Passover Reflections on Judaism and Identity
I have mixed feelings about the Jewish holiday of Passover. I absolutely love the seders, but I hate the other six days without bread. You can insert the standard jokes about matzoh causing constipation here, as the goyim don’t seem to be aware of this. I’m also bothered by the capitalist cooptation of the holiday, and of kashrut in general. Jewish dietary laws have become a means to jack up prices. Even more egregious, on Passover, products emerge like kosher for Passover cakes and cereal, which kind of defeat the purpose of the whole holiday and exemplify the notion of obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit.
Still, every year, despite my reservations, and despite being a secular-minded atheist, I endure eight days of the bread of affliction. Why?
The reasons I tell people are the same reasons I practice any Jewish rituals in my own modified and modernized Reconstructionist Jewish way, from fasting on Yom Kippur to lighting Shabbos candles on Friday nights. It all boils down to three things:
1) Observing these rituals connects me with a sense of my own personal past. That is to say, it is something I grew up doing, and so I feel some obligation to continue practicing the rituals, and derive some joy from fulfilling that obligation and keeping up the tradition. And I’m a historian, so my personal history is important to me.
2) Observing these rituals connects me to the long arch and narrative of Jewish history. In some way, shape, or form, Jews all over the world have been performing these same or similar rituals for thousands of years. I derive pleasure from feeling connected to this historical chain. Again, I’m a historian, so this makes sense.
3) Jews all over the world still today perform these rituals. So by performing them myself, I feel connected to a global Jewish community, which fills me with warmth and pride.
In my mind, these reasons all operate within the framework of Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Judaism, which posits that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. Reconstructionism endorses full equality for women, gays and lesbians, converts, and Jews of patrilineal descent. Kaplan argued that Jewish law should get a vote but not a veto. His movement makes room for atheism, progressive Zionism and a great deal of diversity within its inclusive tent.
These reasons also have a lot to do with the dreaded “I” word, “identity,” the bete noir of many academics. But they also have a lot to do with the “C” word. No, not that one. I’m talking about “community,” which is held in a much more favourable light.
I guess I care a lot about my identity and my community, and more broadly about identity and community in general. And that of course seeps into my historical work, which is specifically about Horace Kallen and Alain Locke, but more generally about changing intellectual understandings of Jewish and African American identity and community.
And that’s why I post so much about intermarriage, and Zionism, Jewishness, and identity. Because I feel heavily invested in the struggle for Jewish continuity, even if I try to not let that distort my analyses as an academic historian. And so I tend to devalue ideologies like Marxism or extreme libertarianism, which deny significance and merit to cultural differences.
I try to be objective in my work, as I believe objectivity is often undervalued or downright ignored in today’s academic climate. Still, I admit that my biases do seep in. And if I do have one bias, I guess I should proclaim it loudly here, on this openly biased blog: I think ethnic particularlism is good. By ethnic I mean ethnic, religious, and cultural particularism.
Not always good though. When it becomes violent, chauvinistic nationalism that leads to murder and genocide, it is bad. I try to separate between the benign particularism that comes from lighting Shabbos candles and the pernicious particularism that emerges when right-wing Zionists tell Arabs they can’t live in certain neighbourhoods. And I think the two are probably and unfortunately connected in ways that should and do make me uncomfortable, even if I can’t quite explain those connections.
In his book, The End of Faith, militant atheist Sam Harris argues that religious “moderates” are almost as much to blame for the ills of faith as religious extremists, because they provide moral legitimacy to religion itself, the source of violent fundamentalism. I actually have some sympathy for this argument, and yet here I am, a passionate if moderate ethnic particularist, giving legitimacy to my more violent and extreme brethren.
But maybe it has to be this way.
Let me illustrate with a little anecdote from my college days. Back then, I moderated an Arab-Jewish student dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some ways it was your typical Arab-Jewish student dialogue, featuring a smattering of left-wing Jews and wealthy, often Christian Arabs getting together to bash Israel. There were of course numerous important exceptions to that, which made it a rewarding if frustrating experience. One of those exceptions was, on the surface, one of those left-wing Jews, and I mean really left-wing: lived in the Dudley Co-op, active in radical student movements, strongly opposed to American hawkish foreign policy, very concerned with social justice and very critical of the Israeli government. And yet, during one dialogue session, she followed the more vociferous anti-Israel sentiment to its logical conclusion, and proclaimed she didn’t like it.
If peace in the Middle East means there would be no Jews, then I would rather there be war, forever.
I can’t say that I disagree. Because my sense of Jewish identity and Jewish community is one of the many things that provide meaning in my life. And I think these forms of communal identification and affiliation make the world interesting.