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The Jewish Question

The Jewish Question

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Published by Richard Ostrofsky

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Published by: Richard Ostrofsky on Dec 05, 2010
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12/05/2010

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My 'Jewish Question'
from Richard Ostrofskyof Second Thoughts Bookstore (now closed)www.secthoughts.comquill@travel-net.comDecember, 2010
 
Issues of ethnicity and identity, and of ethnicity as a key component of identity, have become critical in this post-modern, globalizing, diasporanworld. I have written about these issues, in this column and elsewhere,from several points of view, but never in any really personal way. I'd liketo repair that omission this month with a column on my own Jewishness,and what it does (and doesn't) mean to me. I want to write, as frankly as Ican, about my own experience of ethnicity and identity. But I hope thecolumn may be of interest to people of whatever ethnic background whofeel, as I do, that ancestral issues are an encumbrance on nearly all their real preoccupations and concerns, yet too important (for someunintelligible reason) to be simply dropped or ignored.I am not religious – certainly not in any traditional Jewish sense. Myfather, a complete child of the Enlightenment, who was even lessconcerned with religion than I have been, did have me circumcised as aninfant for reasons I never asked about. Probably because it was nearlyautomatic in that time and place, though I believe it's less so today. When Iwas 12 he asked if I wanted a Bar Mitzvah, so as not to be different fromthe other Jewish kids in our neigborhood (in the Bronx, in New York City). We discussed that, I said no, that I wouldn't have a problem with being different, and that was the end of it. Some years later, when theUnited States bogged itself down in Viet Nam, on discovering that I wasn'tvery much of an American, I went to Israel, partly in hopes of findingsome sort of Jewish identity. I happened to be there for the Six-Day War inJune of 1967, and was stirred by the wave of patriotism that swept thecountry in the run-up to war, and by the wave of pride in victory, survivaland the taking of the Old City of Jerusalem. But in the aftermath, my wifeand I (I had gotten married meanwhile to another visitor whom I metwhile studying Hebrew on a kibbutz) agreed that Israel was no place tomake a life unless you were a committed Zionist – which we were not. Weleft Israel and came to Canada – to Montreal, where my wife had an aunt.She and our daughter are still there and, after thirty five years in Ottawa, Ihave moved back to Montreal to be near my Quebecoise-Jewish daughter and grand daughter – and near my (for long) ex-wife who lives upstairsfrom them.
 
Along the way, like many others of my generation, I took an interest inTaoist and Zen thought, fell into a Japanese martial art (aikido), and wasled thereby to some wide reading about religion and religious thought andhistory in general, but on the histories of Christianity and Judaism in particular. In that connection, I learned a fair bit about Judaeo-Christianreligious history but the upshot was that aikido and writing ended up ascentral to my identity, while Judaism is not. And yet, after all this, I remainvery much a New York Jew in some respects, though rather alienated fromthe tribe in some others.There is a lineage of secularized, assimilated, cosmopolitan Jewsgoing all the way back to Josephin the Bible, theadvisor to Pharoah,with his 'coat of many colors.' More historically, figures like Spinoza, MarxEinstein, Freud, and Derrida come to mind – skeptical thinkers, right aboutsome things, wrong about others but usually outside the mainstream of conventional thought, and contributing greatly to it for that very reason.Of course, there were many lesser people like myself in this same lineagewho, assimilated as they were, and regardless of their talents and merits,shared a certain very Jewish temperament – their propensity and
need 
to'wrestle with God,' like Jacob in the wilderness. Now, with this lineage I identify strongly.I understand that old story of Jacob's wrestling match (initiated by God, notice, and not by Jacobhimself) as symbol, permission and encouragement for existential struggleas such. Read this way, it's of a piece with many other stories in the Bibleand in Jewish folklore afterwards. Abraham had his struggles with God, acouple of generations before Jacob. Moses struggles with God in Egypt,on the mountain, and in the Sinai wilderness. Job struggles with God.Jesus struggles on the cross, notably when he asks why God has forsakenhim.And the Jewish God allows himself to be struggled with
 – seems todemand it, in fact.
Muslims, Christians and many Jews have emphasizedthe need for obedience – for ultimate submission to God's will. Yet a peculiar glory of the Jewish tradition is the permission God gave it, or thatit gave itself,
to talk back to God 
: to question, criticize the arrangements,complain and negotiate.This tradition of not taking 'God's ways' – nature and happenstance – as mere givens strikes me as the really great Jewish teaching, far beyondmonotheism (which is still, basically a fantasy of the supernatural), andwell able to survive God's 'death.' I am sad that more people, Jews andnon-Jews somehow descended from this Jewish tradition don't takeadvantage of its permission and encouragement to question. And Godhimself seems to be sad, in many of the Jewish stories, that most of thehumans he created are just sheep, sometimes avaricious or power-hungrysheep, rather than worthy sparring partners.So where does this leave me? Today, at 67, I am an atheistic,

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