>Just read an article by Jay Michaelson on the Jewish Daily Forward website titled “The Myth of Authenticity.” His basic point is that an “unstated assumption” runs through a lot of our discourse about the various groups staking their claims within contemporary Judaism, that “real Judaism” is characterized by fidelity to a certain image of Orthodox traditionalism and all other forms of Jewish identity must be judged by their relationship to this ostensibly “authentic” Judaism. As he puts it,
…there persists in the American Jewish imagination an anxiety of inauthenticity — that someone, somewhere, is the real Jew, but I’m not it.
When you’re a convert to a religion (I imagine it must be similar for those who’ve immigrated to and become citizens of a country not of their birth), the question of authenticity is one that tends to cause you to lose quite a bit of sleep. Lacking a sense of identity grounded in birth and upbringing, you are thrown back upon your own religious practice as the sole signifier of belongingness to the chosen group. In theory, this should not be much of an issue in Judaism, given the halachic principle that converts are to be regarded in all respects as having actually been born as Jews. What convert has not drawn comfort from the rabbinical pronouncement that all Jews, past, present and future, were equally present at the giving of the Law at Sinai? Nevertheless, in practical terms things are rarely ever that simple, and in light of heated debate both in the US and in Israel concerning the status of conversions performed by the various movements one can hardly be blamed for occasionally yearning for a bit of simple, incontrovertible “authenticity.”
What Michaelson’s article reminds us of is that this concern regarding the authenticity of one’s own Judaism is hardly a phenomenon unique to the convert. Indeed, it might be said that the central question of contemporary Judaism is that of who can “speak” for Judaism in its true, essential character. Michaelson takes the view that this concern with authenticity is ultimately mythical, “a false projection of particular historical quirks onto an imagined ideal of “realness” that artificially freezes culture, and thus spells its demise.” In his opinion, an authentic Judaism is quite simply one that resonates meaningfully to the individual. While I agree with him that progressive strains of Judaism must ultimately reject the attempt to portray them as a “watered-down,” “less authentic” or “more secular” version of neo-Orthodoxy, I wonder if his ultimate rejection of the very question of authenticity doesn’t end up ignoring the root of the problem, rather than addressing it.
The question that concerns me in this regard is a simple one, but unfortunately lacking in any kind of simple answer: Are we approaching a point where maintaining even the polite fiction of the Jews as a unified people will become impossible? In response to the challenges and opportunities presented by modernity, a variety of new responses began to develop, from the strict traditionalism of Neo-Orthodoxy to the rather abstract ethical monotheism of classical Reform, from the Zionist understanding of Judaism as a national community united by language and custom to the renewed emphasis in some quarters on its fundamentally religious character. In light of the proliferation of conflicting definitions of what it means to be a Jew, it becomes all the more important for the different camps to cling fast to the bedrock of common courtesy of good faith which would recognize at least the legitimate place of the different points of view at the table.