‘What is Jewish Identity? An Oxford Debate’

Monday, 8 August, 2011 - 6:27 am

‘What is Jewish Identity? An Oxford Debate’


A question that has been debated recently amongst Jewish intellectuals in Oxford and indeed for many centuries is what constitutes Jewish identity. This question is more potent today when there are additional factors and definitions in the Jewish lexicon relating to the modern Jewish experience, with the return of Jews after 2,000 years to Israel, and to complicate matters further, this is accompanied by an unprecedented level of assimilation amongst Jews worldwide. Combined, it makes it difficult to find a single definition that satisfies scholars on the question of Jewish identity.


This essay will try and shed some light on this question that has been debated in the halls of the Oxford University Chabad Society over the last couple of years by various esteemed scholars in various contexts.


Taylor Emeritus Professor of German Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, Professor Siegbert Salomon Prawer, author of A Cultural Citizen of the World: Sigmund Freud's Knowledge and Use of British and American Writings (Oxford: Legenda 2009) claimed in a lecture that Jewish identity according to Freud is related to the unconscious and cannot be explained. It expresses itself in many ways, for example, to be inquisitive, humorous, and so on, but it is something quintessential and unexplainable.


Israeli novelist, essayist, and playwright, Professor Abraham B. Yehoshua, on the other hand, argued that Jewish identity is empty and has content only when one resides in a country with other Jewish people and tradition, like Israel.


This view was echoed by Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 Czech Jewish children to England on the eve of the Holocaust, when he visited Oxford. He was asked about his Jewish identity to which he responded that it only has relevance to him when he visits Israel. He seemed to agree that being surrounded by Jews in a Jewish state that follows to a large degree a Jewish calendar and other elements of Jewish tradition constitutes a Jewish identity.


In contrast, Jewish philosopher and social critic, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, editor of the landmark Steinsaltz Talmud, who is considered one of the greatest Jewish minds living today, argued the complete opposite in a public lecture at Oxford in honour of 100 years since the birth of Sir Isaiah Berlin. Rabbi Steinsaltz claimed that the identity of Israel is essentially pagan as it follows a Western style of living and culturally belongs to the sphere of influence of the West, as do many other countries. Since Israel fundamentally follows a western moral value system, it is not strictly a Jewish country, as Western values are at odds with a Jewish value system.


Another view on the subject of Jewish identity is articulated by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, known as the Rebbe. Rabbi Schneersohn explained in a conversation that subsequently became public that Jewish identity is a combination of peoplehood and belief.


Which one of these is correct? Is it possible to be Jewish when one is not nationally Jewish? On the other hand is it possible to be Jewish without the content of Jewish belief?


We will try and reconcile these opposing views. It is possible to say that while Steinsaltz, Yehoshua and Winton are speaking on the conscious level, Prawer is speaking on the unconscious level. They do not have to be contradictory. A person may have an unconscious Jewish identity that the mystics will call a ‘spark of the Divine’ or the yechidah, while on the conscious level the content might be Western. This will however have no real effect on the person’s essential or unconscious Jewish identity. Steinsaltz, Yehoshua and Winton will not necessarily argue with this point.


Indeed, Steinsaltz and Yehoshua will argue between themselves about the nature of the content itself in Israel, however this debate is outside the remit of this essay.


This dual identity, the conscious and unconscious, one can argue, is alluded to by the statement of Rabbi Schneersohn. Peoplehood is something which is essential on the level of the unconscious, whereas belief is the content of one’s identity on the conscious level. Rabbi Schneersohn is arguing then that Jewish identity needs to be manifest on both levels of consciousness, the conscious as well as the unconscious.


Zion as the unconscious Jewish identity


We will attempt to explain this idea of conscious and unconscious Jewish identity through an interesting discussion about a Biblical Hebrew word that is familiar to many but can also be understood - like many aspects of Jewish thought - on a deeper level. The name Zion appears no less than 108 times in the Hebrew Bible and many times in the daily Jewish prayer book. Clearly, in the scripture it is meant to be a geographical place, referring to the holy city of Jerusalem, which dates back to the times of King David who bought it from the Jebusites (Samuel II 24:24).


This name is mentioned in Psalms in numerous places and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. In Psalms (137:1) it writes, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." It says in Isaiah (2:3), ‘And many peoples shall go, and they shall say, "Come, let us go up to the Lord's mount, to the house of the G-d of Jacob, and let Him teach us of His ways, and we will go in His paths," for out of Zion shall the Torah come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ Clearly, Zion refers to Jerusalem.


Similarly, in Psalms (87:2) it says, “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.” In Psalms (87:5), ‘And to Zion it will be said, "Man after man was born in her,’ and He will establish it on high. Zechariah (2:14) says, ‘Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for, behold! I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord.’ Elsewhere in Psalms (146:10), it writes, ‘The Lord will reign forever! Your G-d, O Zion, to all generations. Hallelujah!’


What does this scripturally ubiquitous word actually mean? These geographical references  seem to give no insight into the meaning of the word itself.


Zion as a symbol within the soul of something higher


The Jewish people have numerous names in the Bible, including Jacob, Israel, Judah and others. These names all have figurative meaning relating to a spiritual state of existence. Jacob refers to one’s spiritual struggles (Genesis 32:22-32), Israel refers to overcoming one’s spiritual struggles and challenges and Judah means submission or acknowledgement of G-d – pure faith. Another name for the Jewish people however is Zion, as quoted earlier; the prophets call the Jews, sometimes daughters of Zion, children of Zion or just Zion. What does Zion allude to, other than Jerusalem?


The classical Jewish work Midrash Rabbah teaches that the soul of a person has five components. Three components, nefesh, ruach and neshamah, reside within the consciousness of the person and two components, chaya and yechidah, remain above in the unconscious and serves as a connection between the conscious faculties of the person and the essence of the Al-mighty.


In Jewish mysticism, it explains that all five levels of the soul are ultimately of a finite nature. The highest level however is called the yechidah, meaning unity, and symbolizes the Infinite. This component of the soul in Jewish thought is called Zion. This is indicated in Ezekiel (39: 15), where it says ‘And when they that pass through shall pass and see a human bone, they shall build a sign – tziyun - next to it until the buriers bury it in the Valley of Hamon Gog.’


Another translation of Zion


The word Zion also has another translation which comes from the Hebrew word Metzuyan, meaning excellence or distinguished. This is mentioned in the Jewish prayers on the festival of Sukkot, “Help us we beseech You, Zion, the distinguished, help us, we beseech You.” The word Zion and distinguished have the same letter structure in the Hebrew tziyon hamtzuyenet.


Both these translations are making the same point, which can be understood in light of the above. They both refer to a spiritual state of the person which is perfect and excellent or distinguished. This excellence is, according to Jewish thought, the Yechidah component of the soul - the spiritual unconscious that is unaffected by the spiritual struggles of life and remains perfect.


Indeed, the references to Zion refer to the Jewish people that might be in exile, but whose Jewish identity at the unconscious level remains intact.

It is for this reason they are referred to as Zion. It is as if to say that despite the struggles pertaining to the content of the Jewish experience, the Zion or yechidah cannot be taken captive by these negative struggles and encounters.


In Likutei Torah (Devorim), Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi sums up this analysis with the verse in Isaiah (1:27), ‘Zion shall be redeemed through justice and its captives returned through righteousness.’ He explains the difference between Zion and the captives of Zion. Why doesn’t the verse simply say Zion shall be redeemed and returned through justice and righteousness? Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains that it refers to the two levels of spiritual consciousness. Zion is a level of the soul that cannot be affected by corporeality or be taken captive by it. It always remains holy and spiritually intact.


This then is the deeper level of Jewish identity that is unexplainable and beyond rationale. Despite Freud’s ambiguous views of religion, he might have been on to something regarding the point of Jewish identity being connected to the unconscious, even though he would not have been aware of this discussion.

Comments on: ‘What is Jewish Identity? An Oxford Debate’

Lois Mendelsohn wrote...

Like. Appropriate title.

On Jewish identity the Rebbe said "a combination of peoplehood and belief" - he also often said it is down to the soul, which according to this essay only Professor Siegbert Salomon Prawer's view comes close to - but anyway as "a combination of peoplehood and belief" doesn't one come from the other?
(Mostly belief of some kind leading to peoplehood.)

The MidrashRabbah teaches that a Jewish person has 5 aspects of the soul, but if the person is not Jewish, then how many aspects?

When Freud refers to the unconcious, he very much considers it something that can affect the person - despite its being unconcious. Would you say that fits with the idea of "Zion" as you've refered to it? (I always thought that it would, that it is resposible for the Jew's "extra measure of kindness" and connected to the doing of good deeds.)