What does 'Jewish' mean in today's America?

Allan C. Brownfeld of the American Council for Judaism and political pundit Pamela Geller discuss what it means to be Jewish. Photo: Associated Press

OCALA, Fla., October 7, 2013 — America is a nation in transition, and that has had a profound impact on America’s Jewish community.

Many of our country’s social mores are changing due to an influx of once-alien cultural standards. This is reflected on the local, state, and national political stages alike.

SEE RELATED: Should American Jews care about Israel?

The impact of this shift in the American Jewish community as not been widely reported. Secularism and, in a broader sense, philosophical diversity have led many to question just exactly what it is that denotes “Jewishness”.

Is it a set of theological beliefs? A deeply personal worldview? Cultural adherence? Is it inextricably linked to Zionism, which is the support of a Jewish state and the encouragement of Jewish emigration there?

“There are many different approaches to the nature of being Jewish,” says Allan C. Brownfeld, publications editor at the American Council for Judaism. His organization, formed during World War II, has opposed Jewish ethnocentric politics from the start.

“We believe that Judaism is a religion and that God and Jewish moral and ethical teachings are at its center,” he continues. “The fact that most Jews are born into Jewish families and that these families have long histories cannot be discounted. There are also those who have converted to Judaism, and their numbers are growing.  

SEE RELATED: Does Zionism help or hurt Jews in the Diaspora?

“In America, more and more, we see Jews of every racial and ethnic background. If Judaism were a nationality, as Zionists claim, it would not have a history — going back to biblical times — of welcoming converts from all the nations on earth. And what of Jews who convert to other religions. Jean Marie Lustiger, a convert from Judaism who later became Roman Catholic Cardinal of Paris always claimed that by becoming a Christian, he did not cease being a Jew.   

“The same position was taken by Israel Zolli, chief rabbi of Rome during World War II, who became a Catholic after the war. Some say that a Jew who rejects God can continue to consider himself a Jew, while one who embraces another religion cannot. Perhaps, in our free society, men and women should be free to identify themselves as they see fit.”

Pamela Geller, one of America’s most outspoken political pundits, claims that Jewishness can be defined by religious practice, personal ancestry, “and more. It involves a whole complex of attitudes, assumptions, and one’s outlook on life.”

On the topic of religion, the diversity of opinion among Jews is enormous. 

One of the newest mainstream denominations is Humanistic Judaism, which consists of people who observe Jewish religious philosophy from a non-theistic viewpoint. How does this factor into the ACJ’s outlook on Judaism?

“Anyone who believes that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality dedicated to the advancement of a particular ‘Jewish’ state, is welcome to join with us,” Brownfeld says. “Men and women within the Jewish tradition hold many different views and open discussion and debate is part of that tradition.”

What about the diaspora Jews, both secular and theistic alike, who claim that the ethics of their religion forbid them from supporting Zionism?

“This is nonsense,” Geller remarks. “It is a cowardly approach to their abandonment of Israel. I don’t understand how anyone can think that Jewish ethics forbid a Jew from returning to his homeland.”

The ACJ is rooted in Classical Reform Judaism, which differs extensively from Modern Reform. The classical tradition places a great emphasis on universalist, rationalist, and assimilationist religious ethics. Its primary concern is the existential. 

The modern tradition champions making aliyah — Jewish emigration to Israel — and has plainly associated the concept of God with supernaturalism. Reform Jews of generations past might very well mistake it for Conservative Judaism.

“Slowly,” Brownfeld explains, “Reform Judaism moved toward accepting Zionism. In many respects, this was a response to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The feeling grew that a Jewish state was necessary to resettle the refugees of World War II and to prevent future outbreaks of anti-Semitism.  

“If it had not been for the Holocaust, Zionism is likely to have remained a minority view. There is, of course, great irony in seeing Jews, the victims of extreme nationalism in Europe, adopt an extreme nationalism of their own. The Union of Reform Judaism adopted a platform declaring that Israel was ‘central’ to their faith, and encouraging emigration to that state. 

“This is quite puzzling since Israel is an Orthodox Jewish theocracy in which Reform Jews have fewer rights than any place in the Western world. Reform rabbis cannot perform weddings and funerals and their conversions are not recognized.

“Jewish groups in our own country demand strict separation of church and state, even taking the lead in court actions against voluntary, nonsectarian prayer in the schools. Yet they support a theocracy in Israel? Do they only believe in religious freedom in societies in which Jews are a minority?

“The ACJ has kept the principles of Classical Reform Judaism alive. I believe that a silent majority of American Jews are sympathetic to this philosophy.”

Geller, who says she is “not a supporter of the Reform movement,” believes that the denomination’s Zionist transformation took place “because … Israel was largely founded by non-religious Jews.”

Far-left? Far-right? Get realRead more from “The Conscience of a Realist” by Joseph F. Cotto 


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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