What Shapes Jewish Identity?

  1. What is Jewish identity?
    1. Unpacking the question

      When I say that I am a Jew, with a strong sense of Jewish identity, I am making a claim that can be evaluated in a variety of ways. My claim to be Jewish will be assessed against psychological and sociological reference points — in what way do I understand myself to be Jewish, and how does the Jewish community and the world at large respond to my claim? Am I Jewish according to some criterion of "Jewishness" defined by history and tradition, or something else? And what is this concept or quality of "Jewishness?" Is it ethnic, religious, or a combination of the two? If my identity as a Jew is expressed in unorthodox terms (and the word "orthodoxy" begs a series of further questions), how is my own version of Jewish identity to be evaluated? Is there such a thing as "Jewish identity", or should we rather be speaking in the plural, of "Jewish identities?"

      The question needs considerable unpacking, like the age-old question "who is a Jew?" Just as this question conceals a series of further questions such as "By what norms and criteria is the category Jew to be defined? Who has the right to define it? Why do they need to define it? Who needs to know? In whose interests is it to have such a definition? and Who is required to accept it?" so the question "What shapes Jewish identity?" similarly requires careful consideration, especially when the additional claim is made that Jewish identity is fulfilled in Jesus.

    2. Why is it important?

      Those of us concerned with Jewish evangelism need a clear understanding of the nature of Jewish identity, so that we may more effectively share the Good News of the Messiah. One charge that has often been levelled against us is that our understanding is too simplistic, and results in the failure of our evangelistic efforts. Irving Horowitz’s keynote address at a recent conference on "Jewish survival and the identity problem at the close of the twentieth century" claims that our inability to "convert Jews" is due to a lack of understanding of the complexity of the issue. He writes:

      "Jewish identity…. .can not easily be destroyed or eliminated: but neither can it be easily synthesised into a single supreme frame of reference. The universalism, or if one prefers, the very porosity of Judaism, even if it causes moments of grief to Israel’s particular concerns, provides residual strength to Jewish survivalist impulses. One indicator of this strength is the multiple problems encountered in conversion efforts. The source of so many failures in evangelical efforts to "convert" Jews is the narrow fundamentalist definition of what constitutes Jewishness. Christian fundamentalism tends to limit its interests in Judaism to one of theology…Consequently their efforts to eliminate Judaism via theological conversion have had limited success. Jewish strength resides in its plurality, clerical and secular alike. The gigantic historical ambiguity involving God, ethnicity and nation is a positive factor in Judaism’s survival. But it also makes it exceedingly difficult to reach a definitive answer to the question (..of how central Israel is to Jewish life") (Horowitz in Krausz 1998:12)

      Horowitz himself is guilty of oversimplification in asserting that we have a "narrow fundamentalist definition of what constitutes Jewishness" and is plainly wrong to suggest that we are attempting to "eliminate Judaism". Yet despite his polemical agenda, he correctly points to the multifaceted nature of Jewish identity, the "gigantic historical ambiguity involving God, ethnicity and nation". Our response would be that we are not only well aware of the difficulty of the subject, but that we are also in a position to make a unique and significant contribution to its understanding, through our appreciation of the gigantic historical event of the coming of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus.

    3. Defining personal identity

      So what do we mean by identity? In psychological terms personal identity may be defined as the pattern of observable or inferable attributes which identify an individual to oneself and others (Herman 1997:28). Personal identity develops as the individual passes through different growth stages, from childhood to maturity. At each stage of life, identity formation arises from the selective laying aside and taking up of elements of previous identities. These are then absorbed into a new configuration. Personal identity is something that is both particular to each individual, in that it defines the characteristics that set one apart from others as a unique being. It is also universal, in that membership of a group can only be acquired when it is recognised that certain identifiable features belonging to the individual are shared with others. Personal identity is not so much the question of "who am I?" but rather "what do I want to make of myself — and - what do I have to work with?" (Herman 1977:33) Each individual has the capacity to construct a variety of identities, depending on role and social context. It is possible to be simultaneously husband, father, friend, Englishman, Jew and Christian without too much role-confusion. Different aspects of one’s identity often remain implicit until called upon.

    4. What is ethnic identity?

      Ethnic identity, or ethnicity, relates to that which the individual shares in common with others that permits membership of a particular social group defined according to certain cultural norms, differentiating the group from others. Like the earlier and less acceptable terms "race" and "nation" ethnicity is used to describe socio-political groups. Ethnic identity, or ethnicity, may be defined as a "social way of organising cultural difference." Ethnic identity enables individuals to see themselves and to be seen by others as part of a group on the basis of real or presumed common features such as ancestry, territory, language, religion and culture. Two elements are essential for ethnic identity, a social group, and a cultural unit. There is a dynamic and changing relationship between the two, as those belonging to the social group respond to internal and external factors in their environment with an appropriate change in their culture.

      What is important for our study is to note the importance of, and problematic nature of what the Norwegian anthropologist Frederick Barth calls "boundary markers" to define the group and its identity in contrast to its neighbours. The classic Jewish "boundary markers" are Sabbath, circumcision and the food laws, yet what appears a mark of ethnic identity in one context may not apply in another. Whilst these may appear fixed they are often flexible and permeable, and up for negotiation according to changing circumstances.

    5. What is Jewish identity?

    There is much debate as to whether Jewish identity should be understood primarily as an ethnic or religious identity. Orthodox Jewish thinkers such as Elliot Dorf situate Jewish identity as primarily a religious identity. Because "the languages Jews have spoken, the foods they have eaten and the clothes they have worn have been determined….. by the particular places in which they found themselves….All of the usual factors in defining a people…are skewed when it comes to the Jewish people." (Dorf 1999:263) Dorf argues that

    "Even if many contemporary Jews identify themselves as such primarily through other elements of the Jewish civilization, it is to the Jewish religion that we must turn to understand the identity of the Jewish people."(1999:263).

    This view is supported on the methodological grounds that contemporary thinking on Jewish identity in a post-enlightenment tradition is inadequate in its use of concepts such as the "individual" and the "nation-state". The particularity of the Jewish people can only be understood correctly through the theological matrix of God’s dealings with the people of Israel. Other building blocks of ethnic identity such as land, language and individual self-identity are secondary.

    However, such an approach to Jewish identity based ultimately on religious thought brings a distorted perspective to the issue, seeing the problematic nature of Jewish identity as a result of the encounter between religion and modernity. It also leads to Dorff to make rash statements such as:

    "Even though the contemporary Jewish community is much exercised over the question of who is a Jew, it has uniformly and authoritatively determined that groups like Jews for Jesus are decidedly not Jews." (1999:271)

    Such statements reveal the agenda of those who would take a religious basis for their discussion of Jewish identity, and who seek to solve the problem of identity by a return to an assumed religious orthodoxy.

    Rather than limit the discussion of the subject to this narrow perspective, it is better to try to understand. Jewish identity from an inter-disciplinary perspective.

    "What makes the study of Jewish identity complex is that we are not dealing with a unilinear phenomenon, but one more akin to a multi-plexed phenomenon moving in a variety of historical as well as structural directions. To discuss the Jewish condition is to examine religiosity, nationality and culture all at once as well as one at a time. Indeed, to separate these elements of Judaism results in distortions and reductions that can, and sadly often does, lead to little light and much heat." (Horowitz 1998:3)

    For the purposes of this paper I am using Barth’s model of ethnic identity based on the two aspects of social group and cultural unit. This enables us to trace both the historical factors that have influenced the formation of Jewish identity, the contemporary demographic aspects of the social unit that makes up the Jewish people, and the cultural trends affecting Jewish identity today and tomorrow. So Jewish identity may be defined as the pattern of attributes characterising the Jewish people at the level of group, sub-group and individual. These attributes arise from the historical, religious and social experiences of the Jewish people.

    This definition gives considerable variety and flexibility to what it means to have a "Jewish identity". Is it necessary to believe in God, live in Israel, keep Jewish customs? Not necessarily? Is there one defining requirement such as matrilineal descent to determine Jewishness? No! Can there be many different and possibly contradictory Jewish identities? Naturally. What did you expect? As Menachem Kellner, professor of Jewish thought at Haifa University has recently argued in his book "Must a Jew Believe Anything?"

    The crucial question for today's Jewish world, is not whether Jews will have Jewish grandchildren, but how many different sorts of mutually exclusive Judaisms will those grandchildren face?

  2. How did Jewish identity develop? Historical Factors

    Anthropologists use the term "ethnogenesis" to describe how a people comes into existence. Both the tradition handed down by those inside the group (emics) and the historical processes observed by those outside (etics) are important in understanding the origins of Jewish identity. Jewish tradition may or may not always be historically accurate, but tradition nevertheless has the function of authenticating contemporary Jewish identity. There have been significant historical stages or "paradigm shifts"(1) in Jewish history which continue to affect Jewish identity today. Let us briefly consider some of the major historical stages of Jewish identity formation.(2)

    1. Covenant

      The experience of Covenant was most formative in the development of Jewish identity, fusing inseparably the ethnic and religious components of the Hebrews. God’s covenant with Abraham is renewed with his offspring, Isaac and Jacob, confirmed in the Exodus from Egypt, and made specific in the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. It validates theologically the existence a newly-formed socio-political entity, Israel. The story of the Exodus provides the basis for a metanarrative, a salvation-history of redemption from slavery, that will be re-enacted each Passover to remind the Jewish people of their origin, calling and destiny. The necessary building blocks for ethnic identity formation - land, language, people and religion (or in traditional terms, God, Torah and Israel) coalesce to form an ethnic identity strong enough to endure the next three millennia.

    2. Settlement

      The second phase in the development of Jewish identity occurs between 1250 and 500 b.c.e in the land of Canaan. Settlement brings statehood and responsibility to the Jewish people. It begins with military and ideological conquest. In its efforts to survive against the other inhabitants of the land Israelite society develops from a loose-knit egalitarian confederation of often disunited tribes to a consolidated empire with economic, religious and political strength. But the monarchy fails to provide justice and mercy, the kingdom is divided, the Northern ten tribes are lost, Judah is sent into exile, the Temple is destroyed. The disaster is recognised as the judgement Israel deserved and a fitting punishment for her apostasy.

      Yet amazingly a return to the land and a rebuilding of the Temple takes place, giving renewed hopes for a Messianic transformation. The history of the people is recorded, edited and transmitted, strengthening identity to face the challenges of survival against the backdrop of new cultures and empires on the horizon.

      The settlement period contains the matrix by which future experiences of exile will be understood. The pattern of promise, fulfilment, destruction and rebuilding is laid down in the scriptures which are compiled in Babylon. The plot of exile and return becomes what in Jacob Neusner’s words is a "self-fulfilling prophecy" that is still operative today in both secular and religious Jewish thought.

    3. Rabbinism

      The third period of identity formation from roughly 500 b.c.e to 500 c.e saw the development of the synagogue as the basis for Jewish communal life. The encounter with Greece and Rome led to the scattering and splintering of Jewish people geographically, culturally, philosophically and theologically. A variety of Judaisms were available at the time of Y’shua, but after the capture of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. and the failure of the Bar Kokhba’s revolt in 135 all other expressions of Jewish identity were gradually subsumed into Rabbinic Judaism and Jewish Christianity. Jewish life was re-defined in the light of the destruction of the Temple, the loss of the State, and existence in a hostile Diaspora. By the time of the completion of the Talmud the Rabbis had formalised in liturgy and law-code the life of the people, articulating the religious dimension of every aspect of personal and social life. Now outside the land, they have sufficient resources for identity-definition and maintenance without the need for territory or Temple.

    4. Diaspora

      Diaspora existence over the next thirteen centuries under Islam and Christianity further shaped Jewish identity. Patterns of persecution, both sporadic and systematic, made Jewish inner communal life culturally rich in response to external hardship. The identity of the Jew as "alien" and "other" was re-inforced in Christian and Muslim contexts, and internalised in Jewish self-understanding. The religion is systematised into codes, often borrowed from the philosophical and cultural forms of host nations. The Jewish instinct for survival as a pariah people on the fringes of medieval Europe leads to increased communal organisation and solidarity, and finds solace in mysticism and messianic expectation.

    5. Emancipation

      As the dawn of the enlightenment broke over Europe, the authority of the church gave way to the secular state, the rise of science challenged the power of tradition, and the individual became an autonomous being rather than an obedient subject. For the Jewish people this meant emancipation, political equality, educational and commercial opportunity, and encounter with new knowledge. Whilst emancipation did not come at the same rate to all the Jewish world, a wave of intellectual change swept through the Jewish communities of Europe, and into the New World. Haskalah brought the development of modern forms of Judaism. The enlightenment project, as it has been called, brought Cartesian individualism into the community. "The startling effects of this fundamental shift…cannot be overemphasised. Freedom from segregated existence brought on a transition from a life oriented by revelation, tradition, and a sense of the holy to one in which religion became privatised if not irrelevant or obsolete." (Borowitz 1991:3)

      The nature of Jewish identity became increasingly problematic and confused, whilst Jewish survival was threatened not just by antisemitism, but invitation to assimilate into wider society. A variety of approaches were developed to maintain Jewish life in the context of modernity, which has led to the spectrum of different Jewish identities available today. Modernisation, especially in the USA, brought the Jewish community access to resources and freedom to develop. Education, cultural creativity, economic expansion and political activity replaced observance of the Torah in the quest for the Messianic age. The Pittsburgh platform of Reform Judaism in 1885 rejected all the laws which were not "adapted to the views and habits of modern civilisation" asserting that the Jews were no longer a nation but a religious community. As secularism and modernity fuelled the changes in Jewish identity, the Zionist project became a potent political force, which would come to fruition after the Holocaust in the founding of the State of Israel. As we are well aware, these are the two most significant events to have affected the Jewish people, and their impact on Jewish identity continues to be most significant. We will understand how by observing the demographic impact of these two events.

    6. Postmodernity

    With the founding of the State of Israel and in the aftermath of the Second World War Jewish identity has entered a period that Eugene Borowitz called "post-Holocaust disillusionment". Religious identity has become privatised, symbolic and a matter of personal choice. In the light of secularisation the Jewish community has developed institutions for communal life which do not require a religious basis, and Jewish identity is no longer required to have a primary religious component. A symbolic religious identity is observed, but the current of much contemporary Jewish identity is not religious.

    The definition of the Jewishness of the family in terms of biology (or halakhah) is becoming less important for American Jews than it was in the past and less relevant to Jewish communal continuity than how people define themselves behaviourally, communally, and culturally, and how the community defines them. (Goldscheider in Sacks 1993:13)

    We will outline the effect of some key factors of the postmodern condition in which Jewish identity must be expressed presently, but first we need to consider the demographic situation.

  3. Jewish Demographic Trends and Jewish Identity
    1. Jewish Population figures

      A key factor shaping Jewish identity is the population growth of the world Jewish community. The figures, such as we have, point to a holding pattern giving neither the alarmists or the triumphalists in the Jewish community cause for rejoicing. The Jewish community has not yet been split into three separate religions or four or five different peoples! What should be noted is that 50 years after the Holocaust, we are almost back to the pre-Second World War figure.

      The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw rapid growth in the Jewish population from 2.5 million in 1800 to a peak of 16.5 million (DellaPergola 1999:13). If these trends had continued without the Holocaust the Jewish population at the end of this century would have been in the region of 25-35 million. Until the difference between the actual population and what might have been is cancelled out we can continue to expect the Holocaust to have a major affect on Jewish identity, particularly in the Diaspora.

      Since the 1960’s the Jewish population has been affected by two opposite trends that have combined to bring about zero growth rate, the decline of the Diaspora Jewish communities and the growth of the Israeli Jewish population. Apart from the two major communities of the USA (5.8 million) and Israel (4.6 million), a pattern of decline can be seen in most other Jewish communities, particularly in the CIS. Whilst the Diaspora is not vanishing, it is generally declining in numbers, with a few exceptions such as Canada and Germany where immigration is making up for the low rate of natural increase.

      At present one third of the world’s Jewish population live in Israel. The population has grown from approximately 500,000 in 1946 to about 4.8 million in 1999 (Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics), its share of world Jewry going from 5% to 36%. Assuming trends such as health improvements, family patterns, fertility rates, migration patterns and intermarriage rates continue, the world Jewish population will remain stable until 2020, and Israel will hold a majority of the world’s Jewish population, with the USA making up a greater proportion of the Diaspora contingent.

      According to these projections, we will continue to see the slow decline of the Diaspora Jewish communities, with continued decrease in fertility rates, increase in the number of ageing populations, and continuing outmarriage and assimilation. A general process of de-Europeanisation of world Jewry is implicit in Israel’s population growth.

      How does this affect Jewish identity? The present trends in the Diaspora of high intermarriage rates have produced an increasing number of people whose Jewish status and involvement is peripheral rather than core. Jewish identification by such people, of whom there may be as many as three million who do not figure on Jewish population surveys, is problematic. DellaPergola proposes four basic types of Jewish identity (allowing for regional variations and specific cultural traits of different communities) based on the interplay of the two variables we mentioned previously, the nature of individual beliefs and behaviour, and the nature of community connections. He uses this simple frame of reference to address the widening spectrum of Jewish identities in Israel and the Diaspora. This allows for a definition of Israeli secular identity as a form of Jewish identity, based on ethnic rather than religious indicators. This approach wisely avoids the question of how religious identity is defined:

      Much of the current debate about Jewish identification deals with the ideological differences that exist between different denominations. While ideational gaps between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Liberal Jews are significant and sometimes entail serious conflicts, the substance of Jewish identification is better described in broader and less politically laden terms. (DellaPergola 1999: 54)

      This approach also has the advantage of including those Jews in Diaspora who define themselves as "just Jewish", and those Israelis whose identity is defined in a- or anti-religious terms, and claim an ethnic "Israeliness" rather than "Jewishness." It is worth observing that terms such as Jew, Jewish, Israel, Hebrew etc. bear a range of meanings which change over time. The nuances in Paul’s use of the terms "Jew" and "Israel" are now almost reversed in contemporary understanding. (3)

    2. Four types of Jewish identity

    DellaPergola estimates that of the present 13 million Jewish population, 2 million have a "normative/traditional" identity who "nearly exclusively adhere to a self-contained complex of Jewish beliefs, norms and values, and who consistently perform Jewish traditional ritual practices.

    A further 6 million have an "ethnic-communal" type identity, which includes those whose main attachment to Judaism is through membership in a religious congregation. Here, as in the case of some contemporary non-Orthodox congregations, the sense of community is preserved, while the unique element of Jewish traditional or cultural exclusiveness is not. About half this group lives in the Diaspora, particularly in Latin America, Britain and the USA. The other half lives in Israel and blends a national Israeli identity with some elements of traditionalism.

    The third type of Jewish identity, the "cultural residue" type, includes those for whom some attachment to Judaism may persist independently of clearly recognisable personal religious behaviour or involvement in a Jewish community. About 4 million are estimated to hold this private and non-involved Jewish identity, particularly in East and Western Europe and the USA.

    The fourth type of Jewish identity is that of the "zero Jewish" or "dual Jewish/non-Jewish" Jew, which is applied to people of Jewish origin whose cultural outlook and frame of reference are in DellaPergola’s words "basically non-Jewish", but who nevertheless belong within the definitional framework adopted to quantify the Jewish population. It is in this fourth type that Messianic Jews would normally be included, and points to the value of the core/periphery distinction that is being made. (4)

  4. What shapes Jewish identity today? Seven Factors

    So, in the light of these historical processes and the demographic make-up of the Jewish people, what are the significant factors shaping Jewish identity today, and how are we to interact with them in our task of Jewish evangelism? Traditional Jewish identities were shaped by two factors, geographical and religious affiliation. These defined what sort of a Jew you were in the light of your relationship with the non-Jewish world, and your relationship with other of Jews. The Sephardi-Ashkenazi distinction was both geographic and cultural, and was broken down into innumerable sub-groups such as Yekkes (Germany), Polaks (Poland), Litvaks (Lithuania), and so on. Religiously you were hasidim (pietist), misnagdim (formalist) or maskilim (modernist).

    But Modernity and Postmodernity have caused the disintegration of traditional Jewish identities. There is now "no such thing as an un-hyphenated Jew", or, as Woody Allen put it, "I’m Jewish- but with an explanation". Today Jewish identity must be re-defined continually, as the Jewish community itself exhibits an un-resolved identity crisis. Instead of taking Jewish identity for granted we will have to take it as something to be created (Sacks in Webber 1994: 116). We will consider six factors.

    1. Population

      The population loss of the Holocaust is being slowly replenished by the increased fertility rates of the Israeli population. The sustained birth rate in Israel and the continuing influx of a high proportion of young adults means that Israel will become the place where the majority of Jewish children are born and grow up. Their consciousness of Jewishness and Israeliness will be influenced by changes in Israel, and whilst a substantial minority of Jewish children will grow up in the Diaspora, the main educational and cultural institutions will be increasing focused in the land. Conversely, by 2020 about 70% of those over the age of 65 will live in the Diaspora.

      Intermarriage rates in the Diaspora vary between 40-70%, but it is hard to quantify the effects of intermarriage in terms of the identity of the children of such marriages. The National Jewish Population Survey in the USA (1990) reported that of the children of mixed marriages 28% identified as Jewish, 41% non-Jewish, and 31% dual or non-committal, leaving room for a variety of possible influencing factors in the development of Jewish identity. The survey also showed that of the 5.5 million who identified as Jews, 1.1 million admitted no religion or "another religion". A further 185,000 identified themselves as "Jews by choice", who will make up an increasing proportion of Reform Congregations, and who express a religious identity without necessarily adopting an ethnic identity as Jews.


    2. Geography Diaspora/Israel Immigration

      Migration is a continuing factor in the formation of identity. Between 1880-1948 some 4 million Jews emigrated between continents, and another 4 million since 1948. The most recent wave of immigration will have significant impact on Israeli identity for some considerable time to come, creating Russian-Israeli identity and the re-drawing the cultural and political map of Israel. Immigration is the result of complex political and economic factors, and the majority of Jewish emigration is a result of "push" factors. The suppression of Jewish religious and political identity of many CIS immigrants places high demands on Israel’s ability to absorb this recent aliyah, and gives significant opportunities for witness.

    3. Politics

      Israeli Jewish identity is affected by the inter-Jewish cleavages expressed in economic, class and cultural differences of the different immigrant groups. The Ashkenazi and Sephardi contingents are further sub-divided. Such differences form a composite Israeli identity. In addition, Israel Arabs making up 18% of the population, 90% of whom live in three Arab areas, will be increasingly involved in the definition of Israeli ethnicity. How the Peace process will be resolved is not know, but in political terms Israeli society has the capacity for increasing division on the issue. The localised ethnic tensions in the region are also affected by the global political factors, and as the Jewish centre expands and the Diaspora declines it is possible that Jewish identity will be affected again by antisemitism.

    4. Religion

      The collapse of traditional religion as the sole legitimate criterion of Jewishness, its replacement by secular forms of Jewish ethnicity, has lead to competing and separate Jewish identities in the land. It would be superficial to label these secular and religious, as these mask other political and economic factors, and are part of the whole debate as to the nature of the State itself. The various groupings of aredim (Ultra-orthodox) oppose the Zionist program, seeing life in Israel as one of Exile, yet as a reactionary group they must seek to live within the secular political processes, as well as hope to dominate them. The identity they offer is a reaction against modernity, and a desire to reverse it.

    5. Postmodernity

      Whilst the reaction to modernity continues, we should notice the effects of Postmodernity on Jewish identity. Generation X and Y Jews in the Diaspora, have been opting for new expressions of Jewish identity that traditional Jews of a previous generations may find unpalatable. They offer a mix of pluralism, multiculturalism and postmodern thought that allows radical re-definitions of what it means to be Jewish. The Internet culture of web-sites and cyber-cafés offers new understanding of Jewish identity, and the discussion of, for example, the Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network re-works old formulations of Jewish identity in creative response to postmodern thought.


    6. Messiah/Messianic movement

The Messianic movement poses a challenge to the nature of Jewish identity, and is itself challenged by it. As we have seen, those who assert a religious base for Jewish identity will continue to view us as apostates or worse. The Messianic movement is used by them to define the boundary markers of what is a legitimate identity.

But at a deeper level, Messianic Jews have the opportunity to show that they have a deeper and more authentic identity as Jews, based on the biblical understanding of Israel and the Messiah. As the recent study by Carol Harris-Shapiro claims, Messianic Jews have to be "double supercessionists", showing that they are more Jewish than the Jews, and more Christian than the Christians. How Messianic Jews balance these two often conflicting identities, and how we as evangelists encourage Jewish people to see this, I leave to our discussion. But the shaping of Jewish identity today would not be complete without considering the effects of coming to know the Messiah.

5. Conclusion

What shapes Jewish identity? In the end, Jesus —not only the author and perfector of our faith, but the author and perfecter of all our identities. Whilst our people continue as pilgrims through the realms of time and space, and the realities of history, politics and religion, the only ultimate source of identity formation and definition is not the ever changing social construct or the non-negotiable metaphysical essence of Jewishness, but the dynamic encounter and transforming relationship that can only be had through the Messiah of Israel, and leaves Jewish identity incomplete until the Messiah is recognised. The real issue then, is not the question of what shapes Jewish identity, despite all its complexity and the many ways it can be assessed, but the even harder question which some of us here have only just begun to discover the answer to, but must be relevantly, clearly and sensitively communicated to our people, and that is "Who is Jesus?" How do we recognise his true identity, and what does he mean today, to Jew and Gentile alike? May it not be long ’til he returns.

6. Endnotes

(1) Paradigm is defined by T.S. Kuhn as "an entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given community" (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", USA, Chicago, 1962, p.175). Many have applied Kuhn’s theory to social studies.

(2) The stages adopted here follow Borowitz’s classification of historical periods (1991:1-6). This one of many possible approaches.

Erikson’s epigenetic chart

Borowitz’s formative experiences

Neusner’s field theory of the history of Judaism

Kung’s paradigm shifts in Judaism

Johnson’s historical periods

0-2 Basic trust

Covenant 2000-1250


Tribal —the period before the State


2-4 Autonomy

Settlement 1250-500

Biblical Judaisms for an Israel at home 1000-586

Kingdom —the monarchical period


4-6 Initiative

Rabbinism 500-500

Judaisms for an uncertain restoration 586-70

Theocracy — Post-exilic Judaism


6-12 Industry

The first stage in the formation of Judaism —the Mishnah 70-200


13-19 Identity

Dispersion 500-1800

The second stage in the formation of Judaism: the Talmud and Midrash 200-600

Mediaeval-the rabbis and the synagogue


20-30 Social intimacy

Emancipation 1800-1945

The classical age of Judaism 640-1789

Modern —Assimilation


30-65 Responsibility

Post-Holocaust disillusionment 1945-2000

Second age of diversity —Judaisms on the modern and contemporary scene 1789 to today



65-? Integrity

Postmodern post-liberal Jewish experience?


(3) DellaPergola uses the categories of "core" and "enlarged" Jewish identity in order to impose an operational framework on Jewish population estimates rather than allow a "normative definition" to the question "who is a Jew?" based on religious or cultural considerations. "More than ever, researchers are having difficulties in defining the target population", he writes (1999:9). His definitions are worthy of consideration. "Core Jewish identity" he defines as those who identify themselves as Jews or are so identified by others in their household. This approach includes both subjective feelings of individuals who identify as Jews, and community norm and bonds. It reflects attitudes that are looser in the Diaspora than in Israel, where personal status is subject to the ruling of the Ministry of the Interior. In the Diaspora the core definition is wider than the halakhic/rabbinic or legally binding definition, and does not depend on a person’s Jewish commitment or behaviour, defined in terms of religiosity, beliefs, knowledge, communal affiliation, etc. It includes all those who converted to Judaism or decided to join the Jewish group informally and declare themselves Jewish, but excludes those of Jewish descent who have adopted another religion (whom he labels "former Jews"?!), as well as those who did not convert out but currently refuse to recognise their Jewishness. Before we react too quickly to DellaPergola’s arbitrary distinctions, let us note his definition of "peripheral Jews". His understanding of the "enlarged Jewish population" includes the core Jewish population, plus Jews by birth or parentage who do not currently identify as Jews, and thirdly, non-Jewish household members (spouses, children, etc.) who do not declare themselves Jewish. This significantly expands the "potentially Jewish population", as studies have shown, is with growing inter-marriage, the gap between the core and enlarged Jewish population tends to increase. It is here that the battle fought on the nature of Jewish identity is most keenly felt.

(4) DellaPergola provides a diagram to illustrate the core/periphery groupings (1999:10):

(5) DellaPergola estimates the breakdown of the four types as follows (1999:55):

Summary of Main Modes of Jewish Identification: Israel and Diaspora, Rough Estimates, Early 1990’s

Type of Identification

World (thousands)

Diaspora (thousands)

Israel (thousands)

% in Israel
















Cultural residue





Dual Jewish/Non-Jewish





(6) Secularisation may be defined as "that process by which religious institutions, actions and consciousness lose their social significance" (Bryan Wilson) It can be identified when religious observance ceases to be performed, religious institutions decline in influence, and religious activity and belief retreat from the public domain to the realm of the individual and their own choice. Religious identity is defined by consent, not descent. Whilst there is a difference between religion and spirituality, the decline in religious observance is a good indicator of the trend away from a world-view which looks to institutional religion to provide authority and status to individual and community beliefs and values.

Secularisation has effected Jewish community dramatically over the past three centuries, and continues to do so. Its significance as a trend today lies in its development of secular Jewish identity in the Diaspora, and as a component of non-religious ethnic Israeli identity. Secularisation previously gave the Jews opportunity to identify as citizens accepted within the state despite religious identity, and led to the creation of ethnic and cultural identities that saw religion as a barrier to be overcome. Secular nationalists were responsible for a- or anti-religious forms of Zionism. This has produced dereligionised national Jewish identity in Israel that is at odds with the increasingly stringent and separatist religious identity we shall note below. Yet the conflict between secular and religious is not as clear-cut as it may appear. Observance of the food-laws as part of a religious system is often adapted to express a secular identity. "It is not that Jewish modernity means a total secularisation of the culture; for some Jews that would be true, but what is more typical is that the religious and the secular inconsistently intermix." (Webber 1994:83)

The effect in Israel of the immigrants from the CIS, the majority of whom are ideologically secular, has yet to be evaluated, but it is likely that it will accelerate the growing gap between secular and religious. It is also likely to produce new types of Jewish identity which given an Eastern European flavour to Israeli ethnicity, both in reaction and response to the religious and secular identities already present. In the long run, the increase of secular Israelis will contribute to a further decline in the influence of the religious parties, but this will not be without the continuing tensions that are seen at present . The present balance of religious, religious nationalist, secular nationalist and humanist trends influencing Israeli identity will be weighted more towards the secular. With the re-distribution of the Jewish population to the centre, the accompanying influx of secular Israelis will continue the effects of secularisation well into the next century.

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