How Jewish Am I?

"The Song and the Space," Arthur Polonsky

“The Song and the Space,” Arthur Polonsky

How Jewish Am I?

If being Jewish by birth is what counts, I suppose I’m Jewish enough.  But it’s not a necessary condition for securing that identity.

A few years ago, a young Christian woman – a friend and participant in our congregation — invited me to witness her conversion to the religion of my ancestors.  Like most Jews, I wondered: Are you sure you want to do this?  Haven’t you got enough troubles?

What do you need it for?

As we drove to the mikvah, I put a number of questions to her.  The answers she gave were sufficiently detailed — free of projection, escapism, or other “psychological” markers — to quiet my misgivings.  I could see that she knew what she was doing.

The same question came up for me this week in a quite different context.  A non-Jewish philosopher friend, for whom Judaism is distinguished by its prioritizing of observance over belief, might suppose me able to confirm his view.

I’m not well placed to confirm his sense of what it is to be a Jew since, where ritual observance is concerned, I’m pretty thin on the ground.  Why then, apart from the accident of birth, do I count myself a Jew? Where I get the sense of having freely signed on to this particular covenant?  Why do I think I would do it again?

No doubt there are more explanations than I know, but three experiences come to mind.

The first came from writing Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  Its original draft sprang from my desire to comprehend the adventures and misadventures of my twenties.  The events of that decade grouped themselves into three sequential parts.  Publishers told me that the three parts fell apart.  As a writer, I needed to get them to hang together – to be the story of one person.  As the person actually concerned, who had to go forward with her life in one package, it was vital to know why Abigail had done it all and been through it all.

I tried various strings on which the beads of these life-incidents might be strung.  Was the connecting string Freudian?  I wrote a draft in a Freudian way.  The three parts still fell apart.  Could G. F. Hegel, the nineteenth-century philosopher who strung world history into a single narrative, supply the string?  Nah.  In those days, I considered myself a Hegelian, but that didn’t work either.

Finally, I tried Jewish.  Could it be that I was Jewish au fond? That worked!  Whaddya know?  Now the story made sense as one life — not three disconnected episodes.  Okay!  Live and learn.

What was the second experience?  Here the route was rather roundabout.  There was a time in my life when I was quite alone and certain well-meaning family friends were offering me their wildly inappropriate advice.  Never mind what the problem was that they thought they understood so well and actually did not understand at all.  It was a fact that I was being nibbled to death by yentas.

There was an ashram across town that offered fine vegetarian meals at a discount and taught yoga meditation.  The yentas couldn’t find me there.  The head of the ashram, its guru, was a beautiful young Indian woman.  Her followers claimed that she had achieved Samadhi: the dissolution of personal identity after the yogi merges with the Divine Self.  She had an aura of inner power and delicate grace that looked to me unearthly.  She was marvelous.  I’d never seen anyone who looked like her.

I learned a good deal during the time spent under this influence, reading some of the great classics of Hindu literature in translation, learning to meditate, yogic breathing and asanas (postures), and some of the practices of Indian worship that would be familiar to me when, years later with Jerry, I saw them again in India.

What could be wrong?  I began to notice certain changes in the ashram. There were features of its routines that were taking on the character of a cult.   I won’t detail them.  There are lots of books about cults if you want to study that phenomenon.  At the same time, the guru herself changed.  It was rather sudden, and to me unmistakable.  I know what despair sounds like.  The last sermon I heard her give disclosed a degree of demoralization that was precipitous and deep.

As I stood in the doorway, looking at her for the last time, I realized that, in a system aiming to dissolve the personal self into the Divine Self, the guru could not find sufficient belief in her own legitimacy as a person to save herself.  In all the ashram, there was no one whose beliefs authorized stepping in to help her.  The Guru Gita, the song of the guru that one chants every morning in Sanskrit, tells the disciple to follow the guru even if she falls.  There was no one to care.

The realization followed: if I needed a defense from yentas, I would have to fight them off, myself.

I had made an earnest attempt not to be Jewish.  It hadn’t worked.

The third experience was direct, not roundabout.  There was, however, a context.  I had gone to hear a talk by one of the philosophic colleagues of my late father.  The speaker had been a friend of my parents and had spoken at the memorial for my father.  Much to my surprise, his talk was openly and aggressively disparaging of Jews and the Jewish spirit.  It was a speech he would not have given had my parents been alive.  The cats were away.  The mice could play.

My subway ride home required a change of trains.  Standing on the platform as the trains clattered by, I thought about the talk I’d just heard.  A question was forming in my mind.  In the roaring darkness of the subway, I decided to put it to God directly.

“Lord, what is a Jew?”

This was the silent message I received:

a Jew is someone who has

 a passion for God.

The message continued that this passion is for God in one particular form.  A God sufficiently distant from ourselves to make us visible (and thus real) to God as our Witness.  He can see what we choose to do.  God leaves us enough room for the storyline of ourselves.  The story is not random or pointless.  Our choices have a moral feature to them.  That’s why they’re interesting.  God doesn’t like to be bored.

“Lord,” I asked the second part of my question, “what is an anti-semite?”

An anti-semite is someone who hates God

in that particular form.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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