On Nebulous Religious Identities


Hempfield School District in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, made national news recently, and not in a good way.

Before I continue, both of my parents, my uncles, my aunts, most of my cousins, all graduated from Hempfield School District.  My nephew presently is a student in the district.  Many of my friends, non-Jewish and Jewish alike, either graduated from or have kids in the district.  My uncle retired from teaching there, and my late grandfather, once upon a time, was the district’s controller.

I’m also, on my mother’s side, the 5th generation of Lancaster Jew.

I subsequently feel qualified to comment on this whole affair.  I even think I know who the family in question is, by process of elimination, and that there are a handful of Jewish families within the district.

First and foremost, I’m critical of Breitbart for framing this whole issue as a “war on Christmas.”

The reality is, and districts seldom comment specifically on their difficulty in meeting their individual Adequate Yearly Progress goals, No Child Left Behind, not anti-Christians, brought us here.  No time of year encroaches more on instructional time than winter holidays, and with funding hinging on success, administrations can’t afford to lose the time.  Hempfield clumsily tried to make this case with their FAQ.

And yet, there is a politically correct component to it as well.  Lancaster County has hosted a Jewish population since the 1700s, and steadily since the mid 1800s.  With 160-plus years of Judeo-Christian comity, families such as mine have yielded to an influx of Jews from major Jewish populations, like Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York.  Perhaps the dynamic Lancaster understood for so long has yielded at last to the broader dynamics of the new Jewish identity that is no longer centered on faith or participation in established Jewish social groups, but a very listless milieu.

This new identity seems to bring with it the inelegant dichotomy of taking our kids to their travelling soccer team matches on Shabbos, but then expressing Jewishness by making sure our kids aren’t exposed to Christianity.  We’ve done it, too.  I recently yielded to participation in Amelia’s jazz band concert on a Saturday. While it’s never on a district to gauge our religiosity, it must be subconsciously difficult to reconcile our concern with excused absences on Jewish holidays with our willingness to yield on commonly held understandings of core Jewish principles.  Non-Jews understand from Fiddler and all the other pop-culture exposures to Judaism that we should take our Shabbath seriously.  Same with the general cultural understandings of kashrut, same with so many other things.

I worry sometimes that expressively being Jewish has surrendered to merely “not being something else.”

And maybe it’s the inevitable chaos introduced by overwhelming Westernized individualism.  We’re not the only group framing an identity around not being another identity.

Look at the present projection of angry Christianity around the nation, at least in the realm of the political.  “My religious conscience says I can’t bake you a cake,” but they cannot cite a scriptural or doctrinal source for that.  The push-back against refugees seems very counter-intuitive against the established precepts of American Christians.

In many ways, I wonder if being something has started to be expressing something.  I’m not saying other people should grab on to my own way, but Judaism is about trying my best to be shomer mitzvot, not for the sake of appearances, but because of an esoteric commitment to the Divine.  People mock the need to justify actions using the “supernatural,” that those who do are irrational.

The popular definition of rationalism has had consequences…the philosophical definition is more relevant.  Reason, not experience, is the foundation of certainty.  You reason that cheating on your spouse will create friction in your relationship, so you don’t.  I arrive at the same conclusion, but I also reason that it offends the Divine to cheat on my spouse.  Given the number of divorces in my demographic (observant Jews) as opposed to the prevailing culture, I’d say that people are quite capable of rationalizing negative behaviors without the supernatural.

Everything in human nature is a double-edged sword, taken to any extreme.  What I wonder, though, is that if we who identified as Jews and Christians became more informed about our proof texts and doctrines, if it wouldn’t better serve us in reconciling with the wider world.

Talking to my wife about this, she thinks being a Jew is more than just being shomer mitzvot.  I tend to agree.  But I think it absolutely needs to be more than just what we are not.

I am not a Jew solely because of what I am not.  I am not a Jew solely because of what I stand against.  I am not a Jew solely because of what I stand for.  I am not a Jew solely because of who I answer to.   I am a Jew because of all of this and more.  Insert Christian or Muslim or atheist or pagan, and I’m fairly sure it’s the same story.

Really, I think I’m saying is that if we’re going to embrace an identity, we need it to be comprehensive and not superficial.  This would solve the problem of Christians with their misplaced concerns about spiritual warfare, and Jews and an inflated sense of persecution.

Brian

Writer, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

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About Brian

Brian Kresge

Brian Kresge

Writer, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

About Leah

Leah Kresge

Leah Kresge

Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, Maine, special educator and former school board member, mother to Amelia and Nezzie.

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