What is a Jewish Sensibility?


Have you ever seen a piece of art, encountered a new project, or heard a snippet of conversation between two people and thought to yourself, ‘hm … that’s so Jewish’? Not because of particular images or words that were used, but rather the way thoughts were processed, the way connections were made, the way people responded to each other.

All cultures have particular mindsets that get passed on from generation to generation, shaping how its people make sense of the world, as well as the spectrum of possibilities for how one might respond to it. So too, Jewish culture exhibits features that, often on a subconscious level, inform how people take in what they experience, make sense of it and then act accordingly.

In 2003, Vanessa Ochs  used the term sensibilities to describe “particularly Jewish ways of thinking about what it means to be human, ways that guide and orient a person’s actions and choices.” Merriam-Webster defines a sensibility as “an awareness of and responsiveness toward something.”  Sensibilities are like mindsets through which the core activities of perceiving the world, processing those perceptions, and responding to them take place.They cut across categories of knowledge, emotion, valuing, relationships, and behavior… and are applied toward life situations in such a way that involves all four of those levels.

How does this happen? Why does it matter?

Take, for example a Jewish sensibility we might call Elu v’Elu – ‘both these and those.’ Drawn from a traditional narrative where it refers to differing (yet equally valid) views of two groups of scholars, the term invokes that Jewish way of approaching the world that advises: any given question has multiple answers.

Consider the common joke: “Two Jews, Three Opinions.”

two jews 2

To those who know Jewish families or Jewish communities, this is funny because it rings so true. It is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Jewish culture and points toward not only a specific piece of knowledge or a specific ritual action, but a way of being in the world – one that makes room for diversity of thought, engenders humility and can even provide a powerful relationship technique, if applied correctly. As Brad Hirschfield phrased it, you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right. The emotional resilience, genuine curiosity and nuance of thinking that a learner can develop by employing this sensibility can surely help them thrive as a human. And, at the same time, it’s so Jewish.

Why does this matter? Because lots of people have a hard time answering the question, ‘What does it mean to be Jewish’ outside of performing religious rituals and knowledge, even though so many Jews don’t associate their Jewishness as coming from religious rituals and knowledge, but rather their family or community. Sensibilities – when they authentically emerge from Jewish cultural stories, patterns and habits – offer a vocabulary for expressing more specifically what it means to be Jewish and to ‘do Jewish’ beyond Lox and Bagels. When a person, consciously or not, embodies these mindsets they still perceive-and-respond-to the world as themselves uniquely, not in a specifically prescribed fashion. The more conscious someone might become of this kind of cultural heritage, the more they can use the mindsets – time-tested over millennia of trial and error — as practical tools for a life well-lived.

Bagels are great, but they're not as enduring as a cultural pillar.

Bagels are great, but are they really the key to understanding Jewish culture?

What makes for a Jewish sensibility? Some characteristics we think are important:

  1. Jewish sensibilities are distinctively Jewish, arising from and widely attested in Jewish narratives, texts and practices. This is not a matter of simply labeling a concept with a Hebrew word, but rather identifying and articulating memes that are undeniably located within the historical and literary corpus of Jewish experience, and reflected and described through lived experience of Jewish people.
  2. Sensibilities describe particular junctures where cultural inheritance meets the human experience. Because sensibilities are carried by people, and are not simply what’s found in a text, they may emerge or fade from focus over time, according to prevailing cultures that Jews are living in concert with/response to.
  3. Sensibilities integrate the cognitive, affective and behavioral domains. They encompass values, and move beyond them to include emotional dispositions, to offer guidance and to point toward a life of meaning.
  4. Sensibilities can be described in a single word or short phrases and can act as gateways into and expressions of a world of Jewish texts, stories, personal family stories, jokes, and other expressions of Jewish culture. A person may know only one point of reference to a sensibility from the tradition. But, the more explicit and implicit references one can draw upon, the more meaningful, richer, and nuanced the sensibility becomes.

As with any cultural system, the best way to get a sense of this framework is through examples. Elu v’elu is just one Jewish sensibility. There must be hundreds. For a few more examples, see JewishSensibilities.org. Do you know one that is not on this list? Click here to contribute to our crowd-sourcing project and help us collect and celebrate Jewish sensibilities!

Click here to Tweet: What *is* a Jewish Sensibility? Answers and stories here: http://ctt.ec/IT0Ol+

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