Judaism’s Challenge: Election, Divine Love, and Human Enmity from $25.00
Edited by Alon Goshen-Gottstein
- Series: Jewish Thought, Jewish History: New Studies
- ISBN: 9781644691489 (hardcover), 9781644691496 (paperback)
- Pages: 238 pp.
- Publication Date: November 2020
Two Dimensions of Jewish Identity
Introduction and Summary
Our perception of other religions depends on the type of group identity assumed as our religious identity. The issue of identity is too broad to be discussed here in a comprehensive way. Only one aspect of group identity is explored here—the one relating to positive and negative dimensions of identity. It is illuminated on the basis of Jewish texts and from the perspective of social psychology. Its consequences for attitudes to other religions are emphasized. Generally speaking, negative identity is established by way of contrast: I am me because I am not you. It functions naturally, by turning against the enemies of one’s own group, especially if identification is formed by the threat. On the other hand, positive identity is established by focusing on the values to be cultivated within the group, by belief in the internal values of one’s own group: I am me because I like being me. In the context of inter-human (as well as interreligious) encounters, the difference between the two dimensions is beautifully expressed by the famous dictum of the Kotzker Rebbe: If I am me because I am me, and you are you because you are you, then I am me and you are you. But if I am me because you are you and you are you because I am me, then I am not me and you are not you.(1)
The Kotzker’s wisdom indicates that the positive identity, emerging from within, is better than the negative one, imposed from outside. The dictum is general, it refers to many, perhaps all, kinds of identity. While originally articulated in the framework of personal identity, its extension to issues of identity between groups, as well as of religions, seems appropriate. According to social psychology (Zimbardo’s experiments, Tajfel’s experiments, see below), negative identification can be very strong even if the line of division is invented ad hoc and the alienation from the “other” is stimulated artificially. This means that the mere presence of a strong negative identity, against “others,” is not by itself a guarantee of its depth or value. Group identification can be accidental, without a real threat or any other genuine source. Of course, there has been no shortage of real dangers in the history of Jews. The sense of forming a “camp,” a proverbial besieged fortress, remains one of the essential determinants of the actual Jewish identity. It has rather negative consequences for attitudes to other religions: they are seen as a threat. Yet the core of Jewish identity, or at least the religious identity, has always been positive—“for” something. It is the identity of the Covenant, the community of witnesses who bear witness to the Creator of this world. Contemporary Judaism is composed of different currents but all of them are united by a sense of faithfulness to the Covenant. If this is to constitute the basis for the attitudes towards other religions there is no reason to be negative about them, even if they are not appropriate for Jews. If the positive identity, i.e. rootedness in one’s own tradition, is strong enough, other religions need not be seen as posing any threats.
1Menachem Mendel was a notable nineteenth-century hasidic master in the Polish town Kock.