Zionism and Jewish Identity
JEWISH identity is problematic in the modern world as it was not in premodern times. In the Middle Ages and until the breaking-up of the ghetto in the 18th century, whatever the burdens of Jewish life might have been, a self-questioning skepticism about individual identity was not one of them. Jewry and Judaism were defined quite simply in that period as contrasts to Christianity and Islam. The political and social position of the Jew lay in the space granted him by those two rivals-a space that was at times suffocatingly minimal, at times more generous.
Within those confines the Jewish community survived, retained and developed its religion, and cultivated an entire civilization: law, language, folklore, memories of a common past, and expectations of a common future. It was, indeed, through these elements of traditional culture that the Jew of pre-modern times achieved identification with his community. Not that there was no such thing as alienation, or even the defection of individuals and groups to rival religions (as society was divided along the lines of religious affiliation, the Jew who left his own community had no choice but to join another through religious conversion). But what was not known, up to the middle of the 17th century, was a case like that of Spinoza, the case of someone surviving as a Jewish heretic without converting to Christianity.
About the Author