Whenever I tell anyone that my work involves the study of the Old Testament within its context of ancient Israel and the Near East, this is the question that often follows: “Oh, are you Jewish?” Or, the occasional bewildered variation: “But you’re not Jewish, are you?” When I inevitably answer “no” to these questions, the follow-up is usually: “That’s so interesting — then what made you want to do that?” My answer typically goes somewhere along these lines: “I’ve always loved history, particularly ancient history, and I’ve always been very interested in religion. As a Christian, I was already exposed to the Old Testament, so the combination of the ancient history and religion was a natural thing for me.”
I often wondered about the source of the query as to whether I am Jewish, and of the follow-up question to figure out why I am so interested. The assumption seems to be that if I’m so interested in the Old Testament and the Hebrew language, I am probably Jewish. I think that the source of these questions speaks to the matter of individual and cultural identity, and what causes us as humans to claim certain identities for ourselves; how we view the identities of others; how we define what constitutes “my” identity, and the identities of those who are “not-me.” This does not necessarily mean that we look with fear or condescension on the identities of “not-me,” but simply that we are aware of the distinction, whether that awareness is accepting, non-accepting, or neutral.
The identities at hand are cultural and religious identities. These are often, but not always, linked. In the modern world we see much more frequent breakage of that link than was the norm in the ancient world. In that world, your culture contained your religion, as it did for your neighbors, and that was that. If you were Egyptian you worshiped the Egyptian gods and practiced the appropriate prayers and rituals; if you were Sumerian, the Sumerian ones; if Babylonian or Assyrian, then those respective pantheons (though these often contained similar or the same deities and rituals going by different names). The same rule was true for the collection of small countries and peoples often termed “Canaanites.”
This is not to say that people did not move from one place to another, or that cosmopolitan centers did not contain foreigners passing through or sojourning. But for the most part, if you were born in a certain place, your religion was the religion of that place. Conversion did not begin to happen on a grand scale until the growth of the Christian religion; this caused problems for many families in the Greek-speaking world when one of their members left the family identity by converting to another religion.
But what determines identity for us humans? Not just religious identity, but any identity? What makes us decide to stay within an identity and consciously operate within it, defining ourselves within it, taking pride in it? Or to cross over into another identity? How much of our former identity do we keep? If one is of Italian heritage, one is likely to have been raised Catholic, but one can choose either to commit to or change that identity. If one lives in Asia, there is a good possibility one may be Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian; if southeast Asia, Buddhist but also Hindu or Muslim. And so on. A person can decide to leave any of these identities and adopt another one, and sometimes not only a religious change but a change of culture as well. Or that person can choose to adopt wholeheartedly and thrive in the identity to which (s)he was born, accepting this as a given fact. In America, which has a culture that is formed from the co-existence of many subcultures with immigrant heritage, these lines can be especially permeable.
Still, the lines do exist. People may cross over cultural or religious identities, but the concept of one’s identity — as distinct from some other identity — will likely always exist. People can contain more than one cultural or religious identity within themselves, of course, especially in a country like the United States. But if one’s sense of identity becomes too dominant, then conflict with others and even war on a national scale can occur, as history and experience consistently show us. But without a sense of identity, we feel rudderless, a lack of belonging, and a longing to belong to some smaller subgroup within humanity. What would happen if we all only identified ourselves as human, as individual members of a vast human family? Would that ever happen, or is our desire for the existence of a smaller group to which to belong, a smaller and more well-defined identity than simply “human,” too strong?
I think that such a desire is too powerful ever to leave the human psyche. We crave some level of distinctiveness, something that makes us “us.” But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing only when one’s sense of identity becomes so fundamental that one becomes inclined to fight, scorn, or avoid others simply because they have a different identity from one’s own. “I am a [insert any kind of identity here] and therefore am above you.” The ideal state of being for all our desire for our own identity, for all our desire to belong to a smaller group within the category “human,” should be that we own our identities and thrive within them while dwelling alongside those who claim a different identity. Dwelling with respect, love, and regard for fellow humanity.
The Old Testament contains a story of a woman who left her old identity and adopted a new. Her choice was that the people to whom her late husband belonged — the Israelites — were more important to her than the Moabite culture that was native to herself. So after her Israelite husband died, the woman Ruth returned to her husband’s people with her beloved mother-in-law Naomi and chose an Israelite man named Boaz. When Naomi had initially urged Ruth to return to her own people the Moabites and to their gods, Ruth had pledged to her this famous vow: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth’s name seems to derive from the Hebrew word for (female) “friend.” This story also marks her as a direct ancestor of King David. Although the book of Ruth contains far more complicated elements than I’ve mentioned here, one of its primary elements speaks to the importance of friendship and love over all else.
Our identities are often, and often should be, very important to us. But I think we only better ourselves as people if we choose to give pride of place to love — love for all those who, just by existing, share with us our most basic identity: human.
© Elizabeth Keck 2010