Jewish Philosophy

The Development of Identity: Bereishit 5775
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Monday 13th October 2014

Last Shabbat was the first parasha, the first portion of the new cycle of Torah reading. We read the Creation story, and traversed ten generations, up until the birth of Noah and G-d’s apparent regret as to the corrupt state of the world that He had created. 

In Shul, I spoke about the beginnings of identity. Adam HaRishon, or the first ‘Adam’ was the first human being who was filled with the spirit of God. In other words he may not have been the first anthropologically categorised homo sapiens, but he was the first individual developed enough to have a conversation with God. And this is not all. Adam also understands that he is different. He is different from the animals – they are separate from him. But they cannot compliment him. He cannot create any sort of meaningful relationship with the animal kingdom. So we see first that Adam understands that he has an identity that is different from other creations. And we also understand that Adam because he senses his difference from others in creation can feel alone. When God says ‘it is not good for man to be alone, let us make for him a helper’, He is referring here to a real sense of alone-ness that Adam clearly will be experiencing. That is, until God creates woman from the very being of Adam. In other words, Adam could only relieve his existential loneliness with someone who is not identical to him, but is made from his essence. And so Eve, or Chava is created using one of Adam’s sides – the first operation with anaesthetic! (God puts Adam to sleep first). 

My first claim based on this narrative is that we cannot escape identity. Whether it is our difference with the animal kingdom or gender differences, we are learning from our Torah that differences that form identity are clearly real and unavoidable. In other words, there is an element of identity which is primordial. 

Clifford Geertz was a well known Professor of Anthropology who worked at Princeton in the USA up until his death in 2006. He developed theories of identity and cultural identity as well as writing on theories of national and ethnic identity. He felt that even though people get together to create a state or nation to build civic ties (ie that create systems of justice and political order) they also do so to be noticed as a distinct group. This second reasoning for identity we call primordialist. In other words identity is not something constructed or made up. It is something that is given, it already exists. 

The creation can be learned as a lesson in the primordial make up of identity. 

But that is of course not the end of the story. Once man and woman are brought together and united, the Torah makes an interesting and fundamental statement: 

‘therefore, a man will leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they will become one flesh’ 

I am interested here in the dynamic being described. An individual is brought up by parents and his identity is in many ways defined by the way they bring him up and the experiences that he goes through, good and bad. When he or she leaves the world of the parent, he or she can develop a separate identity within the wider world. The idea of ‘leaving’ is here most critical whether it is actually geographical or simply an existential moving on (although leaving home may well be a critical ingredient in this). But identity is not itself permanent and constant. Marriage here involves the combining of my identity with another. I am now not defined as myself, as before – but as part of a couple. This is an approach to explaining the complicated nature of the relationship between parents and married children. Are parents easily able to move through these three modes – relating to child as child for whom I am responsible to nurture and bring up; relating to child as a separate and developing identity; relating to child as married with new married identity. This is not an easy evolution to undertake given the emotional investment a parent has contributed over many years. 

But my second claim is this. Identity maybe real, but it is not finite, discrete and separate. I may be anchored in one typology of identity. But that does not prevent me from jumping across to other identities in order to learn from them and add layers to my identity. So a man can admit to having clear feminine sides to his character. A nationalist can enrich his nationalism by learning about the national expression of other peoples. A religious individual can learn about other religions. This will not mean that I need to change my core beliefs. It will mean that I will not allow my identity to become a barrier to others. 

Have a great week. 

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