Jewish-American Identities

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In past times, Jews used to agonize over whether they were American Jews or Jewish Americans. The assumption, however, is that Jews ever become Americans rather than just Jewish residents in the country.

Some see this definitional conflict from the perspective of the Jew but I prefer to look at how American society sees us. Do they see Americans who fully participate in the culture, albeit with a Jewish flavor? Or are we Jewish visitors in American life? Put differently: those people whose lives revolve around Judaism but merely adopt some American attitudes are American Jews; those who wish to participate fully in the American culture while remaining faithful to their heritage are Jewish Americans; and those who live in enclaves and fight all acculturation, not always successfully, are Jews in America. Jewish law recognizes all three categories, as we can see if we follow the midrashic trail.

Ya’akov and Yosef

When Ya’akov began his migration from Israel to Egypt, he sent Yehudah first “to teach the way” (Gen. 46:28). Rashi famously quotes the midrash that Yehudah was tasked with establishing a hall for Torah study. However, the midrash has another opinion — that Ya’akov sent Yehudah to purchase for him a home. This is certainly a curious suggestion. Wouldn’t Yosef, the second highest official in the land, have ample space for his father to live? Why would Ya’akov insist on buying his own house with what little money he had left after two devastating years of famine?

When Yosef and Ya’akov reunite, the Torah states the he, in the singular, wept on the other’s neck. Rashi quotes the midrash that Yosef wept but Ya’akov was reciting Shema. Commentators struggle over this unequal response. Why did Ya’akov recite Shema at this specific time? And if it was the appropriate time, why didn’t Yosef recite Shema?

R. Chaim Soloveitchik reportedly answered that Yosef had recited Shema earlier in the morning but Ya’akov was unable because he was busy with the mitzvah of migrating to Egypt. As we say in the Passover haggadah, Ya’akov was compelled by divine command (anus al pi ha-dibur) to descend from Israel to Egypt. Once the mitzvah was complete, he could perform the mitzvah of reciting Shema, which Yosef, lacking a competing obligation, had performed earlier.

Residents and Members

If so, we can understand why Ya’akov sent Yehudah in advance to purchase for him a house. The Mishnah (Bava Basra 7b) states that a newcomer to a town becomes a resident after thirty days. The Gemara (8a) quotes a Baraisa saying that you become a resident (yoshev or toshav( after thirty days but a person of the town (ben ha-ir) only after a year.

However, the Turei Even asks a question from another Gemara (Megillah 19a) which explains the redundancy in Esther (9:19) — “Therefore the Jews of the villages, that lived in the villages.” The latter phrase teaches us that even those who live in a village for one day are consider Jews who live in a village. Doesn’t the Mishnah say it takes thirty days to become a resident? R. Matisyahu Strashun, in his glosses to Bava Basra answers by distinguishing between three stages of dwelling — living in a city, becoming a resident, and acquiring status as a member of the place.

You live in a city the moment you move there. That is the equivalent of the Jew in America. You technically live there but that is nothing more than a geographical fact. After thirty days you become a resident, you join your fortune with that of the place. You are an American Jew. And after a year you become a full-fledged member of the community, a Jewish American.

Fastpass

The Mishnah mentions a single exception to this progression. If you purchase a house, rather than rent, you immediately become a member of the city. You skip the status of someone living there and then resident. You are automatically a Jewish American (decided some 1700 years before the American dream was defined as home ownership).

With this, we can understand why Ya’akov sent Yehudah to buy him a house. Even though Ya’akov did not enter Egypt intending to stay — as the haggadah continues: “‘And sojourned there’: this teaches that Ya’akov did not go down to settle in Egypt.” However, he knew that he must reside there for a time and in his zeal to fulfill God’s commandments, wished to become a member of the new society as soon as possible. Therefore, he wished to purchase his own house and even sent Yehudah to buy one immediately, as the elderly patriarch made his way slowly to Egypt.

Even a resident with intent to leave can become a citizen, a full member of society for the time he is there. Ya’akov became a Jewish Egyptian, in fulfillment of the divine command to descend to Egypt. Today, Orthodox Jews who remain committed to their religion but participate fully in American politics, business or other areas of culture are Jewish Americans. Full members of society but still fully Jewish in attitude and action.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

18 comments

  1. “wished to become a member of the new society” – A member of the society which the Torah says we should not adopt their customs not follow their culture’s “abominations”, and regarding which the midrash praises us for not adopting their language or dress?

    Maybe this approach applies to modern America, but definitely not to ancient Egypt.

  2. …NOR follow

  3. r’ybs on ger vtoshav-ayen sham
    KT

  4. “fully Jewish in attitude and action”

    IMHO in this time of reishit zman geulateinu those who sit on the sidelines in the ‘goldeneh medina” instead of coming to the Yiddishe medina cannot call themselves fully Jewish,certainly not in action

  5. Shlomo: That was 200 years later. But even in immoral countries, you still have to be a good citizen.

  6. “IMHO in this time of reishit zman geulateinu those who sit on the sidelines in the ‘goldeneh medina” instead of coming to the Yiddishe medina cannot call themselves fully Jewish,certainly not in action”

    יהודי, דבר עברית

  7. Nice post.

    I have always had issues with those who criticize using the word ‘Jewish’ as the adjective rather than the noun. Their attitude seems to be that we are not Jewish Americans but American Jews. That is – We are Jews first. That is the priority. Our Americanism only goes so far as Judaism allows. Furthermore they might say that by using one word as the adjective and the other as the noun one it shows where his true sympathies lie.

    I reject that premise as nonsense. One can be both a Jewish American and an American Jew. These are not contradictory terms. And it isn’t only about how society sees us. We can see ourselves that way. It all depends on the context… on what message you want to convey at any particular time.

    To say we are American Jews means that we consider our mandate by God to be of prime importance. To say that we are also Jewish Americans only indicates the pride we have in this country and the feeling of full citizenship and participation within it. Those of us who love this great country of ours should be proud to identify as Jewish Americans because that is exactly what we are. But no less are we American Jews.

  8. But even in immoral countries, you still have to be a good citizen.

    Be a good citizen – yes. “fully participate in the culture” – no.

    Also, this post sounds as if you find a vort on a vort to be more relevant than explicit halachic sources on the same topic, which I find strange, independent of the question of pshat vs drash.

  9. Lawrence Kaplan

    I recently saw a comment that in Europe the Jews always felt like visitors. But in the US everyone (except for Native Americans) is a visitor.

  10. Maybe its just me, but I have clear memories of getting mussar speeches within 1970’s MO that we were American Jews and not Jewish-Americans. The logic escapes me after all these years, but somehow the latter was tainted as being assimilationist.

    Interesting how this has changed in 30 years, even amongst RWMO (assuming my memory hasn’t completely failed me).

  11. Maybe it was the other way around 🙂

  12. Well, once Israel enters the picture, the more to veer right or left from MO the more American you want to be, I guess.

  13. ” However, he knew that he must reside there for a time and in his zeal to fulfill God’s commandments, wished to become a member of the new society as soon as possible. ”
    I am not sure what the purpose of a such a post is. Obviously, Ya’akov had no such motivation in sending Yehudah, and he didn’t want to be part of Egyptian society, and none of those halachos are relevant to the parsha.

  14. Hirhurim on November 28, 2011 at 8:09 am

    Shlomo: That was 200 years later. But even in immoral countries, you still have to be a good citizen.

  15. Hirhurim on November 28, 2011 at 8:09 am

    Shlomo: That was 200 years later. But even in immoral countries, you still have to be a good citizen.

    Such as (e.g.swiss)jews during the second WW.

  16. RHS once explained based on the comment of Rashi that Yaakov sent Yehudah ahead to build a yeshiva because Yaakov understood that conditions would be very different for the Bnei Yisrael in Mitzrayim than in Eretz Canaan. I think that one can argue that even in the US the emphasis should be on American Jews to show that we are living in Galus, as opposed to Jewish Americans-IOW, that while we enjoy the rights and privileges and adhere to the laws of the US, we are always Jews, and share a commonality and destiny with our Jewish brothers and sisters, regardless of their location-a fact that far too many American Jews belittled and ignored prior to WW2.

  17. And today.

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