Thinking Twice about Jewish Identity

For much of the latter 20th and early 21st century, the field of Jewish education has developed an almost obsessive focus on identity. Jewish educational endeavors have been variously committed to building it, strengthening it, enriching it — whatever “it” might be. But, if the purpose of Jewish education is to foment the creation of Jewish identity, then how conscious need the student be that they are developing that identity? Is it possible to study Jewish texts or engage in Jewish ritual without the requisite abstraction of being conscious that one is doing so “as a Jew?” How much thinking about what one is doing must one do in order to demonstrate the presence of a Jewish identity? As Jeff Kress asked provocatively: is it possible to have a Jewish identity without knowing it? Is it possible to have a Jewish identity without thinking about it?

Scholarship on learning has a name for thinking about thinking: metacognition. In, say, math education, cognition refers to the act of performing arithmetic calculations. Metacognition refers to the ability to reflect upon and explain how one undertook those calculations. It means putting into words the practices that one might otherwise undertake without those words to describe them. If Jewish education is oriented, at least in part, toward the creation or nourishing of Jewish identity, then it is worth exploring how metacognitive Jewish education should be. What parts are cognitive and what parts are meta? Is it enough to learn to engage in study or practice, or must one learn to talk about that study of practice in terms of their “Jewish identity?”

This is a kind of weird inversion of what WEB DuBois calls “double consciousness.” DuBois’ conception of the term refers to a kind of hyper-attentiveness to one’s status as the embodiment of a social category. For DuBois, double consciousness, however, is neither desirable nor comfortable. For DuBois, metacognition is a byproduct of life in a racially stratified society.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (1903)

For DuBois, double consciousness is a necessary evil, a survival mechanism against the dangerous and threatening currents of being an African American in a majority white country, an adaptation to the precarious presence of embodying one’s minority status.

By contrast, much of the discourse on Jewish education holds double consciousness as a kind of benefit, in which the supposed threat of the majority culture lies not in its violence, but in its appeal. In this formulation, Jewish double consciousness is supposed to protect its bearers against the allure of non-Jewish American life. In so doing, it privileges a defensive position over an affirmative one, emphasizing the ability to see “one’s self through the eyes of others” over the ability be whole. In other words, it emphasizes the meta over the cognition. This peculiar dynamic results in findings like those reported in the 2013 Pew Report that finds high levels of “pride” in being Jewish but low levels of engagement in Jewish life. In metacognitive terms, people are thinking about being Jewish, but they are not doing that much about it. Which is just fine, if you want to emphasize the meta over the cognition.

But this isn’t what DuBois had in mind. The pursuit of Jewish identity as an end unto itself has become an effort in having people think twice without thinking first.

  2 comments for “Thinking Twice about Jewish Identity

  1. February 23, 2016 at 12:18 am

    This interesting notion of thinking about what we do somewhat parallels the Talmudic conversationabout “kavanah”-intent. Is it enough to simply do a mitzvah (commandment,good deed) or must one have some sort of kavanah when doing it and, if so, what is the content of that intent? Knowledge that this is a commandment? Understanding of its message and meaning? Although not all demand kavana, it is usually seen as a positive thing: enriching emotionally and intellectually what we do. Ari’s notion of the meta thinking existing without actual action does seem to point to a problem, though one could see it, perhaps, as skipping the details and trying to get to some theoretical truth. Or not.

  2. Belle Michael
    February 24, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    Brilliant, never thought about Jewish Identity in these terms.
    It is helpful,yet thought provoking. What’s next?

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