“The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World” by Robert Mnookin— Questions of Identity

Mnookin, Robert. “The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World”, Public Affairs, 2018.

Questions of Identity

Amos Lassen

I have always taken great pride in being Jewish and I truly believe that it is an essential part of who I am. Yet for many, this is not the case. There is a certain commitment that goes along with Judaism and for many this is much too difficult to fit into our daily lives. After all, it seems that everything we do requires some sort of commitment and when looking at this, we find we can be Jewish without having a Jewish identity. We once thought that intermarriage would cause our religion to die but we have since learned that the greatest threat to Judaism is disengagement. Disengagement is a foreign concept to me since I have always been active in all parts of Jewish life and I have a problem understanding Jews who join a synagogue (and its not cheap to do so) and this is perhaps their sole relationship to the Jewish people; a people that has managed to stay alive against tremendous odds. It is clear that American Judaism is paradoxical with over 60% of Jews involved in intermarriage.

Writer Robert Mnookin gives us a deep and personal look at the basic questions and issues that American Jews deal with today and their questions and issues are shared by most of us. Jews are influential in many different areas

We know that Jews have made achievements and advances in recent times. Today American Jews have achieved unprecedented integration, influence and esteem in virtually every part of American life. Nonetheless and with all of its diversity and success, today’s Jewish community faces challenges that lead us to wonder whether the religion will last. Dr. Mnookin sees four critical challenges facing our religion and these are rampant intermarriage; “weak religious observance; diminished cohesion in light of a decline in anti-Semitism and virtually no discrimination; and seriously conflicting views about Israel.” We want to know if the generation of today will be able to pass on Jewish identity to the next generation. 

There are no easy answers here and the conclusions that Mnookin makes are provocative. He looks at who should count as Jewish in America and he suggests a radically inclusive standard for the American Jewish community. Who is a Jew should depend on personal choice and public self-identification, not birth or formal religious conversion. To be a Jew in America (or anywhere) one must feel an identification with the Jewish people and the reason someone is Jewish is a sense of personal choice.

Intermarriage has become a fact of life and we must embrace intermarried couples and encourage them to raise Jewish children. Mnookin looks at the fact that current policies of the Israeli government cause divisions within our Jewish community in America and are, in fact, inconsistent with what Mnookin feels are core American Jewish values.

American Judaism has changed a great deal of late. I remember that when I was growing up, there were three strains of Judaism; Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. In New Orleans where I was raised there was no conservative temple until the 60s and there was no love lost between Orthodox and Reform Jews— in fact they did not mix. Orthodox Jews referred to reform Temple Sinai as “Our Lady of St. Charles Avenue” and their services were talked about as the height of showmanship and with a choir made up of singers from the New Orleans Opera House. Today we also have Renewal Judaism and Reconstruction Judaism. Here in Boston we have several minyanim that are not aligned with any of the five movements. There is the opportunity for each Jew to find a place that suits his needs and makes him feel comfortable. Personally, now as official labeled as a Reform Jew, I am amazed at the difference of what Reform is today compared to how it was when I was growing up. I recognize a true sense of community and people who are concerned with the way things are and who are actively involved in repairing the world. However, these five streams of Judaism seem to draw borders. I have never understood why a person could never be just “a Jew”.

So how do we deal with today’s paradoxical American Judaism? Mnookin looks back at Jewish history and law as well as tradition and culture. He has spoken to rabbis and scholars as he explores what Judaism means. He shares what he has found with us and he relates how American Jews, including himself, have either stayed with Judaism or disavowed here. As he does this, he presents what he sees as to how Jews of all streams and all degrees of faith can keep Judaism and the Jewish community alive, vibrant and thrilling.

I love that this is such a personal book and I love being part of this conversation. Like many others, I left Judaism for three decades while living in Israel. I had no need for it as being Jewish was everywhere I looked. Returning to the States, I felt the need for a sense of community and I found that with my fellow Jews and I am since very active in the community. Judaism really never leaves a person— it just kind of hides as if waiting for the chance to sneak out again. One of my favorite encounters with Judaism came when I was a graduate student taking a course on the literature of the Cubist movement. I rediscovered Jewish lesbian Gertrude Stein who never really hid her Judaism except when her life was in danger. My professor was one of the most elegant, brilliant and beautiful women in academia at that time. Not only was she Jewish (but would not openly admit so) and married to another Jewish academic but she also was a member of the second graduating class at Brandeis. We became fairly close but we never talked about religion because, as we know, many academics are above religion. When Chanukah came, I made latkes and brought her some and as she tasted one, her eyes filled with tears as she remembered being raised Jewish. It was a scene that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Mnookin gives us the tools for navigating and negotiating the most important questions and issues of Judaism today. His focus is on the challenges, be they religious, social, familial, or ethnic and every combination and he gives us a look at the larger picture of what it is to be “self-critically human in a world for which few feel sufficiently prepared.
He sees Judaism as a welcoming “umbrella” and he reminds us that once Judaism was based upon what we could not do instead of what we could. Not only is this meditation on faith but it is also a legal analysis of the issues that we face today in Judaism. I really wasn’t prepared to think about this book as much as I have and I only finished reading it some three hours ago. It was my Shabbat treat. I am sure to be thinking of it more and more each day and that to me is a sign of great literature.

For those of you who are unaware of who Robert H. Mnookin is, have a look at his biography from the book blurb. He “is the Samuel Williston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, the Chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and the Director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Professor Mnookin was the Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and the Director of the Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation. At Stanford, he chaired the Jewish Community Federation and served as president of the Stanford Hillel Foundation. Between 1994 and 2003, he served on the International Board of the New Israel Fund as its Secretary and Treasurer. A leading scholar in the field of conflict resolution, Professor Mnookin is the author of nine books , including most recently “Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight.”