Archive for the ‘Identity’ Category

As a ger (גר), a Jew by Choice, a convert, or a “righteous goy”, it is often difficult to figure out where you fit in to the whole ethnic side of judaism. Many born-Jews have told me that being Jewish in contemporary America is both an ethnicity and a religion, and that for me, only religious Judaism is available. As a sociologist, I have never found that completely convincing, mainly because it has echoes of racism in it, as it essentializes jewishness, making it an in-born quality rather than a learned ethnos.

Clearly, I will never have ancestors who were Jewish or have a tradition of familial connection to the Jewish people (at least, not that I know of—there is always a possibility of a Jewish ancestor, but at the moment I don’t know of any). And clearly I will never repeat my childhood and grow up Jewish with Jewish parents. But I remain firmly social constructionist about ethnicity: It is a quality of human interaction and human production, not of birth or essence, so while I will never be the same as someone born into a Jewish family, I don’t think that my “ethnicity” can help but be transformed and “judaified” by the conversion process.

Assimilation (or integration or acculturation or whatever term you prefer) is a difficult and controversial topic on many levels for many different minority populations; and it occurs in both directions, between the subordinate (minority) and dominant (majority). In our modern, pluralist societies, we have come to treat ethnicities as ends-in-themselves, and have created a whole culture of expectations about the “autenticity” of cultural identities and practices, how they should remain unchanged, and the imperative to “preserve.” Historically, I would argue that in today’s pluralist societies we are experiencing not a difference in kind, but of degree or intensity; that is, ethnicities have always had processes of boundary formation, assimilation, blending, and conflict, but now because of the frequency and scope of global migration combined with the rights discourses of democratic institutions, we live in a world of intense and constant ethnic conflict.

In addition, I think that Judaism, because of its particular history of outsiderness and persecution, has had intensely policed ethnic boundaries since about the time of Ezra (with the notable exception of a period of about 300 years during the Hellenistic diaspora around the Mediterranean where Judaism welcomed and actively proselytized converts). Even during the most open times, Jews had to maintain a communal distance from the dominant culture (e.g., in caliphate Spain). That has meant that, historically, Judaism has been perhaps more conscious than most of its ethnic boundaries.

As I have mentioned before, I have been wondering about the relationship of a ger to Jewish ethnicity (actually, there are multiple Jewish ethnicities, but for the sake of clarity here, I’ll pretend that it’s a singular, unitary thing) and what my own conversion means to whatever ethnicity I will eventually be and my relationship to the ethnic attachments I already have (American, northern European, Mormon). In a scholarly mode, I understand that empirically, humans tend to blend ethnicities as a matter of course, almost unconsciously, and in contradiction to their feelings or beliefs that their ethnicities have remained unchanged and remain “pure”.

In personal terms, in this process of exploring judaism over the past year, I have changed, even without being aware of it. I have developed habits of mind, habits of practice, habits of speech that are (American, liberal) Jewish, even if I’m not aware of them. I find myself identifying with Jewish characters and Jewish figures on the news (e.g., Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. who was shot last week), without even realizing it (but I have also not lost my identification with my other ethnic commitments). Yesterday I was walking from my car to my office when it occurred to me that I was humming a Yeminite sh’ma that I particularly love. Without even meaning to, I have blended my ethnicity already.

For me, though, there is a deeper level of identification that I have never experienced. I always feel like an outsider at shul, not because anyone makes me feel that way, but just because I’m hyper-aware of my difference. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. In fact, one of the things that attracts me to Judaism is that it’s a religion of outsiders. And given my personality, it’s probable that I’ll always feel like an outsider, even after conversion.

In reading a brief history of Jewish liturgy this morning by Rabbi Sacks (head Orthodox rabbi of the UK), I came across a brief passage where he explains how the Jews who were taken into exile to Babylon had to contend with the loss of their primary religious practice, the avodah or sacrifice (burn offerings). He notes that it was in Babylon that the exiled Judeans (Israelites?), separated from their holy city and knowing that their temple had been burnt to the ground and sacked, dealt with their loss and grief, and their subordinate status as exiled outsiders in Babylon, by gathering to read Torah together and through three-times daily prayer, corresponding roughly to the times of daily avodah/sacrifice (except the evening prayer).

It struck me in reading that, that my own personal experience of religion or spirituality, if you will, has been an experience of exile and longing; of trying to understand and create a meaningful spiritual life for myself after radical separation; of mourning the loss of a previous spiritual life and community; and of return or redemption. I suddenly found myself feeling intensely Jewish, of identifying with a lost and exiled people who longed for their spiritual home. In a fleeting moment, I felt for the first time that the Jewish story was my story.

As someone who is primarily rationalist (with an openness to the human (shared) experience of the sacred), I find that I can’t read the Exodus story as history, a recounting of actual events and people. The archeology just can’t support, for the moment, a literalist or historical approach to the text. But when I think of Exodus as the expression of a lost and exiled people in Babylon, it makes complete sense to me: The story of the triumph of their G-d over the local gods, the constant reassurance that they are G-d’s people, the catharsis in Pharoah’s punishment and learning, etc., all point to the story of an exiled people longing for home. It occurred to me (perhaps not an original idea or even all that interesting to those of you who are well-read in Jewish history and Jewish thinking about history) that what has been preserved in the Jewish story of the past 2500 years is the experience of being an exiled and scattered people who long for wholeness (שבת) and who find it through return (תשובה) with each other in community and in (ancient) tradition. This resonated at a deep level for me. The Jewish story is my story.

This new-found identification, however, is only one of two strands in the story of Babylonian exile that felt particularly salient to me this morning. The other half is an identification with those Hebrews who had been left behind after the exile, the Judaeans who remained in the land after the destruction of the temple. The exiled leadership, now what we would recognize as Jewish (probably the first time historically we can properly use this term), were freed from Babylon by the Persian empire and returned to Jerusalem. They found to their horror that those who had been left behind were radically different from them: they had a syncretic (blended) culture and religion, they had intermarried, and they no longer spoke Hebrew (sound familiar?). The returnees reacted with anger, indignation, moralizing, and violence to the new practices of those Hebrews/Judeans who had been left behind; and they exerted a culture of tight ethnic monitoring, tight control over practice, language, marriage, prayer, text, food—in short, of Jewishness, all backed by the power of the Persian Empire. The returnees’ practices, which had surely developed during exile, were transplanted and forced onto the remaining Israelite population.

Just as I felt an identification with the exiled, the Babylonian Jews, I simultaneously realized that I also identified with those who had been left behind, and who had made different choices vis-a-vis their religious and cultural alliances. I found myself defending the assimilated, the blended, the syncretic, and intermarried Judaeans against the orthodox onslaught of the returnees. Those who had been left behind had created new and vibrant forms of Hebrew religion in their syncretic practices. I cannot align myself in good conscience with the returnees who sought to “purify” and “correct” the “Bad Jews” who had been left behind. Everything from the new, strict rules of practice to the restructured Temple priesthood of the 2nd Temple to the forbidden practice of intermarriage and religious syncretism ring to me, from my 21st century ger-ische perspective to be unethical and a profound misunderstanding of how culture (ethnicity) works.

And so I ended up with a very broad sense of Jewishness and identification to an entire range of ancient Jews 2500 years ago in the breadth of their experiences, identifying both with the exiled and those who remained in Judea, the oppressed who became the oppressors and the “assimilated” who were perceived as a threat to Jewishness: Both were ethnic and religious innovators, both had survived an unimaginable (cultural) loss, and both ended up with a workable survival strategy: They were all Jews. Yes, the Jewish story is my story.


edited for clarity

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Warning: Rambling aimlessness ahead.

A big part of my journey has been struggling with my personal identity, my sense of who I am or will be as I move along this path. On one hand, I’ve pretty much embraced the label “Jew” and find myself thinking of myself as jewish already; the only caveat I find is my own ignorance. I feel Jewish, whatever that means; but I am a mere babe in terms of learning and practice. For me, that’s a good thing. It points to a road ahead of learning, exploring, growing, and moving toward a meaningful, ethical life. It seems clearer and clearer that I haven’t ceased being me, my ancestors and family haven’t disappeared, my aesthetics and morality and desires are still there; in short, I’m still me. Just me and Jewish.

There is a communal form of identity work, however, that is still troublesome for me. It is not unique to Jews, but I’m just having to deal with it in my new Jewish community.

A basic mode of community building that is relatively universal (I use that word advisedly) is that of working out meaningful boundaries, drawing cultural in/out lines. A common way groups do this is by building a kind of knowledge of the Other, the outsider, the Not-I. This knowledge of the Other is usually more mythical than empirical. Sometimes there are touches of experiential truth in this knowledge, but most often the experiences are already interpreted through the perspective of the Self, the We, and are often already inaccurate.

At its worst, this kind of identity work creates us/them distinctions that justify violence—pogroms, inquisitions, holocausts. At its most benign, it draws light social boundaries that can separate or distinguish at key moments and in key social spaces.

Although I know rationally that this is just simply something that human groups do—everything from Americans vs. Muslims (in the popular consciousness of the War on Terror) to internecine battles over arcane distinctions between death metal and lyrical death metal—I find that both my personal ethics and my education make it highly visible and highly vexing when I’m in a social situation where its actually happening. I understand this behavior in my sociologist brain and can see the behaviors with an interested detachment. In fact, I can even point to some important benefits of this kind of identity work, especially for minority groups.

But when I’m sitting in the middle of it, I get impatient with it very quickly. I realized tonight that I have two separate difficulties with this boundary drawing identity work: on one hand, it is usually anchored in ignorance of the Other (or reduction or oversimplification or willful misrepresentation, etc.), sometimes relatively harmless, sometimes full blown lies; and on the other hand, I have a deep ethical objection to it, as it’s hard for me to see an ethical way to exclude through misrepresentation, myth, or misinterpretation. Even as I write this, I am thinking of a hundred objections to my own objections, and maybe I’m not expressing this accurately, but I have a visceral ethical objection to doing identity work in this way. Even though I recognize that my lone objection is not going to change 6 billion humans’ behavior (and acknowledging that I may engage in it myself).

Part of this comes from growing up Mormon, in a community that, although it sees itself as essentially American, also sees itself as the set up against the rest of the world (Gentiles…yes, Mormons adopted this Jewish language in the 19th century from the Hebrew Bible).  And it comes from my rejection of the idea of a “chosen” people or a “special” individual of any kind in my early 20s. My own values revolve ideas of the value of human beings without regard to race, class, gender, religion, etc., and so I balk at efforts to make substantive distinctions. Having said all that, I realize there is some irony in my choosing as a spiritual home a religion that has been isolated and oppressed for nearly 2000 years, so community boundaries are often front and center in any conversation about Jewishness. And I should also stress that like everyone I often fail to live up to my ideals in this regard (e.g., I often get really pissed at all the straight people in the Castro).

The other part of impatience (and sometimes anger) comes from a character flaw of sorts: I do not suffer fools easily. I don’t mind people’s ignorance (and in fact am painfully aware of what I do not know), but I despise when knowledge (false) is used as a tool for social ends (boundary drawing). It makes me squirm.

Tonight I got into a conversation with a few friends about charity and chesed, something I’ve talked about here in a previous post (and a bit of a pet peeve of mine). The conversation was mostly fine, until it derailed into “Christians are…” and “Christians believe…” versus “We [Jews] are” and “We [Jews] believe”. I spent many years (a couple decades) immersed in Christian history and doctrine. Like any massive ancient culture, Christianity is diverse and complex and simple to be constructions just don’t work. My problems with the conversation were many, from simply false ideas to ideas produced through perception bias to the irritating need to build up Judaism by bashing Christianity. [Again, I know that this is a common social practice and nothing unique or bad about my friends, and Christians and Jews have been doing this to each other for a couple thousand years.]

Again, acknowledging that this identity work that my friends were engaged in is perfectly normal (statistically not morally) human behavior, I just had to ask myself, is this the best we can do? Is there no other way for we Jews to assert ourselves or to build a Judaism that we are proud of and that is meaningful to us than in this kind of Us/Them myth building? Is there no way to make a meaningful contribution to the world without making the contrast with a biased view of Christianity? To be honest, I don’t know if that can even exist, from the minority position, where Christianity is so dominant culturally. Yet I have to believe that there is a way to generate identity without othering the Other, without making shit up and repeating misunderstandings and misrepresentations. Are there ways of speaking about “us” in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not?

One of the things that I love about Reconstructionism is its exploration of a universalist strain within Judaism, the idea that YHVH is a universal presence and Judaism is just “our” way of relating to it, both ancestrally and in the present. That framing seems to be much more fruitful, ethical, and open, more appropriate and workable in a pluralistic, diverse, multiethnic world. A kind of Judaism dedicated to easiness with itself, knowing itself without having to define itself in the negative.

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Then who will I be?

Warning: navel gazing ahead.

Since the High Holidays, I have been in deep contemplation mode. The value of ritual for me has always been its ability to focus my attention on the salient issues of my life, and the ten Days of Awe were transformative for me on many levels. I sat out sukkot because I felt overwhelmed and overloaded by the experience. From what I’ve read, many modern Jews see sukkot as a regrounding, a coming back to earth after the heady days of self-examination. But i needed some time away, alone to think.

Since Yom Kippur, I’ve come back to the problem of identity. So far, I’ve been framing my journey into Judaism as an accretion, a layering onto myself; not a renunciation of my past or heritage, not an overthrow of the Ego. Judaism has filled many holes in my life, spiritual and social, but it feels like a continuation of who I have already been rather than a replacement.

Judaism is an ancient tradition, whose history of outsiderness has produced a tight identity structure that is unique among the monotheisms and which keeps demanding that I pay attention to it and take it seriously. It’s so tight that many of the world’s Jews will never consider me Jewish at all. A dear friend of mine, Jew by birth, notes frequently that Judaism is both an ethnicity and a religion. The ethnicity appeals to me on an aesthetic level, in the way that human culture generally appeals to me. I find Jewish tradition beautiful and life affirming on the ethno-cultural level. But I’m not sure that I would or ever could be ethnically Jewish. [Part of the Americanization of Judaism has been the restarting of a rather robust conversion stream, historically, which had been dead for centuries. So many of us Jews begin in a non-Jewish ethnicity. I think this could be a vital and important piece of the future of Judaism writ large, but that is for another post.]

What has drawn me to Judaism as a convert is the spiritual, or religious, piece. (I still have a bit of a scholarly, rationalist shudder when I write or say something like that.) For my personality and spiritual needs, Judaism is a near-perfect fit. As an ongoing struggle with god and text, and as a sanctification of everyday life, of the mundane, and as a tradtion anchored in some of humankind’s deepest yearnings, I find Judaism to be a grounding and meaningful way of life, one that says “home” to me in an irrational, intuitive way.

Yet I’m still stymied by the identity piece, the thought of what this all means for who I am. Full disclosure: I am not by disposition a joiner and I’m deeply uncomfortable claiming and living identities generally. This is partly due to a my scarring early life experience with Mormon identity; but it is also as much my personality. I have always bucked against being put in any kind of identity box. Identities feel reductive and confining to me, almost like a cognitive or social jail. Dangerous. Suffocating. Whenever people put me in any kind of identity category, I resist. For example, 15 years ago I accepted the fact that I was sexually attracted to men rather easily; yet it took me years longer to make peace with being called or calling myself gay. Another example, my refusal to identify as a professor early in my carer ended up leading me to some bad pedagogical decisions.

Identity categories come with sets of assumptions and scripts that I may or may not want to be associated with nor obliged to perform. Whereas I’m perfectly comfortable saying “I love men” or “That guy is hot” or “I teach university” or “I practice Judaism”, all “I am” constructions feel constraining, imprecise, too easily misunderstood or purposefully manipulated, fraught with rules and expectations, constricting, suffocating.

And so I find myself resisting the part of conversion that brings with it a new identity, an “I am”. What would identifying as a Jew mean? How can I be the kind of Jew I find the most meaningful, when “Jew” as an identity carries with it tight scripts and a world of assumptions, both within and without the Jewish community? That means people around me will assume that I think, believe, and act a certain way. Confining. Restricting. Can’t breathe. If I, Todd Ormsbee, identify as a Jew, then who will I be?

• As a Jew by choice, am I still the child, the great great great grandson Danish Mormon converts?

• Would I still be a seeker, or does conversion imply that the search is over?

• Can I still be a freethinker, one of my most treasured identities? One who refuses to believe without evidence?

• Am I still of northern european descent, and may I still honor my ancestors with objects and stories from my biological past? For example, can I still observe solstices and equinoxes?

• As a humanist, it has been nearly 20 years since I believed in Jesus, but as a Jew, can i still love Jesus as a devout Rabbi who sought to reform Judaism with a pharisaical focus on the greatest commandments of ahavah?

• I have admired the a buddha as a key figure of Human history and thought and spirituality for nearly 20 years, and have considered myself a casual buddhist. What becomes of my Buddha nature upon conversion?

I am universalist by disposition, but have come to believe over the past few years, that living as a universalist without a chosen path of practice is to be unmoored. In many ways, that unmooring can be deeply nurturing to a wounded soul, and indeed it has been nurturing for me over the past fifteen years. But now I’ve arrived at a point where being a lone seeker is no longer enough. I need to share the journey. My thought is to make of Judaism a home base from which to be a seeker, a place to anchor myself in ritual and ethics and community. A way to create a cohesive daily, yearly, and lifetime practice. But I don’t see myself ever stopping from learning and exploring other traditions.

I still feel a deep connection to this process of learning and adopting Jewish practices and hope that my shul can give me some more concrete direction in the required process in the near future (my only complaint about my shul has been the very California, inchoate process of conversion, in sharp contrast to the clearly delineated requirements at other shuls).

Judaism is the path for me. So this post isn’t an indication of doubt or wavering. The choice is the right one, in a way that I thought would never be possible. It is instead a searching of what this means for me. Once I am officially a Jew (to be honest, I already feel Jewish and already practice Judaism), then who will I be?

[edited 10/17 for clarity]

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Blood is in scare quotes above mainly because I’m a sociologist and a historian, and I shudder every time I read something that claims a cultural identity is in the “blood.” Of course this has echoes of Hitler and fascism generally, but our notion of genetic or biologically inherited culture, of “owning” cultures or ethnicities because of our parentage are deeply problematic, not just politically, but empirically. Culture is learned and contextual, and is basically a tool of human interaction.

I have a deep compassion and understanding for the Jewish language of ancestors and heritage. I get it. I understand why that language exists and why it circulates. But I also see so many dangers inherent in a language of inherited culture.

Yesterday I bought a used copy of Martin Buber’s collection of essays on Judaism. I was excited to read it because Buber’s I and Thou was transformative for me when I was an undergraduate. But I didn’t even make it half way through the first essay. Buber argues that there are only two things to be said of turn of the century judaism (presumably in Germany), and that is that it’s a religion and that it’s a nationality. He rejects the possibility that early 20th century German Jews were actually religious, because they don’t have a direct encounter with the divine principles, and turns to a three page long explanation of the connection of Jews to each other through their blood, and that their shared blood makes them a nation (he even goes so far to argue that nationhood requires common blood, a horrifying notion from our perspective 100 years later).

The blood language…was there something in the water in Germany? Seriously. I was pummeled by the deep historical irony of a Jew making that argument. But I was also deeply saddened. I need to read the rest of the essay to see where Buber is going with this. But as someone on the path to conversion, reading this blood language yet again (the first time I read it was the Orthodox scholar I have talked about before (see Gelerntner)) knocked me back.

Again, I get it. Completely intellectually, sociologically, historically, and culturally. But it leaves me completely speechless and baffled as to where to take that. I have a sociological/historical response, but I’m not sure how helpful it is for my personal experience of choosing Judaism as my community and spiritual path.

I have a long post on Jewish Identity that I’ve been working on for about a week, and it will tie in to this, but my idea of Jewish Identity comes from a normative position, what I think Jewish identity should or could be, and I take an adamantly anti-essentialist tack.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.


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