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  • Felix Mendelssohn’s Oratorio St Paul and the Question of Jewish Self-Definition
  • Daniel Langton (bio)

How, precisely, should one understand the term ‘Jewish’? When it comes to defining Jewish identity or ‘Jewishness’ in a systematic way, ideological assumptions are everything. The tendency, especially among theologians, is to essentialize by classifying people and phenomena as Jewish only in so far as they conform to an assumed essence of a normative Jewishness. This essence may or may not be related to theologically derived criteria such as matrilineal descent, conversion to a particular tradition or set of beliefs, adherence to a certain body of law, a role in salvation history, or to non-theological criteria such as racial, national or cultural characteristics. Responsibility for determining Jewish authenticity rests entirely with the observer, irrespective of whether his views originate from within the community or from outside. For the essentialist, anything or anyone who does not correspond to the given definition is to be excluded as marginal at best and deviant at worst. One might imagine a core of authenticity surrounded by concentric circles of ever decreasing legitimacy. The problem, of course, is that observers do not agree on what exactly constitutes the core of authenticity. Whichever definition is to be regarded as authoritative depends upon one’s existing biases. Furthermore, proponents of essentialism do not tend to recognize the historically-conditioned nature of such definitions and often assume that the characteristics of Jewish authenticity have remained fundamentally unchanged down through the ages.

An alternative method of categorization is that of ‘self-definition’, the approved method for many social scientists. This non-essentialist approach does not pre-determine the outer limits of Jewishness and so ‘deviancy’ or ‘marginality’ are terms with little or no meaning. The inclusion of those who define themselves Jewishly can lead to political controversies, such as the acceptance of Messianic Jews despite their dismissal as Christians-by-another-name by a broad spectrum of the Jewish community. The advantage of a self-definitional approach is that it largely frees the observer from the responsibility for selection and minimizes the projection onto the subject of his own ideological biases. For some, ‘self-definition’ implies that the individual defines himself primarily in Jewish terms, but this need not be the case. Arguably, an individual [End Page 1] can possess a self-image that includes a Jewish component, however he defines it. This is an important point, especially in the context of intercultural studies which take for granted overlapping or hierarchical identities. Nor should one forget that an individual’s self-image evolves and transforms in real time and changes according to social context. The self-definitional approach is commonly used because it offers a method that can accommodate the complex, shifting nature of Jewish identity.1

Unfortunately, ‘self-definition’ excludes many who do not appear to see themselves in Jewish terms and yet who live lives and produce works that strike the sensitive observer as inexplicable without reference to a Jewish dimension of some sort. Celebrated examples include the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the nineteenth-century composer Felix Mendelssohn. A work of monumental Jewish scholarship such as the Encyclopaedia Judaica will include such problematic individuals due to its working principle that ‘anyone born a Jew’ is qualified for inclusion, even if he later converted or disassociated himself from Jewish life, as are individuals born of only one Jewish parent who are ‘sufficiently distinguished’.2 However, no theoretical justification is offered for this approach and it appears to be premised upon unacknowledged essentialist assumptions of a theological and/or racial kind. Is it possible to qualify the self-definitional method, so that it a more nuanced treatment of such individuals can be offered that avoids the common essentialist definitions?

The key question, surely, is whether a significant part of an individual’s worldview is best explained in terms of his self-identification at some level as a Jew, and whether the failure to take this dimension seriously would result in an impoverished understanding of his life and work. For our purposes, it does not matter whether the individual’s perception of Jewishness or Judaism is real or imagined – or even whether...


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