A Provocative Talk Among ‘We Jews’

“We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Jossey-Bass, $24.95).

Is modern Judaism facing an identity crisis? One would think so from reading “We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do?” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. This provocative work, which Steinsaltz calls “a private, intimate conversation within the Jewish family,” looks to bring out into the open “the issues and subjects that are rarely raised in a straightforward [manner].” Included are controversial topics such as “Are We a Nation or a Religion?”; “Do We Have Our Own Set of Character Traits?”; “Is Money Our God?”; and “Are We Excessively Warm or Excessively Cold?”

Although Steinsaltz could have written a scholarly treatise, he chose instead to compose “a conversation-like study and a clarification of thoughts that should provoke the reader to further thinking and to drawing his own conclusions.”

He acknowledges the many objections that readers could have to his work. But his easy-to-read prose allows for a wider readership than a scholarly work. The book should elicit conversation. I found myself arguing with the text and then expanding on the ideas Steinsaltz introduces. Even when I don’t agree with him, I admire his well-thought-out arguments.

Perhaps the most controversial chapter deals with the nature of the Jewish people. The question of whether we are a nation or a religion has never been successfully answered. What Steinsaltz believes is that neither of these determinations adequately describes the connection that exists between Jews. Instead, he feels we are a family, “not a family in the biological sense of the word… [but] rather a human-spiritual structure.”

So a “gentile who converts to Judaism does not only belong to the Jewish religion; he is considered a son of the Jewish people and even a son of the family.”

Steinsaltz does believe that the Jewish people have their own character traits, but he also says “that sometimes we use them and sometimes we abuse them.” While he feels it’s impossible to outline all Jewish characteristics, he mentions “our flexibility is a critical survival skill,” that “we are quintessentially a stiff-necked people” and that “we are buoyed by faith.”

These traits have their good and bad sides. For example, being flexible has helped the Jewish people adapt to the different countries they have lived in during the Diaspora. On the other hand, this same trait “leads to a sense of dissociation, in the sense that a person can go from one place to another without striking roots too deeply in any particular place.” By being able to belong everywhere, Jews may never truly feel that they belong anywhere.

The chapter about Jews and money takes on the myth that Jews are obsessed with money and that all Jews are rich. Steinsaltz looks at the historical origins of this idea, explaining how this “error of perception” came into being. He also looks at the reasons why Jewish poverty is “not visible to outsiders,” emphasizing the fact that Jews have always looked to each other to support the needy members of their community.

In the section that examines “are we too cold- or warm-hearted,” Steinsaltz uses a cultural perspective, showing how these generalizations tell more about the people who make them then they do about Jews.

Jews are often criticized as being too intellectual on the one hand or too emotional on the other, but Steinsaltz finds the combination of these traits “praiseworthy” since they “can be understood as two expressions of the same power.” Using our brains and our emotions gives a depth to the Jewish experience and leads to “a clearer and sharper way of thinking.”

Steinsaltz also explains how Torah study, prayer and mysticism have benefited from our ability to express both sides of our nature.

In other chapters, Steinsaltz looks at the Jewish messianic complex, the role of Jews in the world, whether or not Judaism influences our thinking processes, how anti-Semitism affects other nations and the nature of Jewish leadership.

Many times I found myself debating the ideas he sets forward. For example, is Jewish identity only based on the “religious stuff” as he claims? Secular Jews might well disagree. As I thought more, I found myself acknowledging that without the “religious stuff,” the cultural aspects of Jewish identity might soon disappear, especially since Jews have so easily adapted to the civilizations they’ve lived in.

What “We Jews” doesn’t deal with is the many practical problems currently facing the Jewish world. It avoids the “Who is a Jew” question faced by Israel. The more politically inclined will wonder how his work can help them deal with the crises currently facing Israel. It is one thing to say that we need to return to our religious values; it’s another to define what those values are.

But the main concern of this work is not politics; it seeks to help readers work out their religious ideas and place them in the context of modern life. In that context, the book worked for me personally: It made me analyze my feelings about Jews and Jewish identity.