A Quest for a New Jewish Identity

A Quest for a New Jewish Identity



Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

In the last 64 years – that is, since I arrived on the shores of this country – a frequently repeated Jewish mantra has been this: “Jewish people are losing their identity.”


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We no longer attend services, we no longer consider ourselves to be a part of “kelal yisrael,” the Jewish community. All of this occurs in the decades after the Holocaust.

For years, we confessed a belief in “echod,” that Judaism, like the Torah and G-d, is one and indivisible. However, the reality remains that for the last two centuries Judaism has become fragmented.

I would like to comment on this observation. But before I do, I must declare the following caveat: in the history of Judaism there was but one Hillel who was capable of reducing the essentiality of Judaism to one sentence.

I do not have this capability, and yet I have chosen this topic – one so complex that volumes could be written on the subject.  But I feel the need to examine the break down in Jewish homogeneity and the rise of heterogeneity so that we can find a common denominator that will unify us.

One fundamental tenet in the Jewish religious perspective of the last two millennia is the eternality of G-d and the Torah.

As we celebrate Shevuoth, the time when the Torah was given to all the Jews, it reminds me of a rabbinic legend. On the sixth day of Sivan when we stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, all Jews – those of the past, present and future were united and in unison Jews declared “naase v’nishmah:” we shall obey and listen.

With these words, we accepted the yoke of the Torah. But of course, the Torah is subject to interpretation, thus insuring that it would be relevant not only for the past, but for all times and conditions.

To Jews, both G-d and His Torah were and are considered the universal and unchanging teaching. Of course it also led us to proclaim that Judaism is eternal – what was true then is also true now.

Contrary to the dictum expounded by the author of Ecclesiastics, “there is nothing new under the sun,” both the social and the physical worlds are constantly changing.

While all religions proclaim that some things are eternal, the fact remains that the world changes and that includes our view of G-d.

There remains a difference between proclaimed, eternal ideals and reality. In Jacob Neusner’s book, “The Death and Births of Judaism,” he reinforces this view and writes that throughout its long existence, Judaism has evolved and assumed many different forms.

Some forms of Judaism disappeared and new forms were born. As Judaism changes the requirements for identity, the beliefs and behavior required to retain one’s membership in the collective must also change.

Let me enumerate some of the changes that Judaism has undergone. Judaism began as a cultic religion consisting of practices that centered around a Temple. In this religion the man – G-d relationship was believed to be achievable through sacrificial offerings; Josephus commented that long before one could see Jerusalem, one became aware of the odors of burnt offerings.

All the while, the prophets began making exceptions to sacrifices and challenged its validity and efficacy. From an anthropological perspective, sacrifice was a practice designed on the principle of reciprocity. Through sacrificial offering, similar to gift giving, people sought both to please and at the same time to control G-d.

The idea was that if I give G-d a gift and I please him, he surely is beholden to me until He repays the gift.

In 348 B.C.E, when some of the exiled Jews returned to Israel, under the leadership of Ezra the Scribe, and began to rebuild the destroyed temple, they also brought along a new religious institution developed in Babylon: the “Beth  Haknesseth” or the synagogue.

The synagogue was developed in Babylon to substitute the Temple that was destroyed. In this manner, Judaism started transforming into a prayer centered religion rather than a cultic one.

By the year 70 C.E., with the destruction of the second Temple, Judaism as a cultic religion ceased to exist. There is an interesting legend regarding this change.

Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, who was considered by some as the savior of Judaism, walked with one of his students amidst the rubble of the destroyed Jerusalem. The student was greatly distressed.

“Now that the Temple is destroyed, where will we find atonement for our sins?” he lamented.

To which Rabbi Yochanan responded:  “Do not be despondent, we have something even far more efficacious than sacrifices – we have charity.”

Even one century before the destruction of the second Temple a new form of Judaism arose: Rabbinic Judaism.

From the first through the third century, the Talmud accompanied by the Oral Law and its collateral interpretive literature, such as the Sifre , Sifra, and Mekhilta, defined Judaism as a systematized belief and behavior governed by pre and proscriptions. Together with the various legends, the Talmud became the source-book that determined Jewish life.

For popular use, these laws and associated customs (minhagim) were condensed into the books of Yoreh Deah, which was further abbreviated in the Kitzur Shulchan Aaruch, a book that became the guide for being Jewish, used by and large to ascertain what behavior is and is not permissible.

The content of faith was summarized in Maimonides’ 13 principles that became the Jewish catechism. To be a Jew – that is, for a person to define himself as a Jew and to be accepted into the Jewish community – one had to accept and be committed to Jewish laws, rituals and faith.  The Jewish people existed as a homogenous people with little or no deviation permitted.

In the late 1700s, significant changes in Europe began to affect Jewish life. Ghetto life, with its demand of Jewish-Christian segregation, was ending. One of the largest ghettoes, the Frankfurt Ghetto, opened its gates in 1796 and the Jews of the city began to migrate to the great business and cultural centers of Germany.

The social forces that brought these changes to Jewish life were industrialization and the French Revolution, particularly the impact of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte was the first European monarch to grant citizenship, and to some degree, autonomy to Jews.

This does not mean that anti-Semitism disappeared. One merely has to examine the history of the Dreyfus Affair to see the impact anti-Semitism continued to have.

However, because of increased and unfettered interaction among people of different religions and education, Jewish life and, collaterally, Jewish identity changed. These conditions broke down the high degree of Jewish homogeneity that characterized ghetto and shtetl life.

In contrast, as interaction increased between various cultures, interaction between Jews and non-Jews, via intra-Jewish heterogeneity increased. Jewish people began to adopt perspectives and behavior of the people with whom they lived. They began to see that goodness and truth is not limited to Judaism alone.

The second force that changed Judaism and Jewish identity was education, which led to increased secularization. The degree to which Jewish laws and customs affected behavior had not only lessened, but in many instances became immaterial.

Life was no longer guided by the Halachah. In short, Jewish commonality became fractured, which led to ever increasing differences among Jews.

In the 1930s in my shtetl, there were five distinct Jewish groups: The Mithnagdim, the Chassidim, Liberal Jews, Assimilated Jews and the Zionists. We lost the golden chain that for millennia held us together and was served as the foundation for our identity.

The significant question today is:  Can we find another force that will bring back our commonality and with it, our unity?

In this regard, I agree with Professor Isaiah Berlin. In a world that is generally becoming more secular, religion is losing meaning and no longer provides answers to existential questions that people seek.

Instead, he proposes that “all Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews are steeped in history.”  The single most powerful factor that unites Jews and makes the rest of the world recognize Jews as a people is their “historical sense, a sense of continuity with the past.”

It is therefore most important that we change the primacy of being Jewish from religion and invest it into the teaching of history that is, the sense of our historical continuity.


Eugen Schoenfeld, a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a survivor of the Holocaust, speaks at Shema Yisrael during the High Holidays.



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