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Jewish Social Studies 6.2 (2000) 133-155

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Varieties of Authenticity in Contemporary Jewish Identity

Stuart Z. Charmé

Much discussion about religious pluralism among Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, about assimilation and Jewish continuity, about Jewish life in Israel and in the Diaspora, and about a variety of other issues related to Jewish identity all invoke "authenticity" as the underlying ideal and as the ultimate legitimizer (or de-legitimizer) of various positions. In an address to the graduating class of Reconstructionist rabbis in 1983, Irving Howe encouraged the next generation of rabbis to "try for an atmosphere of authenticity, wherever you find yourselves." 1 An Orthodox rabbi in Philadelphia recently encouraged liberal Jews to share a Sabbath meal at an Orthodox home in order to see "how special an authentic Shabbas really is." 2 Israel, claimed Daniel Elazar, is "the only place in the world where an authentic Jewish culture can flourish (at least potentially). . . . Even the more peripheral of American Jews are touched by the Jewish authenticity of Israel, while the more committed find the power of Israel in this respect almost irresistible." 3 And in response to such typical Zionist authenticity claims, one of Philip Roth's literary alter egos proposes that Europe, not Israel, is "the most authentic Jewish homeland there has ever been, the birthplace of rabbinic Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, Jewish secularism, socialism, on and on." 4

Authenticity has become the key term for postmodern reconstructions and "renewals" of Jewish identity. As feminist, progressive, gay/lesbian, environmentalist, secular, and many other kinds of Jews lay claim to parts of traditional Judaism that offer recognition and respect to the previously marginalized parts of their identities, they also seek elements that they consider to be "authentically Jewish." 5 Thus Tikkun [End Page 133] editor Michael Lerner argues that authentic Jewish identity must be "more spiritual; moral; God-centered; politically committed to social justice; pluralistic; democratic; nonsexist; joyful; full of intellectual ferment; and open to dissent" 6 than is allowed by either Jewish secularism or unquestioned adherence to tradition. Alan Dershowitz pleads for more fluid understandings of Jewish authenticity that allow one to say that Yiddish secularism was "an authentic Jewish culture," that political Zionism is "an authentic Jewish civilization," and that Dershowitz's own secular Judaism is "equally authentic to that of the ultra-Orthodox." 7

Why has the term "authentic" become such an important qualifier of Jewish identity, tradition, culture, and religion? In what sense is it possible to describe a Jewish person, place, practice, or ideological position as valid, real, or authentic? This article will analyze some of the historical and cultural roots of the idea of authenticity in general and how different conceptions of authenticity are or might be applied to Jewish identity, culture, and tradition.

References to authenticity constitute a hybrid discourse, one that makes descriptive claims about historical continuity with particular traditions of the past as a source of authority for the present (e.g., "halakhic Judaism is more authentically Jewish than liberal [non-halakhic] Judaism"), prescriptive claims about the normative superiority of one form of Jewish life over another (e.g., "religiously observant Jews have more authenticity than assimilated, ethnic Jews," or "Jewish life in Israel is more Jewishly authentic than Jewish life in the Diaspora"), and existential claims about one's deepest values and sense of self. 8 At times the pre-scriptive claim of authenticity presumes descriptive claims about the legitimate Jewish past. For example, the normative superiority of one form of Jewish practice may be defended by appeals to its historical authenticity. At other times, claims of Jewish authenticity require contesting elements of the received tradition, as in many feminist quests for an authentic nonsexist or inclusive Judaism. The search for Jewish authenticity may be in the service of modern individualistic goals of searching for meaning and achieving some form of self-actualization, or authenticity may be linked to a collective agenda, such as when forms of Jewish identity that encourage or preserve group survival are regarded as more authentic than less durable individualistic or assimilationist forms of identity.



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