Jewish Multiple Identity
Fundaments And Contingencies
Understandably, what is emphasized in the religious liturgy, in traditional literature, and in contemporary collective memory are the supposedly "constant" marks of Jewish identity: study and adherence to the laws of the Bible and (especially) the Talmud and other rabbinic glosses and codices; observance of the weekly Sabbath and the festivals that mark the annual (lunar) calendar; solidarity with Jews in distant places, especially those whose safety is threatened at any particular time; and a shared understanding that Zion is both the origin and the eschatological destination of all Jews everywhere.
Continuity of Jewish identity in diaspora can be traced not only to the existence of these texts and rituals as a "portable homeland" but also to policing of the bounds of identity from within (through autonomously governing communal structures) and without (through social discrimination and restrictive legislation enacted by Christian and Muslim religious and secular officials). Moreover, any Jew in the premodern world who strayed too far from competence in Jewish culture risked a painful loss of status. Hence the story of the village Jew so illiterate that his fellow congregants mocked him as "Zalmen the goy [gentile]." When the rabbi admonished them not to be so cruel, they complied but in a way that dug even deeper, calling him instead "Zalmen the Yid [Jew]."
However, the tradition also acknowledges that Jewish ability to identify as, if not necessarily empathize with, non-Jews is also of value to the Jewish community and its survival. The story recited by Jewish communities each year on the festival of Purim is exemplary here: The emperor Ahasuerus in ancient Persia holds a contest to find the most beautiful woman in the kingdom and make her his queen, and the Jewish girl Esther is selected. Throughout the selection process and the beginning of her reign, she conceals from the emperor the fact of her Jewish birth, only revealing it as she denounces the author of a plot to kill all the Jews of the empire. A clear moral of this story is that at certain times, an individual's pretending not to be Jewish can benefit the entire community.
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