Reflections on Identity

The Jewish Case

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Avi Sagi
Translator(s): 
Batya Stein
Emunot: Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah
  • Brighton, MA: 
    Academic Studies Press
    , December
     2016.
     270 pages.
     $79.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781618115348.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Reflections on Identity: The Jewish Case, Avi Sagi is interested in discourses of identity and how we understand the formation and expression of identity. He begins part 1 of the book by critiquing what he calls the “essentialist” and “constructionist” approaches to identity and argues instead for a multicultural approach. As Sagi constructs it, the essentialist approach assumes that expressions of identity come from some internal core—identity is a discrete “thing” and it remains largely independent of and unconditioned by historical/cultural/social/political processes. On the flip side of this identity discourse is the constructionist approach, which assumes that identity is only ever a product of those processes. As opposed to the essentialist approach, which assumes identity is basically stable, the constructionist approach assumes that it is lifelong process with no stable core.

Sagi, however, seeks a third way—what he terms the multicultural approach, which is established “in the course of a dynamic relationship with the other” (27). Sagi’s multicultural approach seeks to balance the complex processes that go into identity formation with some kind of basic, internal cultural identity, which he refers to as “primordial identity” (see chapter 3), and which remains relatively stable but also allows for a wide range of variance and unique cultural expression. 

Interestingly, this primordial identity remains intact irrespective of religious beliefs, participation (or non-participation) in religious ritual, or commitment to sacred texts. Sagi further argues for a primordial Jewish identity that he claims is “primal, pre-cultural, and pre-social” (85). Human beings, in other words, do not create the self; they discover it. Yet Sagi is careful not to slip back into an essentialist model because he leaves room for culture variance. In a particularly instructive passage he writes, “Without a cultural web, human identity will be empty of any content. Without a primordial identity, however, the cultural identity will be a random web of culture and social structuring lacking a constitutive foundation” (87).

In part 2 Sagi shifts his focus specifically to Israel and the “various dimensions of its tense identity discourse” (vii), highlighting tensions between a discourse of identity and a discourse of rights (chapter 4), discourses of religion and state (chapter 5), and how biblical traditions of the stranger and exile function to communicate primordial Jewish identity (chapter 6). The final chapter is the longest and in many ways the most illustrative chapter because of how the reader gets to see Sagi work with biblical texts to flesh out his conception of primordial Jewish identity.

For Sagi, Jewish identity fully expresses the multicultural approach’s orientation toward the Other. According to his reading of key biblical texts, Sagi argues that ancient Jews, for the most part, understood themselves as strangers even in their own land because of an acute awareness of God’s sovereignty and the gift of the land as exactly that—a gift. They do not, therefore, have an absolute or eternal right to the land because God can take it from them at any time—as evidenced by the exile. This is precisely why the wilderness weighs so heavily in collective Jewish memory. The Jew as a stranger in her own land therefore possesses an imperative of openness to the stranger, and Jewish identity is most authentically discovered and expressed through such openness.

There is much to commend in Sagi’s most recent work. He situates his thought well in various theological and philosophical traditions and argues his claims cogently and concisely. Moreover, the implications of his work are manifold, even if somewhat unexplored here. Sagi has provided an insightful and compelling study that should appeal to a wide array of readers.

Yet as someone who tends more towards what is here called the constructionist approach, I am left with several questions. It is clear that Sagi is doing constructive theological work and hopes to convince his readers that to be human is to be oriented toward the Other and to seek real and constructive dialogue through that otherness. Nonetheless, I can’t help but be aware that he, as an interested social actor, is also participating in an active construction of an identity discourse. While Sagi would likely not concede this point, I continue to struggle with the idea of a primordial identity as, in his words, somehow pre-cultural or pre-social. It seems more likely that conceptions of the primordial are just as conditioned and constructed as any other concept. That doesn’t mean they are without value, but it might mean a more explicit recognition of how and toward what ends such construction takes place.

Finally, I find myself with further questions about the ethical implications of Sagi’s multicultural identity. It is one thing to suggest dialogue and openness to the Other, but what does this look like in fraught political contexts? Thinking, for instance, about Sagi’s immediate context in Israel, with its ongoing political instabilities, how would this construction of Jewish identity lend itself to more productive dialogue or contribute constructively to peace processes? At one point Sagi nods to this question but says it must “remain open” because in the identity discourse he hopes to facilitate, “borders and modes of discussion are not pre-defined and will be decided by the participants” (110). It is nonetheless to Sagi’s credit that he has provided such thoughtful reflections on identity that leave the reader with a sense of its important implications for social and political life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sheldon Steen is a doctoral student in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Avi Sagi is a professor of philosophy at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, where he established the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies. He is also a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He has written and edited many books and articles in philosophy, among them Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the AbsurdKierkegaard, Religion, and Existence: The Voyage of the SelfJewish Religion after Theology, and Prayer after the Death of God. His contribution to contemporary Jewish philosophy has recently been showcased in Avi Sagi: Extentialism, Pluralism, and Identity ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron W. Hughes (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

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