While packing for a trip to Ghana eight years ago, numerous observant Jews dissuaded me, arguing I could not volunteer abroad and maintain full, authentic observance. I knew that I had multiple identities and this trip gave me no pause. Since then I have worked in ten countries learning that I can be an observant Jew and a global citizen.
In an age of postmodern identity, I am no anomaly. Under modernity, one must choose one identity-seeing oneself as both Jew and American was too challenging. Secondary identities were all too easily subsumed in the event of a conflict and thus one had to choose to primarily be particularistic or universalistic, spiritual or rational, religious or skeptical, progressive or traditional.
For better or worse, we are no longer in that era.
The reason why the Modern Orthodox community and Dati Leumi (Israeli religious Zionist) community are in crisis is because they are still attempting to operate in a modern framework. A community can no longer sustain itself with an identity as simple as modern or nationalistic. The Centrist and Ultra Orthodox communities are struggling even more in their view that anything that doesn’t jibe easily with a religious worldview is a threat to religious life.
Secular Israelis have picked up on this need for multiple identities and have opened a secular yeshiva, many secular batei midrash, and even secular prayer houses. They are embracing the complexity of maintaining a secular worldview and lifestyle while being both distinctly Israeli and Jewish.
In post-modernity identity is fragmented-seeing oneself as a Jew and American, an American and Jew, is a process of innovation and deepening bidirectional understanding. This is the paradox of multi-culturalism: Our identities are multiple and constantly under construction.
Paul Ricoeur goes so far as to suggest that the stories we tell about ourselves-our "narrative identity"-are, indeed, us. This is what I felt when I declared my intent to volunteer for a summer in Ghana — that I was constructing my identity and taking ownership of my own sense of possibility.
In an ambiguous world, where can we find our touchstone of stability? Emmanuel Levinas argued that 21st century Jews’ epistemology must be grounded in ethics and deep responsibility to help the vulnerable. Such a paradigm demands that we escape from pure ideology and metaphysical abstraction, and embed the ethical impulse in the concrete and particular.
Levinas is bolder still: Intellectual relativism and skepticism are not enemies of ethical living, but empower critical Jewish thinking. Further, Isaiah Berlin wrote that we must hold to a "pluralism of values," suggesting a moral pragmatism for navigating this vale of tears: "Principles are no less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed."
A particularistic identity is crucial to ground oneself in community, language, meaning and ritual. More specifically a Jewish identity offers the wealth of the wisdom of the Torah to guide these human needs.
Today, we find many who identify as Zionist or socialist or gay or even Buddhist or atheist in addition to Jewish; in fact, many of us have more, perhaps many more, than two public identities. I experience myself as Jewish, universalistic, halakhic, pluralistic, American, Canadian, global citizen, white male…..
However, there is one absolute limit: One cannot be a Jew and an unethical person. One Talmudic passage explains, "All who are merciful to other creatures, it is known that they are from the ancestry of Abraham" (Beitzah 32b).
Kindness is the constitutive feature of Jewish identity. Another passage suggests, "The Jewish nation is distinguished by three characteristics; they are merciful, they are modest, and they perform acts of loving-kindness" (Yevamot 79a). These are our defining points.
The question for American Judaism today is not whether our youngest members will identify as Jews but whether they will prioritize that identity amid a plethora of others. These identities are interconnected, and to strengthen any part, much of the time, is to strengthen the whole.
More and more, my students have been looking for guidance on how to construct their identities in such a complex world.
No longer can we ask our youth to choose only Judaism; instead we must embrace their full selves and celebrate their Jewish identity among its partners. It behooves us to create spaces for our journeying students to learn the emotional intelligence and leadership skills necessary to negotiate the conflicts that emerge from multiple commitments.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.