A frequent charge leveled against Jewish people is one of inauthenticity that is that they are not really the Jews of antiquity. Instead, the modern Jew is presented as a patchwork of many cultures be they Slavic, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. The essence of their Jewish identity is presented as an adopted element and therefore ineligible for consideration as the true inheritance of Abraham. It would be easy to respond in anger or indignation, rushing to defend the rich traditions and customs which have come to define Judaism in all of its varieties. This reaction, however justifiable, would only serve to vindicate those who cast doubt. Instead, a more nuanced approach can be found in exploring the allegation itself. How does a people, carried through the currents of history, truly establish its’ credentials? Can any group, fashioned by these same forces, achieve this goal? It is, in essence an understanding of history that will repel and expose the absurdity of these arguments.
Scholars of Judaism will freely admit that the Judaism of antiquity was far different from what developed in the modern era. Mirroring the manners and customs of other Near Eastern cultures, Jewish practices carried these influences forward as they were distilled into a unique form. The format and structure of the Torah as well as its’ cycle were heavily influenced by the period of Babylonian Captivity. The place of the Haftarah in Jewish liturgy stands as a reminder of the influence of Greek and Roman persecution. Later developments in Jewish worship, such as The Mourners Kaddish and Kol Nidre declaration testify to the trauma of life in Medieval Europe. If the Jewish people are truly invented as some claim, it would only be fitting that History itself be named their inventor.
How does this brief encapsulation of Jewish history compare to that of other groups? Even a cursory comparison of almost any other culture will yield remarkably similar narratives. The British, being the preeminent contributors to the essence of American culture, provide an excellent example. The constituent population of Britain, even prior to conquest by the Roman Empire, was a diverse mix. The Celts, being the main indigenous group, were themselves of several distinct populations. Roman people and culture added another layer, followed by Saxons, Normans, and Danes. In this light, the very concept of being authentically British becomes a paradox. These complex structures of identity have only increased as citizens and descendants of distant origins have sought opportunity in the United Kingdom.
Returning to the original question, the true issue being raised by detractors becomes much clearer and even more absurd. A standard of homogeneity is imposed upon Jews in a way that it is not imposed upon others. Diversity in appearance and practice becomes a liability to Jews in the defense of their identity. While other cultural and racial groups certainly grapple with many of these same issues, the presence of persistent external pressure is a unique variable in the appraisal of Jewish identity. The diverse expression of identity can serve as source of strength for many groups, providing a way to display the wealth of their traditions and value of their history. Critics of the Jewish people present these distinctions as fractures, signs of a contradiction in the narrative of the Jewish Diaspora. Surely, they claim, that people residing in so many lands so far apart cannot all be authentically Jewish.
The truth is that all people are in some way or another invented. The supposition of an enduring national or cultural character, existing unchanged for countless generations, is in itself just such an invention. The modern era, with its focus on political and national liberation, demanded that each group define its unique heritage. The concept of the ‘imagined community’ articulated the belief that people originating from a certain place shared qualities which bound them together, despite physical separation. In light of this, what can be made of the conundrum posed to Jewish people?
This construct has been applied in a malignant way to the Jewish people. Jews, who have in fact retained a great deal of their identity in continuity, are accused of contriving their heritage for dishonest purposes. In asserting their identity, Jews must often contend with a gauntlet of scrutiny and shame rarely matched with other groups. As mentioned earlier, many Jews must answer for their apparently non-Semitic appearance, European influenced customs, and other aspects relating to their prolonged disconnection from their homeland. Once again, history is the key to unraveling these malicious arguments. Jews maintained communities outside of historic Israel well before the major expulsion of 135 C.E., but that event propelled the growth of those communities and in turn Judaism itself. It was only inevitable that Jewish people and their culture would blend with those of the nations in which they sought refuge. Synagogues followed architectural trends of the buildings around them, even those of other religious structures. Common foods became associated with specific Jewish seasons or holidays. And of course there is the issue of physical appearance as non-Jews integrated into the Jewish communities; they changed the physical characteristics of its population.
Yet for all of these drastic changes, the essential core of Judaism remained remarkably consistent. The transmission of Temple Era liturgy into the typical daily services enshrined the memory of Israel and Jerusalem in the center of Jewish worship. Hebrew, like the Jews themselves, adapted itself to serve as vernacular languages such as Yiddish and Ladino. While it may invite many clichés, these traditions helped bring cohesion to the Jews themselves, struggling to adapt to a world that was far removed from the memories they so carefully nourished. This is far from a complete or even comprehensive summary, but the point still remains. Jews have indeed reinvented themselves over their centuries of exile. This should not serve as a means to invalidate their identity but rather should serve as testament to its fortitude. While practices of culture and tradition certainly have been invented, these were necessary changes, responses to the volatile world to which Jewish people found themselves subject. It is the beating heart of their identity which has retained its clarity and in whose defense every Jew can take pride.