Probing Identity

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What does it mean to have an identity? If I proudly refer to myself as an Australian Muslim, what, in fact, am I doing? Simply resorting to tribalism? Unthinkingly slotting myself into a little box that I happened to have been born into? Establishing my home team?

Or is it somehow much deeper than that: an essential human need to identify with a fixed set of traditions and rituals in order to bring real meaning and perspective to life?

Maybe, somehow, it’s a bit of both.

David J. Goldberg, Rabbi Emeritus of London’s Liberal Jewish Synagogue, has thought long and hard about this issue, particularly when it comes to his own cultural group, the Jews. His book This Is Not The Way: Jews, Judaism and Israel caused a storm of controversy resulting from his openly critical comments of some aspects of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.

But the real reason he wrote the book, he avers, was to address these deeper issues of identity head-on – in particular, how a sense of Jewish identity might be somehow disentangled from the religious elements with which it has been awkwardly enmeshed for thousands of years.

“I was really bothered by the difference between the theology – that as a Rabbi I was expounding weekly at services in prayer or sermons – and the reality that the overwhelming majority of Jews nowadays are not believing Jews.

“They are Jews for any number of reasons – tradition, family, persecution, you name it – but belief in God, certainly the God of the Five Books of Moses, the Old Testament, comes way down the list. And I wanted to explore this; and as honestly as possible, my own ambivalence about it, my own belief.”

A prime consequence of this deeply personal exploration is David’s conclusion that more credence should be given to the notion of the Cultural Jew, as opposed to its Zionist, Orthodox or Progressive counterparts.

The Cultural Jew may be religious in the traditional sense, but certainly isn’t necessarily so, and sometimes isn’t at all. But what does the Cultural Jew believe? What defines her?

purim-3010503The answer, says David, comes down to traditions and values. Tradition we largely interpret through rituals. For Cultural Jews, like anyone else, this means adherence to certain rites and ceremonies for birth, marriage, annual holidays and so forth. Encountering old friends, eating particular foods, singing special songs, all of these are signs of the overarching need for the creation and maintenance of rituals that exists in all of us.

But by far our greatest need for ritual, he points out, occurs during a time of mourning.

“It’s amazing how people who’ve gone the furthest away from Judaism, as it were – sometimes even quite elaborately disowning any involvement in it whatsoever – nevertheless when their parent dies, they want to say the memorial prayer Kaddish over the body. And they will want it in transliterations if they can’t read Hebrew, just to be able to say it. So the prevalence of honoring the dead, remembering your parents, is a very deep thing in all cultures.”

And because all of this is so obviously personal, so inextricably tied to our own memories, experiences and sense of self, the notion that any third party might somehow feel itself competent to pass judgment on any one person’s sense of identity mediated through these very traditions is quite inappropriate.

This might seem like an obvious statement. But look a bit closer and things get murkier, particularly for the case of the Jews.  For the better part of two thousand years rabbinic teachings have stipulated that, aside from official conversion through a strictly delineated procedure, only someone of a Jewish mother can be properly considered Jewish.  This formal definition of Jewish identity is now unthinkingly accepted throughout virtually all Jewish communities.  But as a rabbi himself, Goldberg is all too well aware of the contingent historical context that gave rise to our current definitions.

“In the Bible itself descent goes through the father, not the mother.  One finds, “the son of David” or “the son of Isaac”, or whatever it might be.  It goes through the male line.

“At some stage, and scholars don’t know exactly when but they tend to put it in the time of the Maccabean Revolt when a lot of young men were killed in warfare, it was changed to the maternal line.  So it became the maternal line that was paramount and that’s codified in the Mishnah and in the Talmud. And that has been the law ever since to determine who is a Jew.”

To Rabbi Goldberg, this way of thinking is an example of inflexible and outmoded dogma that the Cultural Jew would be well to move beyond.  

“I say, basically, ‘A Jew is anyone who says he or she is one’, because it would not be for me – it would be arrogance in the extreme – to turn around and say, ‘Oh, no, you’re not, because your mother or your grandmother wasn’t Jewish.’

“So if they tell me, ‘I regard myself as Jewish’, I would say, ‘You are Jewish, because you have voluntarily undergone a form of self-identification, which is the most honest kind of identification’.”

Howard Burton,


To best explore the topics raised in this post for teaching and learning, please see below a number of related expert resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal which offers a dynamic IB-specific database of 500+ authoritative video and print resources featuring more than 80 world-leading researchers, including two Nobel Laureates, explicitly created to meet the needs of both teachers and students in the Diploma Programme – please visit our new website  for further information.

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