The Jew­ish Amer­i­can Para­dox: Embrac­ing Choice in a Chang­ing World

  • Review
By – December 3, 2018

There is a sto­ry in the Tal­mud in which a stranger from a for­eign land enters a rab­binic acad­e­my and reflects back his under­stand­ing of Jew­ish law and prac­tice. Because he isn’t from there, he has a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive than the oth­ers, and thus asks ques­tions and makes sug­ges­tions that few have considered.

In The Jew­ish Amer­i­can Para­dox, Har­vard Law School pro­fes­sor Robert Mnookin does some­thing sim­i­lar. As Mnookin explains, for most of his life he was ambiva­lent about and only loose­ly con­nect­ed to Judaism. His book is a self-described intel­lec­tu­al jour­ney” to under­stand not only his ques­tions about his own Jew­ish iden­ti­ty but also to exam­ine the foun­da­tion­al con­cerns fac­ing the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty: Who is a Jew? How should we respond to inter­faith mar­riage? What is the role of Israel in Jew­ish iden­ti­ty? What does Jew­ish peo­ple­hood” mean?

The book is strongest when Mnookin uses his legal mind to place ele­ments of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty on tri­al. In the open­ing chap­ter, he exam­ines the life of the famed psy­chol­o­gist Erik Erik­son, who was born Jew­ish and strug­gled with his reli­gion his whole life. Mnookin uses Erikson’s sto­ry as a way to under­stand the ten­sions between iden­ti­ty and sta­tus, reli­gion and her­itage, flu­id­i­ty and def­i­n­i­tion. Lat­er, he does the same with the ques­tion of who is a Jew” in Israel, unpack­ing the legal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of mak­ing Jew­ish lin­eage a cri­te­ri­on for citizenship.

Uti­liz­ing his exper­tise in the art of nego­ti­a­tion, Mnookin makes his case for a def­i­n­i­tion of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty that is wide and inclu­sive, know­ing full well that many will dis­agree. In this respect, Mnookin is brave; while many writ­ers have unpacked the chal­lenges and ques­tions of mod­ern Jew­ry, few have the courage to try to answer those questions.

While the book at time reads like an insid­er con­ver­sa­tion among peo­ple who are already invest­ed in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, at oth­ers it seems like a primer on Judaism itself. In his final chap­ter, about rais­ing a Jew­ish child, he explains, This chap­ter is not meant for those par­ents who are deeply com­mit­ted to Judaism and whose lives involve reg­u­lar reli­gious obser­vance.” He then goes on to unpack the rit­u­als, obser­vances, and advice most salient to cou­ples who are strug­gling with how they fit in to the Jew­ish project.

Though not a mem­oir, the book is deeply per­son­al. This is not an impar­tial look at Amer­i­can Jew­ry. Mnookin reveals through­out how he has rec­on­ciled issues regard­ing his and his family’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and one sees how those per­son­al expe­ri­ences clear­ly inform his analy­sis, from his exam­i­na­tion of inter­mar­riage to his dis­cus­sion of Israel.

Read­ers will appre­ci­ate walk­ing along­side one of our generation’s great legal minds as he thought­ful­ly strug­gles to find his place in the 3,000-year-old Jew­ish conversation.

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

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