Let us wander and wonder! Jewish religion as primarily a community-bond

binnenplaats Joods Museum Berlijn
In dit artikel bepleit filosoof Yonathan Listik een visie op joods-zijn die wezenlijk verschilt van de christelijke definitie van wat een religie is. Listik en co-auteur Eva de Haan, beiden lid van de joodse jongerengroep Oy Vey, zien het jodendom als een community die zich overal thuis kan voelen en zich altijd blijft verwonderen: Wander and wonder. 

Perhaps the most conventional way of framing diasporic Jewish identity is to think of being Jewish as an internal and individual (as opposed to collective) identity. A small part of a person’s personality or a peculiarity that does not fully distinguish a person from their collective but merely marks their uniqueness.

In this context, Jewishness would be merely something one practices as a personal choice like a hobby or a quirky taste that one uses to connect to others but that does not create a large public obligation. Or to put it in simple words, according to the mainstream liberal model we take to be common sense, being Jewish is being part of a religious collective and does not affect one’s larger social role. More importantly, given the strict separation between state and religion, it should not affect politics in any sense. 

Education is critical

For some, this conception of Jewishness might offer comfort and a certain degree of flexibility in their Jewishness. However, we would like to offer an alternative – and more productive – account of what diasporic Jewishness could mean. Even If most Jewish people feel this way today, it only highlights the problem we are trying to challenge. To quote the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire “when education is not critical, the dream of the oppressed is to be like the oppressor”. Even if it is undeniable that most Jews currently think of themselves through those lenses, the point of our text is to show that we don’t have to. 

Liberal right of religion

A good starting point would be a closer inspection at what sustains this perception of comfort. The freedom that is now available to Jews is usually framed as the fundamental liberal right to freedom of religion. Under this right, the individual is granted protection from any intervention or discrimination, either from the state or from other individuals. 

As much as this seems like a protection, one could see its problematic ramification once one looks at how it’s employed in society. An emblematic example would be the discussion on the permissibility of circumcising newborns. One of the arguments in the debate is that by circumcising newborns, one would be restraining their freedom of religion and therefore infringing their rights. To this extent, this posture advocates that one should prohibit circumcision, or more explicitly, restrict Jew’s and Muslim’s freedom of religion on behalf of the right to freedom of religion.

Communal identity 

Regardless of the conclusion of the debate or the position we might take in it, we wish to highlight that the discussion is already framed in problematic terms. Whereas a Christian perspective on freedom of religion might tell us that religion is a product of one’s individual choices and actions, a Jewish perspective might argue that religion is primarily a community-bond. In this way, the argument of religious freedom from a Christian perspective is used to restrict Jewish self-expression. Such a perception of the role of religion in one’s life and social structure is not consistent with how Jewishness frames itself – namely: a communal identity instead of an individual one. Therefore, we ask why are Jews adopting a position that their identity is a form of religion? Shouldn’t we be thinking our identity in our own terms?

Judaism, a Christian construction?

The central argument we are making is that we need to stop using those categories because they are strange to Jewishness. The prominent Jewish philosopher Daniel Boyarin, for example, goes as far as to say that Judaism is essentially a Christian construction. He separates between Judaism as a religion and the question of what it means to be Jewish, what we are calling here Jewishness. Jewishness has religious elements, but religions are institutions that emerge within a specific logic that is not the one of Jewishness (and historically it can even be said to be hostile to Jewishness). If we are still framing Jewishness exclusively as a religious thing, we are not thinking in our own terms. We are thinking in hegemonic terms that separate it from public life.

A Jewish diasporic identity 

To start thinking of our identity on our own terms, as Jews, we would like to offer our version of what a Jewish diasporic identity could look like, instead of the way it is understood now. This means refusing and transcending the categories that are offered to us. We are not arguing for a return to some original categorization or pure form of Jewishness, but instead to find in the supposed discomfort a place of home. In that manner, we want to refuse the attempt to include us in a project that does not belong to us, as much as we want to refuse the idea that Jews are disconnected from their surroundings. 

Wondering and wandering

For us, those are the two sides of the same coin, since they both depend on the categorization of the Jewish presence as either compatible or incompatible with its environment without challenging the conditions of this compatibility. In fact, for us the main idea of Jewishness and embracing it in our own terms is questioning the conditions/frames under which Jewishness is discussed today.  

If the wandering Jew trope is presented as a curse, we will take it as a compliment because what is so bad about our wondering and wandering? Are we not in our very essence a people that constantly challenges, questions, constructs and deconstructs what Jewishness is and could be? 

We do not return or settle

We need not be strictly a religion or a people – or fit into the categories provided to us. We need not be anything beyond the question of what our ritual, traditions and practices mean to us. We are Jews because we wonder about Jewishness. We do not return or settle; we move beyond any and every attempt to colonize our identity: we make any effort to define ourselves uninteresting. 

Communal spaces, outside privatized and secluded institutions

This means that we must be outside of boundaries. It means that we not only take Jewishness out of the places where it is ‘authorized’ to appear, but also that we treat Jewish places as non-privatized and non-secluded institutions. Those are not the patrimony of a few, but the communal space where Jewishness is bound to happen. 

Instead of guarding ourselves off in our specific denominations, and keeping the gates closed, we should be looking at each other with curiosity and openness. Furthermore, in the same way that institutions need to serve as a public sphere for a thriving community, the community needs to look at those institutions as theirs, as a fruitful soil where the wondering about- and wandering through our identity takes place. 

Absorption alternative perspectives

There is a difference between openness towards and absorption of alternative perspectives. With this we are not accusing or taking a position about what is currently happening. We merely raise the question of how Jewish institutions behave towards their community as an essential question. Institutions can often claim to be open while adopting an absorptive posture where others are tolerated as long as they conform to what the established norm is. Hence it is fundamental that we keep the distinction in our minds. Openness cannot signify conditional inclusion, especially when the conditions that are being put forward are not our own. 

Invitation to a conversation

Briefly, the argument here is not yet an answer to any of the topics that were raised. It is simply the humble invitation to start a conversation. We feel that we haven’t even started to frame the question properly, much less talk about Jewishness in its own terms. But perhaps we can, as a community here in the Netherlands, take steps to resist isolation and compartmentalization of our community, and make Jewish life a home for all Jews who wish to be a part of it. 

We have many amazing initiatives for Jewish life in the Netherlands. Let us work to make these more inclusive and open, a place where new ideas and community grow. 

Eva de Haan

Do you want to be part of the conversation? Leave a comment, take a look at Oy Vey, or read our Joods manifest.

co-auteur Eva de Haan is antropoloog gespecialiseerd in vraagstukken over (joodse) identiteit. Ze is actief bij Oy Vey, een joodse hub in Amsterdam die hedendaagse joodse cultuur faciliteert. Zij schreef eerder in De Vrijdagavond naar aanleiding van haar masterscritpie over Joden op zoek naar Joods-zijn – een etnografie van jonge seculiere joden in Nederland. Zie Kan dat overal?

cover: binnenplaats Joods Museum Berlijn foto Gerd Eichmann Wikimedia Commons

Over Yonathan Listik 2 Artikelen
Yonathan Listik is docent aan de Universiteit Leiden en doceert dekoloniale theorie en Critical Political Theory. Zijn huidige onderzoeksveld is filosofie, waar hij hedendaagse politieke ontologie in de continentale traditie onderzoekt. Hij is ook geïnteresseerd in de verbanden tussen joodse filosofie, dekoloniale theorie en esthetiek. Zijn voornaamste interesse gaat uit naar mogelijke articulaties van het idee van barbarij.

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