Reflections on Jewish Identity
A PERSISTENT FEAR worried Jews of the early Diasporas and of Hellenistic times: the fear that a child of theirs might grow up to be an am-haaretz – a peasant, ignorant of Torah; or, even worse, an apikoros-a sophisticated unbeliever who abandons Jewish faith to indulge in rationalistic speculation about the meaning of existence. In either case, the danger felt was that such an individual would not only ignore the commandments and rituals, but that he would, in effect, have lost the sense of his past. Asked, in the classic question of identity, “Who are you?” the am-haaretz does not understand; and the apikoros, instead of giving the traditional response: “I am the son of my father” (Isaac ben Abraham), says: “I am I”- meaning, of course, I stand alone, I come out of myself, and, in choice and action, make myself.
A similar crisis of identity is a hallmark of our own modernity-except that not rationalism, but experience, has replaced faith. For us, sensibility and experience, rather than revealed utterances, tradition, authority, or even reason, have become the sources of understanding and of identity. One stakes out one’s position and it is confirmed by others who accept the sign; it is no longer the hand of the father placed upon us-the covenant-that gives confirmation.
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