A little 'authenticity' rant...

Last night I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel at a University Jewish Society discussing the challenges for Jewish women today. It was a discussion with both predictable and fascinating arguments, and I was impressed with all the other speakers, and their honesty in acknowledging the challenges being faced across the community today.
There was one little comment, though, right at the end, which left me needing to have a rant, so apologies, dear readers! Most of the discussion, bar one question from the floor which was just inaccurate, wasn't accusatory or divisive between the movements, although the differences were clearly discussed and obvious. Until right at the end when one panelist remarked "I could just join another denomination, but would it have authentic 'yiddishkeit'". Red rag to this bull I'm afraid.
As I pointed out last night (I had yet to make my closing comments thankfully), can a Mizrachi or Sephardi Jew have 'Yiddishkeit'? And frankly, show me a time in Jewish history when there was just one true way of being Jewish. Judaism has always been built on diverse opinions and discussions - you could bring a page of the Talmud to support this (this link is a good English way to explain this idea of a conversation on the page), which personifies discussion and debate through the ages. Across the Jewish world Jewish law has always been interpreted in a variety of ways, sometimes even from village to village in the Shtetls where Yiddishkeit as a term may actually work.
We can even look to the Torah for examples of this diversity, maybe even its origins. In Bamidbar (Numbers) we learn that as the Israelites camped around the mishkan - the desert temple, they did so according to their various tribes, each with a unique flag flying to demarcate their grouping. They were one big community, or family, with lots of different identities within. They were never one homogeneous group. This is a microcosm of the Jewish community today, and of society in general.
Identities don't have to be something over which we feel threatened and divided, but which we celebrate for providing choices and access to a diversity of people. Some choices may well take one outside the boundaries of Judaism (such as for Jews Jesus isn't the messiah, that makes you a Christian) but that isn't a bad choice, just a different choice. Progressive Judaism is a part of the continuing conversation seen in the Talmud and teshuvot about how to make Jewish law applicable to this age, and to understand through Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and other sources how best to make the most of this world and the short time we have in it.
My problems with the word Yiddishkeit actually go a long way back. Growing up, every now and then, I would hear a comment about converts to Judaism, claiming 'but they haven't really got any Yiddishkeit have they?'. Even as a teenager I knew this wasn't right, and challenged it when I heard it (I was a very annoying and self righteous teen I imagine!) It still strikes me as a ridiculous idea, that someone who commits to an extended period of study, and attends synagogue most weeks and continues to engage devotedly throughout their life, is considered less 'authentic' than someone who happens to exit a Jewish womb and never learns very much at all, or even someone born Jewish who does take the time to learn. Who decides what is authentic and true? Of course there are boundaries and limits, but these things change and develop over time, and have, as I said earlier, never been homogeneous or looked the same.
Ultimately, no one has all the Truth, so we can only ever know what feels 'authentic' to us, and then try to find a community (which inevitably has overarching values and boundaries) that we can feel comfortable and authentic within. It's important people have a choice of places to do this in, but why constantly must we undermine the choices others make? I know my choices are right for me, and I hope others find where they are at home and authentic, and I celebrate when they do.


  1. Nice post! What is most authentically Jewish, many of us believe, is the old-time religion of black hats and the Pale. Thus there persists an anxiety of inauthenticity — that someone, somewhere, is the real Jew, but I’m not it.
    The myth of authenticity, however, has got to go. First, of course, it’s not historically accurate. Traditional Jews didn’t wear long black coats until the 18th century. More importantly, however, the entire notion of authenticity is a false projection of particular historical quirks onto an imagined ideal of “realness” that artificially freezes culture, and thus spells its demise. The truth is that there is no single authentic Jewishness. Like any living culture, Jewish culture (and religion) evolves over time in order to remain vibrant.
    Meaningful authenticity isn’t about an old religious form or a Yiddish pun.
    If a meditating female rabbi resonates more with the souls of her followers than does a nigun-singing, Talmud-learning male one, she is the more authentic spiritual leader. Authenticity isn’t about form, it’s about getting to what matters.


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