Jewish Identity I: The Zionists and The Millet

This post will begin a series of three or four in which I will review Fr. Elias Friedman’s book, Jewish Identity.

What makes the book remarkable is that it is truly about the identity problems inherent in being Jewish – one that many Jews of European descent, aside perhaps from the ultra-Orthodox, should be able to relate to – rather than strictly an attempted solution to the problem of the convert.

For most of the history of European Jews, identity as well as livelihood was sustained by a community living strictly in accordance with the law of Moses and separated both spiritually and socially from its Gentile milieu. Fr. Friedman’s narrative begins with the French Revolution, which served as the beginning of emancipation, or de-ghettoization, for much of Europe’s Jewry – its increasingly equal treatment under European law and its exposure to European culture.

This engendered an identity crisis. Many Jews delightedly abandoned their stifling patrimony and attempted to participate fully in European life. For some, this meant conversion to Christianity. For many others, however, that was not an acceptable solution, and a secular identity – one that would allow Jews to be fully European without explicitly cutting themselves off from Jewry through baptism – was sought for. Moreover, as the more incisive – such as Theodor Herzl – could see, the new safety was illusory: Jews needed to be prepared for anti-semitic violence to return.

Both of these considerations created a need for a continued collective Jewish self-understanding. But on what could that be based? Fr. Friedman explores Secular Zionist approaches to the question, most deeply that of Ahad Ha-Am, who proposed the institution of a Jewish Cultural Center to replace the synagogue.

Fr. Friedman’s critique of Ahad Ha-Amism is that Secular Zionism did not succeed in injecting any genuine content beyond sheer nationalism into the “Jewishness” around which it intended to build Jewish community. Thus it could not provide meaningful reasons for Jews to hold on to their community and their identity, nor sensible guidelines for negotiating relationships with the Gentiles (for instance, intermarriage or Gentile conversion).

As a result, Fr. Friedman argues, in the new state of Israel there is continued tension between Secular Zionism, which has broad appeal but cannot genuinely defend a definition of Jewishness, and Orthodox Judaism, which can do so effectively but cannot serve non-religious Jews. The nation’s secular Zionist leadership has largely managed this tension by hypocritically allowing the Orthodox to guard the boundaries of the Jewish community – registering individuals as either Jewish or Gentile, and regulating marriage, divorce, and burial.

Fr. Friedman opens his book by demonstrating how this inherent insufficiency of Secular Zionism played out in the case of the Carmelite priest Fr. Daniel Rufeisen. (Incidentally, I highly recommend the Russian writer Ludmila Ulitzkaya’s fictionalized account of his life in her recently translated novel, Daniel Stein, Interpreter). Fr. Daniel sought Israeli citizenship on the grounds that he was a Jew, albeit a Catholic priest.

His request was ultimately denied by the Israeli Supreme Court – on supposedly secular grounds. In reality, the argument was no more than a claim by the Chief Justice that a Jew who has changed his religion cannot remain a Jew. Fr. Daniel proposed a fully secular version of Secular Judaism, whereby a Jew remained a Jew no matter what he did religiously. The Secular Zionist ideologues, unable to articulate or defend their categories of “essential” Jewishness but anxious to exclude the Christian convert, responded by arbitrarily excluding from those categories Jews who had changed their religion – a move that could not be defended on either Orthodox or on secular grounds.

The way it could be defended, however, Fr. Friedman argues, is by reference to the “millet” system, inherited from the Ottomans. Under this system, non-Muslim minorities are treated collectively as communities, or “millets”; an individual is registered with his or her community, regardless of personal faith adherence. This system was continued in Palestine under the British mandate. If one can get past the irony of Jews seeing themselves as a “millet” in a country where they are the ruling majority, the decision regarding Fr. Daniel finally makes sense. One is automatically part of one’s millet unless one does something drastic to separate oneself from the millet. Conversion to a majority, non-millet religion accomplishes this task.

Fr. Friedman’s analysis leads naturally to two questions. First, from a non-Orthodox Jewish perspective, is there a remedy for the ideological failure of Secular Zionism to define Jewishness? If not ties of blood and (poorly defined) national characteristics, what makes one a Jew?

Second, how important is the role of Jewish community? Fr. Friedman demonstrates that a “millet”-like self-understanding – the rooting of Jewish identity in Jewish community, more than in individual beliefs or even blood – has always played an essential role. The Orthodox ghetto is, of course, the natural Jewish “millet.” Fr. Daniel’s case demonstrates that, having exited the ghetto, Jews turned Zionists could not find a better way of defining who is and is not a Jew than the equivalent of a “millet” system, though one in which a Cultural Center of sorts, rather than the synagogue, is the organizing principle. Is this way of thinking necessary for Jews, particularly those who are Christian?

I will explore Fr. Friedman’s answers to these questions in subsequent posts.


About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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6 Responses to Jewish Identity I: The Zionists and The Millet

  1. Doron says:

    Both the ‘Converso’ experience of the seraphic Sephardic Teresa of Jesus and that of John of the Cross, the Blessed Herman Cohen – another Jewish contribution to ‘Decor Carmeli’ – whose life and conversion foreshadowed Fr, Friedman’s in their comparative Beidemeier/Weimar/Ashkenazic contexts – would also articulately, bring the above controversy to bear.

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  3. Athol says:

    Thanks Lea. A good review of some of the ideas of Father Elias. The question of Jewish Identity is a tough one. In Israel today we have the case of certain Messianic Jews legally being able to settle in Israel under the Law of Return because they are Jewish on their father’s side or their mother’s father’s side but not on their mother’s mother’s side because by the orthodox Jewish halakah they are not Jews and thus it is ok for them to be Christians or Messianic Jews. However a Jewish Christian who’s mother’s mother is Jewish cannot legally become an Israeli under the Law of Return because they have changed their dat (millet).

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