Who is a Jew? Bagels and Shy­lock as stereo­types

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY RICHARD DEATON GUEST OPIN­ION Richard Deaton, Ph.D., LL.B., of Stan­ley Bridge, taught Mil­i­tary Ethics and Law at the Royal Mil­i­tary Col­lege of Canada (RMC), Kingston, Ont.

“But who is a Jew? His­tor­i­cally, in the Jewish ghet­tos one stud­ied the To­rah (the Old Tes­ta­ment) or Marx. That of course was Karl Marx, not Harpo Marx, and V.I. Lenin, not John Len­non.”

Henry Sre­brnik’s fas­ci­nat­ing ar­ti­cles on re­li­gion, “Will non-religious Jews sur­vive?” and sec­u­lar­ism ( JP, Jan 18, 2016 and The Guardian Jan 25, 2016 ) war­rant fur­ther se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion and elab­o­ra­tion. If his­tory and cur­rent de­mo­graphic trends are any in­di­ca­tion non-religious, or sec­u­lar Jews will not only sur­vive, they will thrive.

Jews have been try­ing for 4,000 years to an­swer the ques­tion: Who is a Jew? In brief, one can be ei­ther be a religious or an eth­nic Jew. Gen­er­ally four (4) cri­te­ria must be sat­is­fied to be con­sid­ered a Jew: be­ing a monothe­ist, that is, be­liev­ing in only one God; hav­ing a Jewish mother, that is the ma­tri­lin­eal trans­mis­sion of re­li­gion (or con­ver­sion); fol­low­ing the kosher di­etary laws; and rit­u­al­is­tic cir­cum­ci­sion for a male. Not all th­ese re­quire­ments need be sat­is­fied; in­deed, some have been con­sid­er­ably loos­ened or aban­doned in re­cent years. One doesn’t have to be religious to be Jewish.

There is, as well, an es­tab­lished and re­spected Jewish tra­di­tion called Sec­u­lar­ism Ju­daism, based on eth­i­cal hu­man­ism, that goes back to at least Moses Men­delssohn in mid-18 cen­tury Ger­many; some peo­ple re­fer to this tra­di­tion as be­ing a “Jewish athe­ist” or a “non-Jewish Jew.” This is a loose eth­nic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, and has lit­tle to do with the os­si­fied re­li­gion of the back­ward East­ern Euro­pean shtetl. Sec­u­lar Ju­daism has a much more uni­ver­sal, and less eth­no­cen­tric, ori­en­ta­tion than does other vari­ants of Ju­daism.

Jews in Canada rep­re­sent about 1.5 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Canada has the fourth largest Jewish pop­u­la­tion in the world. Sig­nif­i­cantly, ac­cord­ing to Sta­tis­tics Canada, as of 2011, religious and non-religious Jews were al­most evenly di­vided. Ac­cord­ing to a 2003 U.S. Har­ris Poll, only 45 per cent of all Jews be­long to a syn­a­gogue. Of those 38 per cent were (lib­eral-sec­u­lar) Re­form Jews, 33 per cent were Con­ser­va­tive, and 22 per cent (strict) Ortho­dox Jews.

A Time mag­a­zine sur­vey (dated) in­di­cated that 40 per cent of all North Amer­i­can Jews are non-prac­tis­ing, while only 54 per cent are religious: seven per cent are Ortho­dox Jews, 28 per cent Con­ser­va­tive, and fully 58 per cent are lib­eral-sec­u­lar Re­form Jews. Th­ese sur­vey data sug­gest that most Jews in North Amer­ica are non-prac­tis­ing. Th­ese trends sug­gest that the num­ber of non-religious Jews is likely to in­crease, es­pe­cially with the high rate of in­ter­faith mar­riage. So who is at risk of ex­tinc­tion?

But who is a Jew? His­tor­i­cally, in the Jewish ghet­tos one stud­ied the To­rah (the Old Tes­ta­ment) or Marx. That of course was Karl Marx, not Harpo Marx, and V.I. Lenin, not John Len­non. Jewish his­tory has had more than its fair share of fa­mous rebels and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, mostly sec­u­lar Jews.

So who is a Jew? Be­ing a “Jewish athe­ist,” a “non-Jewish Jew,” a left-wing rad­i­cal, or be­ing in­volved in the labour move­ment (such as my par­ents and my­self) is a re­spected Jewish tra­di­tion and has been in­te­gral to the Jewish iden­tity and ex­pe­ri­ence in places like NYC, Win­nipeg, and Mon­treal. Jewish lit­er­a­ture is full of work­ing class he­roes. Those Jews who have es­caped to sub­ur­bia in the post-war era will­fully for­get their roots.

Cur­rent political and so­cial trends hold im­por­tant lessons for the Jewish com­mu­nity. Pro­fes­sor David Vi­tal of Tel Aviv Univer­sity in his book, The Fu­ture of the Jews (1990), ar­gues that Is­raeli and North Amer­i­can Jews are headed in very dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, and may re­sult in the in­creased alien­ation of North Amer­i­can Jews from Is­rael as it re­jects its sec­u­lar Labourite ori­gins and be­comes more religious.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.