Why I Am a Jew
Editor’s Note: Many people, who admire Judaism’s commitment to reason and its defense of the persecuted, have been troubled by the fits of brutality and the retreat into religious mythology that have characterized some Israeli governments, especially under the Likud.
Yet, Judaism’s enduring humanistic principles remain an inspiration to millions, including Daniel C. Maguire, a professor of moral theology at Marquette University, a Catholic Jesuit institution located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
My coming out as a Jew would certainly surprise my Irish Catholic parents who produced a brood of seven Irish Catholics, including me, three of whom became priests, including me.
My coming out as a Jew would also surprise Benjamin Netanyahu, especially when I insist that I am more Jewish than he is.
Did I convert to Judaism? No need to do that. I just became Jewish, I absorbed Jewishness as my ego and personality was being constructed. It was a matter of osmosis, as well as study, as is my Buddhism, Hinduism, and humble agnosticism, etc.
Some of my Jewishness I got from Catholicism which, like all of Christianity, is an offshoot of Judaism. So all Catholics are to some degree Jews even if they don’t know it.
And no Jew is just a Jew. The constructions that give persons their identity are always ecumenically “engineered,” and that is increasingly the case with proliferating communications and intensifying intercultural intercourse.
There are no biological Jews. Jewishness or Irishness do not show up in biopsies or in blood or genetic tests. Jews are not a race, nor are the Irish or the Russians or the Japanese or the Ugandans. Our race is human, with enriching incidental variations structured onto and absorbed into individuals and cultures.
What is my point? “Let’s all be nice since we are all the same?” No way. Not even identical twins are identical personalities.
Every individual is different from everyone else and getting more so all the time as new value experiences and encounters seep into our structured and evolving egos. And the same is true for cultures. You never step into the same culture twice, as has been said of a river.
So why am I picking on Jews? I’m not. I am a Jew, remember? But why am I announcing my Jewishness and not my Buddhism? The problem is that there is a special problem pressing on us today because so many Jews and non-Jews think of Jews as biologically distinct and that is truly anti-Semitic.
Am I blurring Jews into everything else? Are there no distinctively Jewish cultural energies, emphases, skills, and valuations shared by many who call themselves Jews? Are there heroes and stories, faults and virtues that are formative among those who call themselves Jews? Sure.
Does Tibetan Buddhism also have something of a distinctive personality? Sure. Do you expect and find things in Dublin that you do not find in Karachi and vice versa? Certainly there will be more sobriety in Karachi, but there is more difference than that.
The problem is that some whose primary socio-cultural tradition is Jewish, who practice distinctively Jewish rituals and observe traditional Jewish holy days, think they are biologically different and want to establish a biologically distinct Jewish state.
Problem: you can’t build a fact on a fiction.
Judaism is a religion, a historic moral and cultural tradition, with many varied forms, and few in the world are not the beneficiaries of its spiritual achievements. Some Jews are theistic: many are not. Some observe feasts and practices with rigor, others not so much.
The state of Israel is based on the myth that first century Jews were moved en masse into a world-wide diaspora, that they did not proselytize and rejected all converts to formal Judaism; they never intermarried with others all over the world, and today’s “Jews,” even the blue-eyed Jews from Russia and the dark-skinned Jews from Africa are all in biological continuity with the first century Jews expelled by the Romans. Come now!
The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 took this fantasy for granted without any historical evidence that such a miracle of non-miscegenation did or could happen and with mountains of evidence to the contrary.
There are claims from Israeli and other historians that the Palestinians of today who converted to Islam or Christianity might actually have a better claim to being in some biological continuity with the first century Jews. Early on, the Zionist David Ben Gurion held that view.
The effort to build “a Jewish state” based on biological connectedness is an impossible dream. It is a return to the ancient tribal instinct.
Through most of our history, as anthropologist Ralph Linton notes, “at the primitive level, the individual’s tribe represents the limits of humanity” and non-tribesmen “are fair game to be exploited by any possible means or even as a legitimate source of meat.”
Extreme nationalism is the form that modern tribalism takes.
The great Rabbi Abraham Heschel feared that the effort to have a “Jewish state” could cause that state to be in “exile from Judaism” as state power needs superseded Judaism.
Prophetic Judaism pioneered the idea that only justice yields peace. Prophetic Judaism, with which I identify passionately, pulses with compassion for “the orphans, widows, and the exploited poor.”
I do not see the Likud tribalism which throws orphans and widows out of their homes and builds walls to keep them from their olive groves as being Jewish. Indeed these practices insult Judaism and make the current state of Israel unsafe. They also are a major stimulant of anti-Semitism.
Prophetic Judaism is my spiritual parent, as it was for Jesus. An Israel that will not settle for the 1967 borders in accord with international law is not being Jewish.
An Israel that ignores the repeated offer of full recognition by the Arab League, Iran, and even Hamas if they settle for the 1967 borders with minor adjustments and reparations for the displaced is relying on kill-power more than on justice, and that is not Jewish. Nor is it safe.
A truly Jewish Israel would be the safest place on earth, even for Catholic Jews like me. A tribal “Jewish” state that ignores Zechariah’s warning that you cannot build Zion on injustice and bloodshed will, as the prophets of Israel warned, fall into the pit it is currently and frantically digging.
Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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