Judith Butler and the Question of ‘Who is a Jew?’

How do we respond to the question of Jewish identity in times of crisis (photo credit: D. Seldowitz 2024)
How do we respond to the question of Jewish identity in times of crisis (photo credit: D. Seldowitz 2024)

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of Jews are pretty upset with philosopher Judith Butler right now. That Butler and other Jewish intellectuals who are highly critical of Israel receive a spotlight in the non-Jewish media is not surprising, but in this case, something else has occurred. In her recent remarks concerning the Hamas attack on Simchat Torah 2023, Butler seemed to frame the horrific acts of violence as potentially justifiable acts of decolonial resistance. Worse still is her insistence that the attack needn’t be deemed antisemitic, a position that deliberately erases the Jewish identities of Israeli citizens. This denial of Jewishness is appalling and harms the Jewish collective. It is also abhorrent to think that this can be justified as a legitimate political position of Jewish anti-Israel critics. Hardly surprising was the reaction of an Israeli spokesperson who countered that Butler’s remarks cast a shadow over her own Jewish identity.

This moment in Jewish history is forcing the “who is a Jew” question back into public consciousness, not only as it relates to Butler, but to other Jews who publicly fumbled a defense for the evils perpetrated on that day. However, the ever-constant dilemma over the definition of Jewish identity seems to be trapped in a predictable series of preset antinomies. Religion versus culture, genetics versus communal affiliation, practiced tradition versus shared history and memory, often in some combined form. Some thinkers propose to use the metaphors and characterizations of people, nation, tribe, or family to think beyond the limits of religion, ethnicity, and other more common labels. Of course, there is nothing new about this position. Consider Mordechai Kaplan’s 1934 Judaism as a Civilization. But the family metaphor, rooted in terms such as the “House of Jacob” and the “Children of Israel”, may help offer a practical answer to the dilemma of Judith Butler by asking the following question: Who is family? For some, a simple formula explains it all: anyone invited to a wedding or a funeral is family. And while I might hazard a guess that Judith Butler would not be welcome at a great many Jewish celebrations in the Holy Land, that does not mean she is no longer a member of the Jewish family.

The family metaphor is powerful, but it is a double-edged sword. It can be presented as radically inclusive, but it can also sharply condemn positions the collective deem to be outside the pale. I am certain that many will contend that any Jew who makes a statement that is suggestive of a defense or rationalization of the worst attack of Jews since the Holocaust forfeits any claim to make a determination on the matter of Jewishness. After all, who does that to their own family? How alienated must one be from one’s brother, sister, grandmother or grandfather to deny the dignity of their Jewish identities while they sit trapped in a Gazan tunnel? Will this form of discourse effectively challenge those who think that all criticism of Israel is a fair and legitimate exercise of expression? Perhaps not. Jews who view Israel as a White colonial enterprise are unlikely to be shamed into exiting their camp. Regardless, the righteous indignation of Butler’s critics must be tempered by the fact that – no matter how indefensible one thinks of her position – she is hardly a lonely voice these days. But Jewish identity must transcend politics. The Talmudic rabbis teach, af al pi shekhata, Yisrael hu (Sanhedrin 44a), which we might render as: “a Jew is a Jew no matter what sin they do”. We may feel furious with Jews like Butler, but that cannot diminish their Jewishness, their membership in the Jewish family, even as we might insist on accountability for the harm inflicted upon Jews with their words and behaviors.

I think the family metaphor of Jewish identity is better supported when combined with the Hasidic concept of the Jewish spark (“der pintele yid”). A Hasidic master might view our situation as a simple case of Jew who, through the troubles and tribulations of everyday life in exile, finds themselves feeling numb to the spark of the divine that resides deep within the recesses of their heart and soul. From a social scientific view, measuring divine sparks is a rather difficult endeavor. I have no doubt the next time a Jewish community survey is commissioned, there will be no effort to measure the “pintele yid” or its expressions in everyday life. This is a definition of Jewishness that relies on a faith in our fellow Jewish brothers and sisters, no matter the circumstance. Perhaps Jewish communities should take a firmer stance to popularize the celebration of Second Passover (Pesach Sheini), a minor holiday that occurs one month after Passover to commemorate the Israelites who needed a second chance to partake in the celebrations on account of their impurity. The key message is no Jew is beyond hope. This course of action might not immediately dissuade Jews from participating in movements and organizations that contribute to a social environment that threatens Jewish safety everywhere. But perhaps we need to hear this message more than they do. Perhaps banishing Butler from the Jewish family does more harm to us than we might care to admit.

The collective resilience required in these trying times is not a quality we can afford to squander away. That Jews disagree passionately is a given. That we risk offending one another is a necessary risk. Are there lines we shouldn’t cross? Obviously. But we must also acknowledge the spark of the divine that ultimately binds us together in shared past, present, and future. Ironically, both Butler and the Hasidic masters would agree that we must view one another as more than mere bodies. Recognition of one another, even amidst disagreement, fosters the empathy and understanding necessary to weather the times ahead. This shared essence, this respect for the divine within each other, is what furnishes us with the strength to build a Jewish future.

About the Author
Dovi Seldowitz is a PhD student (Sociology) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Previously, Dovi directed and curated the 2022 B’nai B’rith Kabbalah Exhibition and was the recipient of the UNSW University Medal in Sociology and Anthropology for his Honours thesis on Hasidic women’s leadership.
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