Even while I was studying at Har Etzion, I had a complicated relationship with the yeshiva, but I always felt great warmth for Rav Amital, a wise, humble man, who has blazed his own path, negotiating Religious Zionism and the modern State of Israel.

Wieseltier, for his part, is consistently engaging and brilliant, and yesterday he did not disappoint.

He began by noting that the proliferation of conference sessions with similar titles to this one indicates that the discussion of Jewish identity is becoming an important part of Jewish identity.

For someone who authored a book called Against Identity, this is not a compliment.

Of course, Wieseltier isn’t against Jewish identity, he is just against the vacuousness of identity discourse.

“Identity is not self-expression,” Wieseltier repeated for emphasis. “Identity is not customization.”

What is identity, then?

First of all, it is not something passed down by tradition.

“Identity is precisely what is not inherited,” Wieselter opined.

And here’s the Pirkei Avot tie in. Wieseltier quoted Avot 2:17:

Rabbi Yosi said: Let the property of your fellow man be as dear to you as your own. Prepare yourself for the study of the Torah, for the knowledge of it is not yours by inheritance. Let all your deeds be done for the sake of Heaven.

As Wieseltier noted, one might have thought that R. Yosi should have said “Prepare yourself for the study of Torah because it is your inheritance.” But no, one must prepare for Torah because it must be pursued if one is to make it ones own.

And this is not easy. “A real Jewish identity should rob one of sleep on a regular basis,” Wieseltier said, and he railed against the internal relativism of the Jewish community, what he described as: “I like knishes, you like Rambam, let’s be Jewish together.”

For Wieseltier, some aspects of Jewish tradition are more important and weighty and more appropriate to pursue as part of a serious Jewish life.

“Freedom of the mind should not be an excuse for intellectual and spiritual slackness,” he concluded.

Posted on May 15, 2008

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