Shalom Goldman has shown in his previous writings that he has a keen eye for those places where Jews and Judaism rub up against other cultures and where various strains of Judaisms clash with one another. In his latest work, Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity, Goldman goes right to the heart of Judaism’s being by examining seven well-chosen twentieth century examples of individuals who became Jewish, who tried to leave Judaism, and one who tried to live within a Judaism changed to fit his beliefs and practices.
Along the way, Goldman shows us that it’s not easy to become Jewish, even harder to try to leave, and, maybe most difficult of all, to remain Jewish in the face of changing beliefs. Most of all, Goldman’s narratives lead us to understand that neither the individual nor a reified Judaism is at the heart of issues of conversion and identity, but that at the center lie competing groups struggling to control the issue of “Who is a Jew.”
While the main narratives in this important work are from the twentieth century, Goldman starts with the conversion of Ruth. The biblical story portrays Ruth as a Moabite woman who marries the Hebrew, Elimelech, who dies, leaving her a widow. Rather than return to Moab, Ruth vows to join the people of her mother-in- law, Naomi. As presented in the book of Ruth, this appears to be another biblical inversion story: Ruth, the Moabite outsider is widowed and impoverished, but is saved by Boaz, who marries her, and she becomes the great-grandmother of King David. When this story is established in the biblical canon, however, it becomes treated as history, and biblical Judaism becomes a tradition open to converts.
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., Judaism becomes an interiorized religion concerned with issues of purity and presided over by rabbis who are concerned with defining and controlling the boundaries of what becomes modern Judaism. Ruth’s personal initiative now becomes interrogated by rabbis acting as gatekeepers to keep the worthy in and the unworthy out. Building fences around the Torah controls migration and keeps the rabbis at the center who is a Jew. In the Gaonic and Islamic periods, rabbinic control and rabbinic politics helped Rabbinic Judaism become the dominant form of Judaism against Karaites, Issawiyyah and other Jewish competitors as well as guarding the great divide between Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.
Goldman’s salient condensation of this history brings us to the twentieth century and the newest competitor to Rabbinic Judaism: Zionism. As we weave our way through each of Goldman’s seven examples, we see how the rabbis contrive to maintain control of the gates of Judaism. We also see how, in the process, notions of race, born along with nationalism in the European nineteenth century, become accepted as part of modern Jewish identity at the same time that they were used against Jews by non-Jews and mid-twentieth century Europe. Goldman does not, and indeed cannot, provide us with a simple answer to where the problem of Who is a Jew will go, but it is clear that it is mixed with Who is an Israeli, and the issue will generate material for Goldman to soon write a sequel to this important and fascinating book.
Gordon D. Newby, PhD in Mediterranean Studies from Brandeis University, is the Goodrich C White Professor of Middle East and South Asian Studies at Emory University.
Read an excerpt from Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity at the Patheos Book Club HERE.