Writer and educator Dr. Erica Brown penned a thoughtful piece for the New York Jewish Week on January 25, in which she addressed the concept of Jewish peoplehood.
“The niggling tension of Judaism as a nationality, ethnicity and faith,” she writes, “continues to stump many who have tried in vain to capture what it means to be Jewish.”
She recalls Leon Wieseltier’s charmingly nebulous take on the matter: “To be a Jew is to be a Jew. It is its own thing. Its own category; its own autonomous way of moving through the world…”
And the late Tony Judt’s: “I participate in no Jewish community life, nor do I practice Jewish rituals… I am not a ‘lapsed’ Jew, having never conformed to requirements in the first place. I don’t ‘love Israel’… But whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise.”
In the end, alas, Dr. Brown likewise offers no solution to the question of what Jewishness means.
Someone who did, though, at least tentatively, was political scientist and writer Charles Murray—who, as it happens, is not himself Jewish. Several years ago, in Commentary, he dared to raise one of the few issues still considered impolite these days for public discussion: Jewish intelligence.
Dr. Murray reports that “the average Jew is at the 75th percentile” of the IQ scale and that “the proportion of Jews with IQs of 140 or higher is somewhere around six times the proportion of everyone else.” Others, moreover, have noticed that a number of world-changing ideas, both religious ones like monotheism and scientific ones like relativity, have their roots in a certain ethnicity.
After exploring a number of theories addressing the anomaly, Dr. Murray asks why “one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when the others did not?”
His conclusion, perhaps tongue somewhat in cheek:
“At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are G-d’s chosen people.” [The hyphen is mine.]
I don’t know, or much care, whether or not intelligence plays any role in Klal Yisrael’s chosenness. In any event, anyone who has been around the block knows many members of the tribe who are far from brilliant, even some who might be a few tractates short of a Talmud, so to speak. But even if smarts are in fact evident in the Jewish aggregate, they are peripheral to the essence of our chosenness.
Because what we Jews are chosen for is, in the end, to serve the Creator—with our intellects, yes, but also with our hearts and our bodies—and, by doing so, to be examples for all humanity. And that is the secret that puzzles and discomfits those who wonder at their inexplicable feelings of Jewishness.
It’s easy for those of us who well recognize that secret to lament the dearth of its recognition in the wider Jewish world. Easy to bemoan the obliviousness of so many Jews to the fact that the Jewish essence is the Jewish mandate to serve the Divine.
But the lamentation deserves to be tempered with some exultation, too, over the fact that Jews whose lives are so distant from our own, who live estranged from much, even all, of Jewish observance still feel the inchoate pull of their Jewish identity, even as they admit to having no understanding of it at all. The fact that a Tony Judt, despite consciously shunning Judaism, when asked about his Jewishness “unhesitatingly respond[s] in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise” should fill us with awe.
And with determination, to do all we can to fan the tiny flame that is the Jewish soul, flickering defiantly deep in the hearts of fellow Jews who may not look or live like us but who are parts of us all the same.
© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE
[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]
The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.
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