January 16, 2019

American Jews Wrestle With Faith vs. Identity

Robert Mnookin brings a unique perspective to the anguished debate within the Jewish community over what it means to be a Jew in America. He is a professor at Harvard Law School, where he directs the Harvard Negotiation Research Project, and he is the author of, among other books, “Bargaining With the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight.” Conflict resolution is not only his legal specialty, it is his life’s work.

“The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World”
(PublicAffairs) is Mnookin’s earnest effort to resolve the conflicts that have torn apart the Jewish world, both here and in Israel, and not just recently but now more than ever.

As an assimilated American Jew, Mnookin reveals, it was the birth of his four grandchildren the fanned the “Jewish spark” inside him. “But why did I care that my grandchildren would think of themselves as Jewish?” he writes. “That’s what puzzled me. And what did this sudden interest in continuity say about how my own Jewish identity had changed? These questions led me deep into an inquiry into Jewish identity, the nature of identity itself, and the challenges facing the American Jewish community.”

Mnookin proposes what he calls “a new way of thinking about who counts as Jewish,” although I am compelled to observe that it’s not all that new. “It’s the Big-Tent approach,” he writes. “Inside the tent the table is set with a smorgasbord of Jewish values, music, food, traditions, rituals, spirituality, language, philanthropic causes, and connections with Israel.” He refuses to characterize any particular aspect of Judaism as essential to Jewish identity. “At this table some will nibble; others will feast. But all will have options, and none will be turned away.”

“The Jewish American Paradox” is a deep dive into the factors that shape the human sense of identity. His points of reference range from the writings of the ancient rabbis and sages to the credo of Judaism as articulated by Maimonides in the Middle Ages to the life and work of 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson.

Robert Mnookin writes that the challenge facing American Jews is how to “[pass] on a meaningful Jewish identity to the next generation in a community where intermarriage is common.”

Mnookin is willing and able to confront us with all the contradictions of our own religious traditions. The rule of matrilineal decent, for example, “excludes people who are living thoroughly Jewish lives” if their fathers are Jewish but their mothers are not, and yet includes people whose mothers are Jewish but who have converted to another faith. “In contemporary America,” he writes, “I believe it produces results that are dysfunctional, arbitrary and unfair.”

Above all, he insists on making a distinction between Jewish identity and Jewish faith. “On average, we American Jews are not very observant and include a surprising large number of agnostics and atheists. Most of us, myself included, would flunk any religious standard that was at all demanding.” He cites the late Californian Rabbi Harold Schulweis for the proposition that “the theological emphasis of Judaism should be shifted from God to godliness.” He goes even further by quoting a quip by playwright David Javerbaum: “Judaism is a thoroughly, totally ironic religion,” Javerbaum observed. “It is the first religion that no longer believes in God.” 

These ironies persist in all ages and in all aspects of Jewish self-definition. He reminds us that Reform Judaism, when adopting the so-called Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, declared that “[w]e consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community,” while, at the same time, the pioneers of political Zionism “took the opposite and equally radical tack, defining the Jewish collective exclusively as a ‘people’ in which religious commitments
were optional.” The greatest irony of all is that, as Mnookin puts it, “[a]nyone who looks to the state of Israel for a neat and coherent answer to the question of ‘Who Is a Jew?’ will be disappointed.” Indeed, the chapter titled “Who Is a Jew in Israel?” opens with a caution: “Fasten your seat belts,” Mnookin writes. “I am about to take you on a wild and challenging ride.”

Mnookin points out that Jews in America and Israel are on very different paths that are unlikely to converge any time soon. “Israel’s primary challenge is how to manage being both Jewish and democratic in the face of serious security concerns.” By contrast, the challenge facing American Jews is how to “[pass] on a meaningful Jewish identity to the next generation in a community where intermarriage is common.” After devoting so much attention to history and theory, Mnookin suddenly embraces the role of the wise and caring zayde by offering his practical tips on “Raising a Jewish Child.”

Yet Mnookin demonstrates that the sheer intellectual effort he invested into the research and writing of his book is itself an authentic expression of Jewish identity. “[Educating] myself on issues that Jewish scholars have debated for centuries,” “[wrestling] with those issues and [coming] up with my own answers,” he concludes, “made me feel more Jewish than ever.” 

Here is the moment of revelation for both the author and the reader of
“The American Jewish Paradox.” Mnookin invites us to accompany him on a quest, and by doing so, we, too, feel more Jewish than ever.


Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.