Can being Jewish mean whatever each of us wants? According to a just-launched consciousness raising and community building initiative launched by Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), it can.
The online initiative, unitizing Facebook and Twitter, says that “Being Jewish means something different to everyone — whatever it means to you, that’s your #ish”. But does being Jewish really mean something different to everyone, and if so does it have any meaning at all? For me, the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘yes’.
No two people ever experience anything in exactly the same way. And according to rabbinic tradition (Mishnah in Sanhedrin), our uniqueness is one of the three defining features of our fundamental humanity. The other two, by the way, are the fact that each of us is equal to the other and of infinite value.
So while some people will immediately squawk about this campaign as undermining fundamental Jewish values or of surrendering to a contemporary narcissism which allows anything as long as we like it, nothing could be further from the truth. If taken seriously, the responses to the question “what’s you #ish?” could be the beginning of an identity revolution for all people claiming any kind of Jewishness – a revolution as significant as any we have seen in Jewish history.
To be sure, nobody can know the precise outcome of such revolutions in how we understand who we are. But this much is certain: listening carefully to what people think about who they are, and taking seriously the larger social context in which we find ourselves, especially at times of transition, has created the movements which have sustained the Jewish people through 3,000 years.
From early rabbis, to Maimonides; from the first Hasidim to the first Reform Jews; from 19th century Zionists to the 21st century individuals who will participate in this new project, it’s always been about celebrating who you are in the present in ways that you feel connect you to your past and promise you a better future. We need not agree with all the aforementioned movements or all of the answers which are posted to www.whatsyourish.com to acknowledge and appreciate that this is how the future is created, and always has been.
We shouldn’t make more of this project than it is, but neither should be dismiss the power of shifting from a community obsessed with demographic categories and how people can be fit into them, to a community fascinated with individual biographies and self-definitions which, when taken together, give us a true picture of a vast and vastly interesting Jewish community. In a world obsessed with trends, this is one to be welcomed.