On the weekend a Facebook friend posted a link to an interesting blog post on contests over modern Jewish identity. It opened as follows:
The interesting thing, of course, is what we, as scholars, make of such identity contests if, unlike participants in such disputes, we instead started with the assumption that all acts of identification are cherry picking. For too often, we buy the primodiality rhetorics of group participants and grant that when they say “tradition” or “heritage” it refers to some unbroken causal chain that stretches, unbroken, across the years and continents. However, if we make a switch and instead hear claims of “tradition” as the moment when the choice (arbitrary? self-interested?) of an item from the virtually limitless and ambiguous archive of the past is being authorized–how successfully will, of course, depend on how well the person making the selection can weave it into the already authorized choices of others with whom they wish to identify–then the issue is not (referring to the above example) which form of Judaism is correct, authoritative, or orthodox, but which set of techniques for representing something as legitimate, as acceptable, will prove most effective in that particular situation.
As scholars, our eyes therefore ought to go to the “I would describe myself” and the “would call me” moments in the above paragraphs, in which the contest among competing claimants is being played out, right before our eyes, leaving to others to decide the right way to be a this or a that. For despite the seemingly commonsense distinction between those who merely cheery pick from tradition and those who actually follow timeless tradition itself, it is this very distinction that we ought to be examining–the ways that people decide which selection counts or not. For, as Jean-Francois Bayart has argued, “[t]hese strategies are anything but timeless.”
(You can find the recently released “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011” here.)