April 13, 2011

Letter to the Editor: Defending Jewish identity

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To the Editor:

Re: “A Passover Message,” Opinion, April 11

Monday’s column on many Cornell Jews’ apathy toward traditional Jewish observances reflects a rather elitist view of the Jewish collective. The author criticizes Hillel’s catering to non-observant Jews through numerous non-religious events, questioning the term “culturally Jewish.” Yet who is to say that the religious aspect of Judaism is the most important? The term Judaism is itself difficult to define given its associations with religion, culture, philosophy and ethnicity. A more universally accepted description may be “identity,” a term which encompasses the various aspects of Judaism described here.

Historically speaking, identity is the defining characteristic of Judaism. While often seen as monotheistic in its nature, many ancient Israelites and early Jews continued practicing many polytheistic rituals and observances. What did unite Israelites and Jews early on was a sense of uniqueness from their surrounding populations; while neighboring groups defined themselves according to the regions they inhabited, Israelites were known as an identity separate from territory, an idea which persisted with the emergence of Judaism following the Babylonian Exile.

That is not to say that Jewish religious practices should be completely ignored. As a practicing Jew myself, I find religious aspects of Judaism essential to my understanding of the world and my daily life. But my connection to other Jews goes beyond my religious practices; I also find myself bonding over our shared backgrounds and cultural experiences.

The author’s message reflects the greatest current internal challenge to Judaism: rejection of Jewish identities which do not fit one’s own practices. Given the global presence of anti-Semitism, Jews worldwide must forgo this elite attitude or else risk the future of Judaism entirely.

Emily Isaacs ’11