Dec 6, 2011

Jewish Authenticity: Detours, Spirals, Swirls

There is very little that comforts me these days, as the world as I know it changes every half-second. But that lack of consistent comfort, I suppose, does comfort me. It brings my underconstructionist nature into full perspective. Other things that comfort me

  • I wrote my first slam poem in three or four years. This is huge for me folks. My poetry gave some of my darkest, hardest-to-handle emotions a voice. This. Is. Huge. 
  • I realized, while unable to sleep one night earlier this week, that I've spent most of my life feeling guilty about being happy. I come from a place where happiness is unattainable, so when that twinge of happy entered the scene, I felt guilt, I grew depressed and forlorn, and the cycle repeated. But right now, despite everything that has happened and is happening (especially with my family), I have decided that I've earned this right to be happy, above all else. I'm committed to my own happiness. Sof sof

Now, something else that is comforting me is an article from Sh'ma called "The Spiral of Jewish Authenticity" by Stuart Charme, and it isn't just because the article starts out with a girl cutting off all of her hair and taking up slam poetry. The author cites socio-psychologist Bethamie Horowitz (whose work I archived for the North American Jewish Databank back when I was in Connecticut) who points out that "Jewishness is not a static condition but rather a journey with various twists, turns, and detours along the way."

I've experienced the twists and turns, and I suppose that right now I'm on a detour. But don't lose hope!

The author describes Jewishness as a
"loose spiral. We circle back to revisit a variety of issues related to Judaism and Jewishness; each time, we approach the experience of Jewishness from new perspectives and with new investments and understandings that emerge in response to other changes in our lives."
The author describes what we understand to be "Jewish authenticity," our sense of connection to the romanticized or idealized image of the past, of what it means to be Jewish. We search for a lifestyle or DNA for our Jewish marker so that we can understand a "sense of unbroken tradition and peoplehood." But, the author says, this is a myth that serves to "legitimate favored forms of identity while delegitimizing others."

And herein lies the cycle. The idea of "Jewish authenticity" changes, constantly. We construct/invent Jewish identity, what makes someone legitimate or not legitimate in their Jewishness. One could argue that halakah, or law, defines who is a Jew, but it isn't that simple. After all, at some point in time, one could argue that a certain aspect of commitment to a specific halakah is more important than another when it comes to "being" Jewish. Who is more legitimate -- one who keeps kosher or one who keeps Shabbat? One who dresses modestly or one who tithes? But we invent what is more or less important, what is more or less legitimate. (Or, perhaps, the we I speak about here is the rabbi.)

Essentially, the author says,
"Some of what is now accepted as authentically Jewish will eventually be abandoned and some of what is now rejected will later be reclaimed. In this sense, each individual's search for Jewish authenticity is a microcosm of the collective process of redefining Judaism at different moments of history.
And that, folks, is where I find my comfort in this article. The author goes on to validate the statement by warning us to "be careful of claiming too much certainty at the present moment -- recognizing the permanently destabilizing power of the future to shatter and rebuild the foundations of our world in ever-new ways."

The only thing that truly is certain -- that I can be absolutely sure of in this world -- is uncertainty itself. I think the author would agree, as he says, "There is probably some Zen-like truth to the idea that those who claim most adamantly to have found or achieved Jewish authenticity are also those who lack it in a deeper sense."

Ultimately, what the author wishes for his daughter -- the hair-cutting slam poet -- is what I wish for myself and for all of you: May your Jewish journey be intellectually and psychologically honest, vibrant, and creative; value questions more than answers; and, most importantly, discover your authentic Jewish self.

Note: Mad props to @StellaTex for passing this article along to me. 


Anonymous said...

"be careful of claiming too much certainty at the present moment -- recognizing the permanently destabilizing power of the future to shatter and rebuild the foundations of our world in ever-new ways."

I agree with the author.

TMC said...

We have similar issues in the western Buddhist community.

Avraham said...

Jewish Authenticity is not a Jewish value. It is a Nietzschian value. Jewish values generally include truth and Justice and things like that. But these things can be opposed to authenticity and often are directly opposite.
Nietzschean values have definitely become part of our modern way of thinking. It is almost impossible to have any conversation of substance without ideas like commitment and authenticity and life style and creativity forming the underlying values instead of truth and justice and things that the prophets of Israel would have recognized as Jewish values.

Adina Lav said...

There's a professor emeritus at Columbia Teacher's College, Dr. Maxine Green, who talks about life as constantly creating the self- not just the Jewish self (if you want to separate the two, but I'm not sure that you can). I wrote a small post about her (linked below). Her notion that life is constantly creating this authentic self is powerful, and is both very comforting and terribly discomforting. She states that we are always "becoming" and argues, "I am what I am not yet."

EYR said...

When I was around 20 years old I had my major belief crisis. I remember telling my father about it and expecting him to brush away my doubts and claim that eventually things will settle down and my belief will be steady as a rock. To my surprise, my father (who has always been a dedicated Orthodox Jew) told me that no, the doubts never go away, you just learn to live with them.

It was a hard thing for me to hear then, but it also made me relate much more to my father - made him more human in my eyes. And eventually, when I grew to internalize this message, it gave me (paradoxically) the stability I was looking for. For if in the end I am the one who chooses to believe something, than my belief is as steady as my resolve - and that I control.

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