Jewish Identity and a New Vocabulary



By Rabbi Lee Moore


This article was originally published in eJewishPhilanthropy on May 30, 2016, contributing to ongoing discussions in that publication.  

“Jewish identity” is too vague and ambiguous to be a useful construct as the end-goal of Jewish education and Jewish life. In his eJPpiece “Speaking of Jewish Identity” Andres Spokoiny presents this idea and then asks exactly the right question: given that the language of “Jewish identity” is increasingly “limiting us and conditioning us in ways that are detrimental to the objectives we claim” … what words are more specific and effective that can lead us into a constructive discussion about outcomes in Jewish life?

Speaking of words, we have a vocabulary list to offer. It’s not complete, but it starts to approximate a way we might speak about how “Jewish ideas, values, languages, history, rituals, emotions, and behaviors inform particularly Jewish lenses and tools to interpret reality and flourish as human beings” – to address Spokoiny’s challenge.

Over the last two years, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah has been experimenting with a framework that we call Jewish Sensibilities. While not a complete paradigm, we have nevertheless found it very helpful in many contexts to fulfill the desire to provide rich, meaningful Jewish content in the face of some of the challenges many of us encounter in doing so – how to present a Judaism that is absolutely life-relevant, one that shows the particular value of Jewish teachings, but not in a way that categorically excludes non-Jews or that appeals only to those who consider themselves “religious,” a way that addresses the multi-layered dimensions of being human, from emotions and thoughts to behavior and belonging?

My vocabulary list starts with words and phrases like Simcha. Elu v’Elu. B’Tzelem Elohim. Kavod. Each one of these is a Jewish Sensibility that simultaneously evokes the unique contributions of Jewish culture and points toward a life of meaning.

Well-attested in anthropological literature, our use of the term Sensibilities is based on Vanessa Ochs’ 2003 Sh’ma essay “Ten Jewish Sensibilities.” She describes sensibilities as “particularly Jewish ways of thinking about what it means to be human, ways that guide and orient a person’s actions and choices.” In layperson’s terms, a sensibility is “an awareness of and responsiveness toward something.” Sensibilities can be seen as culturally informed mindsets through which the core activities of perceiving the world, processing those perceptions, and responding to them happen – across the realms of knowledge, emotion, valuing, relationships, and behavior. A sensibility gets employed at the moment that a person takes in information about what is happening (like a ‘lens’), and then again when responding to that stimulus. In this way, sensibilities speak to the way in which our cultural predilections impact how we build our awareness of what the world is, and in turn then shape how we respond to it.

Expanding and deepening a learner’s willingness and ability to apply Jewish sensibilities to the situations she encounters is a concrete, assessable educational goal that incorporates both literacy and meaning-making. This can replace talk about “identity.”

How does this work? Take, for example the sensibility we call Elu v’Elu – ‘both these and those.’ Drawn from a Mishnaic narrative (where it is applied to the opposing views of two groups of scholars), the term refers to that particularly Jewish way of approaching the world that suggests there may be two correct answers to a given question. Consider the common joke with many derivatives: “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” To those who know Jewish families, Jewish communities, this is funny because it rings so true. When set against American culture, it is an example of 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, engenders humility and provides a powerful relationship technique, if applied correctly. You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right, as Brad Hirschfield has phrased it. The emotional resilience, genuine curiosity and nuance of thought that a learner can develop by employing this sensibility can surely help them thrive as a human. And, it’s so Jewish.

Sensibilities are also powerful as a framework because they authentically emerge from cultural stories, patterns and habits, while at the same time enabling an individual to autonomously perceive-and-respond as themselves, not echoing a rote response, but rather acting within a range of responses that all represent legitimate interpretations of that sensibility.

One might adopt, e.g., a sensibility that we might call ‘gerim heyitem – you were strangers,’ perceiving and responding to instances of marginalization through a cultural lens that says, “I was once a slave and stranger in the land of Egypt; therefore I attempt to always exercise empathy for any person that is being marginalized.” How exactly such an individual will respond to seeing an act of marginalization will vary according to other factors that make that person unique – including personal style, additional cultural mores, generation, etc. She may choose to protest, to empathetically stand alongside the victim of marginalization, to create a new setting where the marginalized individual will be included with dignity. All these are legitimate expressions of the sensibility ‘you were strangers.’ By witnessing and responding to an act of marginalization in this way, a person can see herself as “acting Jewishly.” But, she will still be acting as herself. Her sense of self may even become even stronger because she is able to root her response in a framework of meaning that connects her to a long history of similar situations and similar responses. A person need not exhibit a specific behavior to be “authentically Jewish” (e.g., refrain from using electricity on Shabbat) – but rather perceive-and-respond in a way that demonstrates awareness of a sensibility that underlies numerous possible behaviors – in this second case, the sensibility of honoring Shabbat as a day for stepping back from routine and marking as special.

We were thrilled to see Spokoiny’s piece because we not only have this vocabulary list to share, but also have two years of testing this framework. Using Sensibilities has begun to give us and others the basic vocabulary for the very conversation I think he seeks. As we discuss which Sensibilities we find in Jewish tradition, which ones we value, why, how they were enacted in the past, how we might enact them today – we’re starting to have that conversation. If anyone would like to join it, we would be equally thrilled to know.

Rabbi Lee Moore is Director of Jewish and Organizational Learning at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. This post presents some of the ideas articulated by Moore and Jonathan Woocher in a chapter titled “Jewish Sensibilities: A Vocabulary for Articulating Educational Goals,” in the forthcoming volume edited by Jon A. Levisohn and Ari Y. Kelman, Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives (Academic Studies Press). The book is a product of the Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education project at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.

2 thoughts on “Jewish Identity and a New Vocabulary

  1. Dear Lee:
    Just for clarification — in your explication of the sensibility E’lu V’Elu you refer to the teaching “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right”. That phrase is actually the title of a book by RABBI Brad Hirschfield who is co-President of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Rabbi Hirschfield’s book explores in profound and accessible ways the challenge of pluralism as it impacts us as human beings personally, communally, and globally..And just for historical note, I believe the first time the idea of Jewish sensibilities emerged and the first list actually offered was at a seminar that Clal did in the late 90’s at the request of Charles Bronfman who was chair of Clal in 1998-99 and wanted us to get Judaism down to ten statements. This is part of a longer story but after pursuing this vein of Jewish sensibilities for a good few years it became increasingly clear that like “Jewish values” these are less helpful or insightful truths about Judaism and more well-motivated attempts to address the understandable but painfully distorted question of what makes us/Judaism/Jewishness unique. It was a conversation, with the brilliant essayist of the American Jewish condition and founder of Moment magazine amongst his many accomplishments, Leibel Fein z’l that first clarified this fro me sometime around 2003-4. The only things unique about Jewish values and Jewish sensibilities is the language we use to describe them, the stories we tell that embody them, and the practices we employ to realize them. Many Peoples around the world have these values and sensibilities and there are plenty of Jews and Jewish communities that don’t whose Jewishness is unquestionable. As much as we desire to know what is unique about us Jews it is a cul-de-sac question. As Leibel Fein z’l said, “rather than worry about what makes us unique let’s worry about playing out whatever values we claim to hold with distinction.”

  2. rabbilee

    Dear Rabbi Kula,

    Thank you for your post!

    History is important and I’m thrilled to hear about the meeting you mention here that happened in the late ‘90’s. Would you be willing to share more about it? Are there any notes from, or did any product result from that meeting? I’d love to know who was there, in particular if Vanessa Ochs may have been and perhaps was influenced there, since her work on sensibilities is where I first encountered the term.

    The question of what makes Jewishness unique has its place; nevertheless it is not the reason why I find sensibilities to be an extremely useful construct as I experiment with it in a variety of educational and informal contexts. As a Gen-Xer who was raised with strong universalist influences both in my family and in school, I’m not worried about what makes Jews unique (and I love the quote you shared from Leibel Fein – thanks for that). Still, I respectfully disagree with you that ‘the only things unique about Jewish values and Jewish sensibilities is [sic] the language we use to describe them, the stories we tell that embody them, and the practices we employ to realize them.’ Aren’t these precisely the things that give “values” life, within any culture?

    As you say, many Peoples around the world have values and sensibilities. As a student of anthropology I prefer the view that cultures do have distinction from others. All cultures do not boil down to the same 10 life-lessons or mindsets. Differences exist, and there is beauty in them. Perhaps a useful example of this might be to consider the Japanese sensibility of wabi-sabi – finding beauty in brokenness, that animates the practice of repairing broken pottery with gold; along with the Jewish sensibility of shevira, informed by Jewish stories both kabbalistic (Luria’s shattering of the vessels) and midrashic (the Israelites carrying the broken tables along with the whole in the arc). The subtle differences between the two sensibilities – Japanese and Jewish – may only be fully understood by a person who is both Japanese and Jewish. Still, I think there is value – and even purpose – in holding each of these sensibilities up as sources of inspiration for how to live one’s life. I would never argue that one is better than the other. To avoid discussing them because they are not unique misses out on a kind of cultural education and transmission that I find important in our time when many cultural traditions are getting lost amidst the current flood of information and its ensuing distraction.

    The dance between the universal and the particular is one of the most important dynamics of our moment in the evolution of Judaism, and one I would welcome exploring with you further. The good news is that I understand you’ll be teaching at the Hillel Kallah next week, so perhaps we’ll have a chance then!

    Lastly – yes, I was referring to Rabbi Hirschfield’s book which is why I included a hyperlink to the same book’s website when using the phrase. If you hover your cursor over the phrase, you’ll see the link – thanks for pointing that out explicitly. And I meant no disrespect by not including his title; I was following his chosen convention from his book and website.

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