“I am not an identity essentialist”: A Harvard Law School professor carefully examines what it means to be Jewish in modern America.
Was Erik Erikson a Jew? His mother was Jewish, and so, by the standards of Torah, he was. Yet, notes Mnookin (Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight, 2010, etc.), he pretty much renounced Judaism, raising his children as Protestants and taking a Christian name. So does that make him—well, not a Jew? By the author’s reckoning, yes, for identity is self-constructed as much as imposed from outside, and in America, at least in theory, one is what one wishes to be. In that, writes Mnookin, American Jews are different from Jews elsewhere, as they are in much else. For instance, the distinctions American Jews make among Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative elements are largely meaningless in Israel, while intermarriage and children who practice elements of both Judaism and Christianity—celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas, say—are frequent in the U.S. Given the lack of religiosity among American Jews and this large dispersal outside the faith, to say nothing of considerable disagreement in the American community about the policies of the Israeli government, can Judaism qua Judaism still flourish here? Mnookin offers qualified answers while providing helpful guidelines on such matters as raising interfaith children—it’s best, for instance, not to suppress religious differences between the parents, especially during periods of stress such as the funeral of a family member or the December holidays. “These are not ideal moments to be dealing with unresolved conflicts about how you and your spouse are raising your children religiously,” he wisely notes. As for the future, the author argues that the greatest danger to American Judaism is not intermarriage but “disengagement," a condition for which he suggests remedies to forge connections of religious, cultural, and personal identity.
A wide-ranging, wise, and liberal perspective—perhaps enough so to excite controversy.