Friday, January 24, 2014

What does it mean to live a life that is "authentically Jewish?"

Identity theorist Elli P. Schachter, following Erikson, observes that one’s “historical era or social environment” constrain one’s options for identification or practice, limiting the available choices. Awareness of, and knowledge about the cultural traditions that have already shaped one’s identity and continue to influence one's behavior -- in other words, the stories of those who came before us and how they lived their loves -- allow the individual to more fully recognize the scope of available options. Perhaps it has always been this way, but it seems to me that for us today, being Jewish demands a constant re-examining of, and re-committing to, one’s beliefs and practices.   

Given the social and geographic mobility common to North American Jews in particular, and the rapid pace of change in technology and science in contemporary times, it is certain that we will consistently be exposed to new ideas and information throughout our lives.  We can expect to be faced with unfamiliar situations that allow for (and demand) new responses.  In such a context, ongoing study, skill-building and dialogue becomes an imperative, so that we, our communities and our institutions may respond appropriately to new situations as they arise -- this is one of the things I mean when I speak about "life-long learning." By imitating successful endeavors, past or contemporary, intentional or developed through trial-and-error, we take on a new positions and practices, we modify the beliefs we previously held as conclusive.  

To be authentically Jewish is to take a stance on our values and behaviors and to articulate how they relate to our inherited traditions.  I say stance, rather than commitment, because I believe our values and behaviors must be constantly reaffirmed, in the context of each particular set of circumstances, with an openness to the possibility of realigning one's beliefs and practice in light of shifting settings and newly acquired information. 

I contend that taking such a stance is a possibility - and legitimate - at any point in one’s life, at any level of knowledge. The need to better inform oneself in order to intentionally choose one’s behaviors and beliefs is necessary at all points of one’s life – as true for those who are knowledgeable as those who are at the beginning of their study. In actuality, we can never have comprehensive knowledge so that we might make a completely coherent decision. So we must be unafraid to take a stance on an idea or a practice simply because there is more to be learned. Choosing to delay making a decision to change is, after all, a decision as well.

An analogy: When we commit to another person in a relationship, both the relationship and the commitment itself grow and change over time.  They are tested by a variety of new contexts and situations. Just as some relationships will fail to survive, or to thrive, over time, so too must some values or behaviors be modified as new ones are learned that fit better with one’s increasing knowledge or changing life-experience.

However, at some point we must acknowledge that the change is so great that we can only describe it with the words "break." When we can no longer explain how our values or behavior relate to the previous tradition, at that point, we must admit that we have started something new.

In other words: I am disagreeing with the definition of "authentic" that says it means "true to oneself" or in other words, authenticity as relevance. But I'm also disagreeing with the definition of authentic as "the way we used to do it" or authenticity as consistent with the past. I'm saying that those two principles are in tension, and authenticity means taking a stance that accounts for both of them, being reflective about that choice, and being open to rethink in light of changing circumstances.

So, it isn't "keeping kosher is a more authentic way of being Jewish" and it also isn't "I eat pork and that's an authentic expression of who I am," but rather "let me explain what keeping kosher means to me."


Reference: Elli P. Schachter, “Identity Constraints: The Perceived Structural Requirements of a ‘Good’ Identity.” Human Development 45 (2002), 417.
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