Thoughts on individual Jewish self-identification


These days the majority of the Jews don’t have personal rabbi who helps them to figure out what they are supposed to do to consider themselves Jewish. Of course they know they were born to Jewish families. Is it enough to be Jewish? Certainty not – we are aware of many people born to Jewish families but who conduct themselves as almost anti-Jewish or even as anti-Semites. We remember the history – the people of the ten tribes (out of the original twelve) who were born to Jewish families later disappeared from the Jewish history. We know for the long-long historic time Jewish population remains stable at the level of about 15-20 million – this stability tells us that many who are born to Jewish families stop identifying themselves as Jewish. All that indicates there should be something else in addition to being born to Jewish families for Jewish identification. 

So, how to identify themselves as Jewish not just by a fact of being born to a Jewish family? Here are some thoughts on individual Jewish self-identification.

Identification with the Torah

For many centuries, theologians, archaeologists, historians and scientists have been trying to prove or disprove the truthfulness of the events described in the Torah/Bible. But from the point of view of Jewish identification the truthfulness of the events described in the Torah is irrelevant. Even if all the events described are a figment of the people’s collective imagination, this imagination shaped the Jewish people, made them unique, and defined their spirituality, which also is the identification of these people. That’s why being an eternal student of the Torah is the most important trait of Jewish self-identification.

Identification with God

As humans we are playing gods over everything and everybody what is in the realm of our power. As scientists we are playing gods over our objects of research; as parents we are playing gods over our children; as managers we are playing gods over our employees. When we are playing god over our dog the dog is trying to figure out what we are demanding from him in order to accommodate our demands and make his life easier; when we are playing god over our child he/she is learning how to behave to make the life more enjoyable; when we are playing god over somebody who is working for us this person is accommodating our demands to make his work more productive and therefore to make more money.

So, as humans we are playing gods over everything and everybody what is in the realm of our power. If it is so, we have to assume there is another realm over us where we, the humans, are subjects of influence of somebody or something what demands from us something and guides us somewhere. And if we, the humans, want our life to be purposeful, relatively secure and fulfilling we have to understand the demands, guidance and regulations of this something or somebody above us – the True One God. We have to identify ourselves with this power and its realm to become an integral individual part of this realm, and that’s another important trait of Jewish self-identification.

Identification with Jewish tradition and history

In the course of Jewish history individuals have been identified as Jews by external forces – rabbis or anti-Semites. “A Jew” was a kind of invisible label affixed to an individual
regardless of the desire and spirituality of the individual himself. We have to explore our individual Jewish identification not as the verdict of these external forces, but as the conscious decision of the individual himself based on his intellectual understanding of the history of the Jewish people and their unique role in the advancement of the ideas of “A Better World” for every human being. We have to create our own individual programs of being Jewish, work on their implementation and enjoy it.

Identification with creativity

According to the Torah, “A Better World” is not the realization of social systems contrived by earthly enlightened leaders, such as the founders of capitalism, socialism, communism, halakhic Judaism or sharia Islam. “A Better World” according to the Torah is the realization of the combined efforts of individuals of Judeo-Christian spirituality continuing the spiritual and material creation of our world in accordance with their understanding of their own role in the continuation of what was created at the very beginning by someone or something subsequently called God (regardless of how this someone or something is imagined in the minds of people). We have to be creators – all of us – scientists and entrepreneurs, tailors and laborers, parents and children, employers and employees. And we, the Jews, have to be models to the world of the creativity – that’s an important trait of our self-identification.

Identification with a synagogue and a rabbi

Most of the Jews have reconciled themselves to an interpretation of Judaism’s fundamental principles (the Torah) given by rabbis who obtained the training required at yeshivot, seminaries, colleges and the like. Most of the Jews believe one can obtain the knowledge to understand the religion and abide by it correctly only from a rabbi. However the rabbis of the different streams of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Humanistic interpret Torah concepts differently. Therefore, it is thought a Jew selects a stream closer to his world-view, follows the instructions of its corresponding leader and joins a synagogue of this denomination.

However, Jewish identification doesn’t require joining a synagogue. A synagogue is a place for strengthening Jewish identification through performing the rituals – daily prayers, life cycle events, Shabbat/holiday celebrations, Torah study, etc. Some people need it – a synagogue helps them define more clearly what they are supposed to do outside the synagogue in the real everyday life where the construction of “A Better World” is going on. However, not everybody needs it – some people can live Jewish life without being connected formally to a personal synagogue and rabbi. For most of the Jews that’s the case – about 85% of the Jews are not members of any organized religious community.  And this number is increasing – a better family and general education allows many people to figure out how to identify themselves as Jewish on their own.

And all that is how a Jew can identify himself/herself as the Jew by his/her Torah-based spirituality and actions – not just by a fact of being born to a Jewish family.  

About Vladimir Minkov

Vladimir Minkov Ph.D. is a nuclear scientist, published author and writer. He is the co-author of "Nuclear Shadow Boxing", a scientific history of the nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and USA during the cold war and is the author of "The Jews and Their Role in Our World", which explores his personal journey to discovering Jewish identity. Having lost much of his family in the Holocaust and finding his search for spiritual development stifled in the Soviet Union, Vladimir migrated to the United States in the late 1970s.

Posted on May 2, 2012, in English-language posts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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