What Are the Key Values of Being Jewish in Modern Society? Assessing the Diaspora Skill Set

RussianJews FleeingPogroms

What are the key values of being Jewish in modern society? What makes us Jewish now compared with what made our ancestors Jewish generations ago? What choices are important in our lives and how do we choose to live Jewishly?

Immigration’s Effect: Soviet Jewry’s Example

In yesterday’s Jerusalem Post, Haviv Rettig writes about the effects of immigration on the Soviet Jewish community.

Jules_TThe Jews of the Russian-speaking world, with their culture, literature and religion, were for centuries the largest single mass of Jews in the world. And they were held together in large part by external bigotry, confined in their millions to specific sections of the Russian Empire and segregated from non-Jewish society. This only ended with the Soviet dictatorship, under which a culture of anti-Semitism flourished that memorably affected every Russian Jew you can find.

Then, suddenly, Soviet Jewry was freed in 1989. But unlike Jews in the free nations of the West, Soviet Jews didn’t have the communal institutions or awareness for maintaining Jewish identity in a free society. Now free for almost a generation, Russian-speaking Jewry is scattered around the world and is quickly fading away from the Jewish people.

The Two Synagogue Paradigm

Historically, Soviet Jewry has been the largest Diaspora Jewish community. What does the health and strength of the Soviet Jewish community mean for global Jewry? What are its implications for other Jewish communities?


Before you discount the notion that this doesn’t apply to you or your life as a Jew, I have a question for you. If you live in a community with a significant Jewish population, how many synagogues do you have?

Every place I have lived or visited with a heterogeneous Jewish population had at least two synagogues: Ashkenazi and Sephardic.

(Ashkenazi Jews source from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union; Sephardic Jews hail from Southern Europe and North Africa.)

As the joke goes, “Two Jews, three synagogues.” Is there anything wrong with this in practice? No– this is not a case of separate being unequal– but it is something that we should think about.

If it is external pressures and environments that keep people together, what can we expect when those pressures are removed? How does it affect Jewish practices and principles? Which synagogue do you choose?

The Diaspora Skill Set


Our history as a people of the Diaspora has kept us alive and strong. We have honed our ability to adapt and acculturate, we have grown flexible and cunning, we have learned to value education and how to pass along Jewish values and Jewish traditions against all odds. Like the pressure of the earth against rock, our adversity shaped us and made us precious carriers of Jewish knowledge.

But what happens when adversity dissipates and the pressure against us eases? Our Diaspora skill sets begin to work against us. Without the pressure to differentiate ourselves, we begin to take the shape of our surroundings. Our desires and desperation to persevere become weakened. We soften and we assimilate.

What Are We Without Differences?


If what unites us are our differences, what happens when the difference between our Jewish community and the mainstream are removed? What happens when there are no longer obstacles to assimilation? How do we stop our slide toward assimilation and instead grasp for acculturation? How do we maintain and develop our Jewishness as individuals and communities with pride?

If what made my ancestors strong was their adherence and observance as a community to Jewish traditions, where do we in the Diaspora stand today?

If our ancestors in Russia (or Yemen, or Ethiopia, or Spain) were Jewish because of the traditions they kept and the rituals they observed, what do we have to show for ourselves in the modern world that makes us Jews? What is it about myself that enables me to say definitively, “Yes, I am a Jew”?

Reasserting our Jewishness at Chanukkah


In this holiday of distinguishing ourselves from the other, I suggest that we all take a breath– maybe as we are lighting the candles, watching them flicker in the darkness, or when the match flares in recognition as it ignites the wick– and ask ourselves: what makes us Jewish and why does it matter?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts.


Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms (I encourage you to see the image in its original context as part of an exhibit by the City of Hamburg, Germany).

Images sourced from Flickr, with thanks– Julia: Plzen Synagogue (1), Prague Jubilee Synagogue (3). Stan Weichers: Rivington Synagogue (3). Susan Astray: Oni Synagogue (4). Sagie Maoz: Praying.


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8 Responses to What Are the Key Values of Being Jewish in Modern Society? Assessing the Diaspora Skill Set

  1. Shai says:

    You’ll find an interesting ethnographic article on just this topic at The Journal of the Society for Textual Reasoning, Volume 4, Number 3, May 2006, titled “The Jewish Sensibilities”, authored by Vanessa L. Ochs of the University of Virginia.

    She concludes that what Jews have today are ‘sensibilities’ (personal norms) to define them as “good Jews” rather than ‘values’ (which are communal norms), per se.

    I might agree with her that the “sensibilities” exist, and they seem to be cultural traits of American Jews, at least. Where we disagree is how those traits are acquired, and whether “sensibilities” without “values” can be “Jewish”. Indeed, if you read the footnotes, it seems that this is something she observes, too – I’ve reproduced footnote one here:

    “In presenting the sensibilities to various communities, I have been especially struck by some responses, which I have yet evaluated to my satisfaction. “These are American values,” they say, or “Judeo-Christian ethics” and not descriptions of anything uniquely Jewish. For some, their being coterminous is a good thing: you can live out Jewish sensibilities and simultaneously be an upstanding American; you can have ethnic distinction without losing membership in the larger culture. For others, the code comes as a disappointment, for it does not reveal a depiction of being a human being that seems distinctively Jewish enough. ”

    She describes how the sensibilities play out in situations of conflict, and how they result in creative solutions that don’t violate those sensibiities. The impression I get from her words is that she observes these “sensibilities” to be something that are foundational, and what we may learn of tradition, etc. merely accrues to bolster the sensibilities, else they will be largely ignored (in other words, “Jewishness” is a highly individualized, rather than standardized thing).

    I think she may have described the process as it is, but “as it is” is the reverse of what it needs to be for communities to thrive. We need to find a way, using the terms of marketing, to “mass customize” for “markets of one”. I believe the values are foundational, and the sensibilities she speaks of are a byproduct of the process of sythesizing values and sensivilities through creative solutions; there is a long rabbinic tradition of finding halachic justification to bolster our human sensibilities, but the difference between this and the approach she’s describing as predominate seems to be that there is a respect for both the sensibility (which is derived individually) and the mores.

  2. thenewjew says:

    Wow, Shai. Thanks for all the effort you put into that comment.

    I am just out the door to the library, so I’ll see if that have that journal available so I can take a look at the article in its native habitat. Vanessa Ochs has been blipping my radar a lot recently, so I am thinking that I should get a better understanding who she is.

    “Coterminous,” which I can now say is a word that I use before breakfast (only because I haven’t had it yet) means:
    1. Having a boundary in common; contiguous: The northern border of the United States is conterminous with the southern border of Canada.
    2. Contained in the same boundaries; coextensive: the conterminous 48 states.
    3. Having the same scope, range of meaning, or extent in time.

    I think it is dangerous to describe Jewish values along the lines of “Judeo-Christian ethics” because we start to merge the idea of “being a good Christian,” which is to say, being a good person, with the idea of being a good Jew. Yes, to be a good ______ in any religion you must be a good person, but you must make the distinction between (ahem) coterminous values and ones that have simple become part of mainstream society.

    I am most drawn to your last paragraph where you say, “I believe the values are foundational, and the sensibilities she speaks of are a byproduct of the processes of synthesizing values and sensitivities through creative solutions.” I think I need to read the original article for the full context or get a sense of her ideas more fully to be able to respond better. I’ll let you know what I find.

    Is the Journal for the Society of Textual Reasoning one that you read regularly or were you drawn to it for its topical basis here? What else is on your nightstand?

    Shabbat Shalom,


  3. Shai says:

    I came across the article on the net at http://etext.virginia.edu/journals/tr/volume4/number3/TR04_03_e01.html.

    Your point about the “coterminous”-ness is a good one. But before we can address it, I feel we first have to take a step back and see if you have an unstated assumption. I think you do.

    Is there/should there be a specifically “Jewish” value? If so, what would it be? How would we define it? Would it be in the result or the process? Would it be the process? How do we deal with competiting values? From where do we draw our inspiration when we seek to wrestle with what our sensibilities tell us? How do we as a community decide which values, or how those values are shaped, to set in front of us as standards that define who we are as a community?

    These questions (and the attempt at answers) are especially critical in a world with stronger centrifigal than centripetal forces on our communities, where there are many options to choose from, we can no longer take for granted that Jews will identify your sense of “danger” as such.

    We need a good argument, not just a good assertion, that “we Jews” are “less than” for choosing as our “‘community” the mainstream society.

    I’ll take a stab at that proof now.

    A People consisting of people who are governed by “sensibilities” may share the “utility” of their common denominator in “Judeo-Christian” values, but this is by a long shot far from what Jewish values can yield in terms of Jewish community building power. My assertion here is that “values” are not, at least for Jews, utilititarian things. As focused as we are as a culture on “deed” and “results”, we need only heed the words of Amos and Hoshea and other prophets to understand that “going through the motions” is not what we are about.

    It is my assertion that viewing sensibilities and values in terms of “utility” is an outgrowth of a modern “consumerist” era, where we naturally “shop” our options for the best ones. The most utilitarian (best for the effort/money/performance) are often considered the “winner”. This tendency is one and the same with the forces that destroy communithy cohesiveness, the sense of “shareholding” that typify membership in a community.

    Consumers are interested in how the service or goods they get rank opposite the effort or money they invest in receiving them. Shareholders share this concern, but more out of a sense that a greater profit can be had from making the business they are partners in better.

    Using the metaphor of the “consumer” and “shareholder”, and extending it to a “family business”, we are much more likely to buy from the family business as shareholders than from the competitors, even if the competitors have a lower price. For us and for our posterity, we see greater “value” in improving our business so that it can be more competitive, than in abandoning it for a la carte alternatives elsewhere (outsourcing).

    We prefer to do this because we see worth in community (family business) , not in and of itself, but seemingly contradictorily, as a tool of personal autonomy and growth, because we can influence it to be so.

    The latter, of course depends on institutions that permit adequate access (that the potential exists is pointless if you can’t access it), that it permit us to have influence (because if we can’t shape our institutions, we have no “share” in them), and that the institutions be arrayed so as to be efficient (meaning that our efforts to influence cannot be disproportionately without consequence).

    The “family business” model is a better one than the “consumerist” one for building Jewish communities, I feel. Popularizing that sentiment is a precondition for healthy Jewish communities. We need to be proprietary and prideful, not mercenary and mergeful.

    The question is, how do we “popularize”.

    Another question worthy of exploration is whether our Jewish institutions in the modern era tend to amplify the consumerist approach, to what degree (if this is so) this is a response to a consumerist community, and whether or not we should take a step back and see this cycle as a fool’s game.

  4. thenewjew says:

    Hi Shai,

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

    I am going to try to respond to your question as best I can, but as I am sure you have noticed, the formatting of my comment box is not the best for longer comments (I am adding it to my technological wish list for this blog). Also note that the link you provided is a dead one.

    Your point about assessing values, particularly Jewish values, by their utilitarian worth– thus equating them with consumerism and making them vulnerable to being subsumed into a mainstream culture– is a very valuable one. I agree with your comparison between the consumerist and family business model as you have laid it out, but also wonder here whether we are talking about culture or religion.

    Religion is an uncomfortable notion to many in an age where fundamentalism in its extreme manifestation is seen as such a threat to Western civilization. The rule based, “strict” nature of religion and its tenets are also a turn off to those who were born after World War II, who view the ultimate power of their individuality in the freedom of choice, which can sometimes be paired with the freedom from constraints and responsibility.

    When we are talking about Jewish continuity, it is most easy to talk about culture because it is esteemed as both practical– we understand it– and doable– we have a sense of how to do it or understand how to learn. As “secular Jews” (although I am not fond of this Israeli term) we may go through the primary rituals of all major Jewish holidays, but not practice their underlying religious requirements, such as* mikvot, kashrut, shomer negiah, etc. What are the implications of this and what are the options?

    * These are broad examples for general discussion and not necessarily personal.

    Taking it to another level, what does this mean for Israeli religion and culture for non-Orthodox Jews? The growing secularization of Israeli society is a well documented trend (one I will write more about shortly). If the State is Jewish, but the people do not practice Judaism as anything but a national attachment, where do we go from there? What happens when Israelis move from Israel and do not have any level of Diaspora religiosity that comes from fighting for Judaism?

    I am stopping my comment here and looking forward to hearing from you again. I am particularly interested in your thoughts on the question of “popularlization” and values inherent to Judaism.

    Shavua Tov,


  5. Shai says:

    “Religion” is indeed an uncomfortable notion, as it would be for me, too, if i saw it as an imposition on my “freedom of choice”. Since my nature is to think in terms of fields rather than linearly, I dont’ see “religion” and “freedom” as polar opposites, but rather I seek to incorporate both so that life is enriched, not enfeebled.

    In this spirit of synthesis, recall that I noted that I’m seeking a solution for “community” that ACCEPTS the choices and opportunities that modern society offers us. That I place this in the context of “community” does, indeed, convey the sense that people have an obligation to something higher than themselves when they decide which of these choices to pick. I assert that this is to their benefit, not their detriment, and that our task as a Jewish community is to make this point strongly, so that there is no sense of loss for having thrown in our lot with a community rather than remaining “free from constraing and responsibility”.

    Here, I’ll offer you a quote from a book by the renowned psychology researcher, Martin Seligman (see Martin E.P. Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York: Pocket Books, 1991), p. 284-286: I found this quote in a fascinating article about Rabbi Akiva in the latest issue of Azure, by Meir Soloveitchik:

    “The life committed to nothing larger than itself is a meager life indeed. Human beings require a context of meaning and hope. We used to have ample context, and when we encountered failure, we could pause and take our rest in that setting–our spiritual furniture–and revive our sense of who we were. I call the larger setting the commons. It consists of a belief in the nation, in God, in one’s family, or in a purpose that transcends our lives…. But our epidemic of depression is not merely a matter of the paltry comfort we get from society at large. In many ways extreme individualism tends to maximize pessimistic explanatory style, prompting people to explain commonplace failures with permanent, pervasive, and personal causes. The growth of the individual, for example, means that failure is probably my fault–because who else is there but me?…. To the extent that larger, benevolent institutions (God, nation, family) no longer matter, personal failures seem catastrophic. Because time in an individualistic society seems to end with our own death, individual failure seems permanent. There is no consolation for personal failure.”

    When I propose “community” as a solution, what I’m proposing is designed to supplement both individuality and religiousness, not supplant them, for our own personal good. It is something, then, in addition to what we know today as the “religioius choice” and the “modernist choice”, and it synthesizes both into a “Jewish choice” through the conduit of “community”.

    In response to your question about religion/culture, I am reinventing the connotation of the word “religion” as something that is not exclusively halachic, but rather sees halacha as a means to a substantive end. My dispute with some religious viewpoints might be that I don’t see halacha as “sufficient” unless it has substance, and in this I have the Prophets Amos, Hoshea and Yeshaya as precedent. Similarly, I don’t see the formalism of any denomination as “sufficient” if it is not substantive (that is, anchored in Jewish values). In this regard, I think I share the view of a lot of people who skip on Judaism and don’t belong to a denomination.

    But no less fundamentally, I’m reinventing the connotation of the word “individualism”. I see individualism as something that can be synthesized with community life, and enriched by it, allowing each to influence each other.

    Both reinventions are critical to the way I think all of us Jews can see ourselves and our Judaism, such that we can enrich our lives as individuals and in the process, succeed in saving Jewish culture, of which Jewish religion is part.

    I am not proposing an institution that gives a “psak halacha” regarding Jewish values. I’m proposing one that offers the tools and the vocabulary for each person to decide what Jewish values are in their community contexts – the decision, in the end, is each of ours, not taken from “on high” or from “authority”, but something rather that we must learn to bear the burden of. I want the values to form the sensibilities, and in a sense to “democratize” the values. I want the confluence of an educated Jewish public, embued with these value-driven sensibilities, to be the framework upon which we build sustainable Jewish communities.

    Nowhere more than Israel, I think, is the question thrown into stark contrast. Most “secular” Israelis are deeply connected to their Jewish national identity. The degree to which their identity eschews the piety of halachot is more often than not proportional to the degree they recoil from the terms piety lays down for “access” to “the rest of Judaism”. I won’t list it all here – it’s well enough known, unfortunately. The “growing secularization” you refer to is as much a product of “growing insularization” on the part of the pietistic as it is a rebuff by the secular. If this trend is to be reversed, we must find a common ground, and I propose that to be “Jewish values” as a foundation for “community building”. There are extremists on both ends who’ll take time to “come around” to the idea, but the middle ground is huge and we have an obligation to serve it.

    These so-called “secular” men and women of the middle ground are Jewish, and part of a Jewish state. They wish to teach their children how to be mentschen (a prime “Jewish value”), and value their heritage and country. While it is true that there are some extremists who are “wholly modern”, and some who are “wholly luddite”, I have taken the idea that I sent you (how to “popularize” these values) and discussed it with a wide swath of Israelis from religious to secular, and they all were excited by the idea of a Jewish institution that draws them into the fray of examining the values that made our Nation who we are today, and deciding how to shape them so they are relevant and inspire us to a higher mission within the context of “community”. I dont’ see this as anything less palpable or necessary in the Diaspora community. In fact, since I see both communities as one, I propose that it be a joint project.

    In closing, I want to address a point you made about “fundamentalism”. Fundamentalism is not credited enough for having a Janus-like nature. It invades on one flank by secular moral relativism and anarchy (“freedom from constraints and responsibility”), and the other by religious extremism and fascism. Fair minded secular and religous people in both the occident and orient have a lot to gain by joining hands to pave a middle path by regaining the meaning and potential for personal growth that “community” offers, and that’s what I’m proposing here.

    If this is all clear enough, we can move onto how to popularize it. I’d also like to get comments on all that’s presented thusfar from other readers who’d care to offer up an opinion.


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