Judaism Unbound Episode 150: “Jews” of “No” “Religion”

Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg dig into conceptions of "Judaism,” “Jewish identity,” “Religion,” and a wide variety of other terms that should probably also be in quotation marks. [1]

(0:01 - 17:33): To begin the episode, Dan and Lex launch off from the previous week’s episode with Daniel Boyarin, exploring the “modern notion” of Judaism, and questioning the idea (as Boyarin did) that it should be understood through the lens of “religion.” [2] In the spirit of questioning key terms, they next look back at “Jewish identity.” In particular, they distinguish between the identification of Jews as Jews (“Who is a Jew?”) and the abstract conception of “Jewish identity” as something that Jews have — and something that can be strong or weak. In doing so, they look back at their recent conversation with Tobin Belzer, regarding the history of the term “Jewish identity,” and how it is deeply intertwined with existential fears about the end of Jews and Judaism.

Image Credit: Pew Research Center

Image Credit: Pew Research Center

(17:34 - 35:56): Dan and Lex explore the question of who-is-a-Jew, along the axis of both choice and dissent. [3] They critique the idea that looking at genealogy is the primary way to determine whether someone is Jewish or not, and advocate for a greater recognition of Judaism as a voluntary association. To flesh out that issue, they look at recent developments related to newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the news that she has Jewish ancestry. [4] They then dig deeper, not just at the answers to who-is-a-Jew, but at the weight we should impart (or not) to the question itself. Should the Jewish future be one where “who is a Jew” matters less, or should it be one where “who is a Jew” matters the same amount — but for different reasons? Dan and Lex debate that topic, and look at other forms of self-identification, including politically as a Democrat, to deepen and clarify how their approaches differ.

(35:57 - 51:32): Returning to an ongoing theme in the podcast, the two co-hosts explore the ramifications of these conversation threads for contemporary Jewish institutions. They argue that many of them will not exist — some in the very near future — but that that fact need not be perceived as a failure of 21st century Judaism. [5] To hammer home that point, they bring back the idea of “Judaism” as an ancient, largely unchanging thread throughout history. They argue that many basic elements of Judaism (as we understand and construct it) are perceived as ancient when they are actually quite new, and that fully internalizing that reality can lead us to feel less resistant to changes in Jewish tradition. [6]

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Image Credit: The Daily Beast

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Image Credit: The Daily Beast

[1] This episode rounds out a 10-episode series reflecting on 5 years since the Pew Research Center’s landmark study of the American Jewish population. Entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” you can look at the study and its findings here.

[2] Listen in to the previous episodes in this series at the following links: Episode 140: The Pew Study, Five Years Later - Len Saxe, Episode 141: Federations Facing the Future - Danny Grossman, Episode 143: Milk and Honeymoons - Avi Rubel, Mike Wise, Episode 144: Beyond Chrismukkah - Samira Mehta, Episode 145: Studying Jews Differently - Tobin Belzer, Episode 146: The Jewish American Paradox - Robert Mnookin, Episode 147: From Selling Pews to Temple Dues - Dan Judson Part I, Episode 148: Pennies for Heaven…and Building Upkeep - Dan Judson Part II, Episode 149: Judaism? - Daniel Boyarin

[3] One interesting take on the question of Jewish identification by choice versus dissent can be found in The Forward. Written by the late Leonard Fein in 2013, the piece is entitled “Are We Jews by Choice or Blood?”

[4] Explore recent developments around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jewishness by reading this New York Times piece, and/or this piece in The Forward, which includes Ocasio-Cortez’s own commentary.

[5] To explore the relationship between Judaism and Jewish institutions further, flash back to our pilot episodes. They can be accessed at the following links: Episode 1: Genesis, Episode 2: Genesis II, and Episode 3: Exodus - Benay Lappe

[6] Lex alludes to the movie Prince of Egypt, and its motif of pharaoh refusing to be “the weak link in the chain.” For a key snapshot from that movie, which illustrates how pharaoh mobilizes that idea towards oppressive ends, view the video on the left.