Jews and Other Differences; or, Essentialism as Resistance
It could be said that the tension produced by the essentialist/constructionist debate is responsible for some of feminist theory's greatest insights, that is, the very tension is constitutive of the field of feminist theory. But it can also be maintained that this same dispute has created the current impasse in feminism, an impasse predicated on the difficulty of theorizing the social in relation to the natural, or the theoretical in relation to the political.
Although it is inflected differently for race, sex, and sexuality, there are ways that the essentialist/social constructionist dichotomy operates similarly for all of these categories.
We must start with a recognition that essentialism has no essence (Fuss 1989, 4, 21). There are as many essentialisms as there are differences to be essentialist about (Boswell 1992, 135). Although they have been often analogized, essentialism with regard to gender seems to me quite different from essentialism with regard to sexuality—and both, it seems, are entirely different from essentialism with regard to race and to whatever Jewishness is as well. To begin to understand the dimensions of this difference, a typical definition of the question with regard to sexualities will be sufficient. Contrasting definitions of essentialism with regard to feminism and gayness will bring out this point clearly. A recent writer on gay identity has defined the controversy in the following manner:
This quotation should by itself point up how the meaning of essentialism will be different when applied to the category “woman” than when used for the category/ies gay and lesbian, for virtually no one will doubt the reality of the division into sexes or its historical and cultural universality. Essentialism, then, with regard to the category “woman” has to do rather with whether attributes beyond the obvious and physical ones—women menstruate, conceive and bear children, and lactate; men lack all of these capabilities—are to be associated with these physical differences or whether all such associated characteristics are culturally constructed and thus detrimental to the autonomy of individual women to define their own essence. (My illogical usage of “essence” at the end of the sentence is conscious and proleptic of the position I will take.) On the other hand, the debate about sexuality is whether or not in other cultures or in the past of our culture, which is the same thing, there were homosexuals and heterosexuals as categories of people, or only homosexual and heterosexual acts. With regard to sexualities, I claim, the question of essentialism is first a historical and ethnographic question, almost an empirical one; with regard to sexes, it is a philosophical one.
“Essentialists” treat sexuality as a biological force and consider sexual identities to be cognitive realizations of genuine, underlying differences; “constructionists,” on the other hand, stress that sexuality, and sexual identities, are social constructions, and belong to the world of culture and meaning, not biology. In the first case, there is considered to be some “essence” within homosexuals that makes them homosexual—some gay “core” of their being, or their psyche, or their genetic make-up. In the second case, “homosexual,” “gay,” and “lesbian” are just labels, created by cultures and applied to the self. (Epstein 1992, 241–42)
The following description of what essentialism means in a feminist context should further clarify the point:
The crucial words in this paragraph for my limited purposes here are “as sex may be”; in other words, the division into sexes is (or at least may be) an innate feature, even for those who are anti-essentialist feminists. There are men and women “really”; the question is what does this mean, or what are they like, or are there any essential differences beyond the obvious ones, while the question with regard to gay people is: Have “they” always existed, or have “we” “made them up”? Have they perhaps made themselves up—at a certain point in cultural history (Hacking 1992)?
If most feminists, however one may classify trends and positions—cultural, liberal, socialist, poststructuralist, and so forth—agree that women are made, not born, that gender is not an innate feature (as sex may be) but a sociocultural construction (and precisely for that reason it is oppressive to women), that patriarchy is historical (especially so when it is believed to have superseded a previous matriarchal realm), then the “essence” of woman that is described in the writings of many so-called essentialists is not the real essence, in Locke's terms, but more likely a nominal one. (De Lauretis 1989, 5; see Fuss 1989, 4–5)
In a paper published in a recent collection, Steven Epstein poses the issue in a sharply focused and politicized manner. “I take as given that power inheres in the ability to name,” he writes, “and that what we call ourselves has implications for political practice.…Legitimation strategies play a mediating function between self-understanding and political programs, and between groups and their individual members” (Epstein 1991, 241). The great virtue of Epstein's paper is its constant attention to the political function of claims to essence. In the following statement, while I think he seriously misconstrues social constructionism, he nevertheless clearly articulates this political function:
This alleged “folk constructionism” bears no relation, typological or genetic, to social constructionism—it certainly predates these theories—, so Epstein is setting up a paper tiger here, but nonetheless, the positive part of the argument seems undoubtedly correct to me. Claims for essence are legitimation strategies for identity politics and, as such, are attacked at great peril to causes of difference and liberation of differences. As Ed Cohen has put it, “How individuals come together to act for change, how these actors are changed by their activities, and how these acts and actors crystallize as movements cannot be adequately imagined if the powerful effects felt by acting subjects are ‘theoretically’ disappeared” (Cohen 1991, 82). This formulation appears in a generally appreciative discussion of Judith Butler's work, in which Cohen has also written:
A “folk constructionism” comes to be disseminated: the view that sexual identities are willful self-creations. And in reaction against this folk constructionism, which denies the experience of a non-voluntary component to identity, lesbians and gays operating within the liberal discourse slide to the opposite extreme: they assert that there is something “real” about their identity, and then try to locate that felt reality in their genes, or their earliest experiences, or their mystical nature. (261)
And thus, I would add, it paradoxically reinscribes the “Protestant” ideology of the individual. Picking up on Cohen's overall argument, I would suggest that only a grouping which has some somatic referent can allow itself the possibility of reinventing its essence: “For if we can begin to gather together on the basis of constructions that ‘we’ are constantly and self-consciously in the process of inventing, multiplying, and modifying, then perhaps ‘we’ can obviate the need for continuing to reiterate the fragmenting oscillations between identity and difference that have been the legacy of post 1960s progressive politics” (88). As Cohen quite brilliantly suggests here, there has to be some referent for a we that is not in quotation marks in order for the cited, constructed “we” to function as such. With regard to women and gay people, there is some “objective reality,” some somatic referent, it seems, about which to even ask the question of essence. At least ostensibly, the category of women is defined by something they are in their bodies, and gay and lesbian people by something they do with their bodies. There is, in both cases, as I have said, something about which to ask the question regarding essence, although I have argued that it is a different question in each of these two cases. But what about Jews? In what sense does this category exist—even as a nominalist category? I suggest that only genealogy can fill that function for Jews.
In its attempt to rethink “agency” so that it is “constituted” in terms of “construction,” it obviates any concern with what brings individuals together to effect changes in the social imagination/organization of their shared life-world, implicitly portraying collective action as “simply” voluntaristic. (83)
The most common language for the description of Jewishness historically is the language of race, γένος. Race, however, certainly did not mean in the premodern period anything like what it means today. The term has taken on an entirely different set of connotations in a recent epistemic shift, analogous to the epistemic shift that Foucault and especially Arnold Davidson have identified in the discourse of sexuality (Davidson 1992). If Foucault could write, “Our epoch has initiated sexual heterogeneities” (Foucault 1980), we can also claim that our epoch has initiated racial heterogeneities in almost the same fashion (Cohen 1991, 78–79). “Race,” which was once the signifier of a set of relations with other human beings determined in the first instance by a common kinship and historical connection, has become the signifier of distinct, heterogeneous human essences, at just about the same time that sexual practices were transformed into the signifiers of different categorical essences of human beings. As Lloyd Thompson has put it:
This shift in meaning has, of course, enormous implications; the fact that it took place in tandem must also be meaningful.
In these old and ever-popular usages, “race” bears two sometimes overlapping connotations: on the one hand, an ethnic group, a people, or a nation; and, on the other hand, a somatic type defined in terms of perceived skin colour, hair type, and morphology—a concept of “race” that dates from the latter part of the seventeenth century. (Thompson 1989, 13)
Let us begin, then, by exploring the sense that “race” might have had for premodern and particularly late-antique people. Symptomatic perhaps of this shift is the following statement from Dio Cassius, “I do not know the origin of this name [Jews], but it is applied to all men, even foreigners, who follow their customs. This race is found among Romans” (Gager 1983, 91). Now it is quite clear from this quotation that for Dio the word “race” does not imply some sort of biological essence, since it can be applied to Romans who have chosen to follow the customs of Jews. In short, one can convert to a race. “Race” is thus the signifier of a concept for which we have no word at all in our language, something like family writ very large. Just as family for us is primarily the signifier of a genealogical, that is, biological connection, but one that does not in any way presuppose some biological essence, so also “race” in premodern usage. Furthermore, just as family includes people who are not in the primarily physically defined grouping but have joined it secondarily, either through marriage or adoption, so also people can join a race in Dio's usage.
Jewishness was, therefore, in antiquity, something—I do not say an essence—that could be referred to via the language of race. We no longer do so, although oddly enough, it seems that the modern sense of race has been constructed originally precisely against the Jews. This occurred at two points in the development of the modern concept. The first is in the Spanish “purity of blood,” limpieza de sangre, to which I will have further reference below. This term signified one whose blood had not been tainted with the blood of conversos, converted Jews, and was, therefore, purely Spanish and purely Christian. The second is at the development of modern “scientific” racism, which is, originally, the founding ideology of anti-Semitism.
There are significant differences between Jewishness and the modern sociopolitical senses of race. The primary dissimilarities involve the fact that people can convert to Judaism, which would seem to suggest that it is merely a confession, and that there are no “racial” characteristics that mark Jews off from other human groups, as there are, for instance, for Japanese people or Europeans. More revealingly, however, the convert's name is changed to “ben Avraham” or “bas Avraham,” son or daughter of Abraham. The convert is adopted into the family and assigned a new “genealogical” identity, but also, since Abraham is the first convert in Jewish tradition, converts are his descendants in that sense as well. There is thus a sense in which the convert becomes the ideal type of the Jew (see, however, Davies 1974, 168n.3).
On the other hand, Jews do not sense of themselves that their association is confessional, that it is based on common religion, for many people whom both religious and secular Jews call Jewish neither believe nor practice the religion at all. This kind of “racialism” is built into the formal cultural system itself. While you can convert in to Judaism, you cannot convert out, and anyone born of Jewish parents is Jewish, even if she doesn't know it. Jewishness is thus certainly not contiguous with modern notions of race, which have been, furthermore discredited empirically. Nor are Jews marked off biologically, as people are marked for sex; nor finally, can Jews be reliably identified by a set of practices, as for example gay people can. On the other hand, Jewishness is not an affective association of individuals either. Jews in general feel not that Jewishness is something they have freely chosen but rather that it is an essence—an essence often nearly empty of any content other than itself—which has been inscribed—sometimes even imposed—on them by birth.
How can this sense of genealogically given essence be distinguished from racism? What it comes down to, finally, is this. Any claimed or ascribed essence has two directly opposed meanings depending simply on the politics of the given social situation (Foucault 1980, 101–02). For people who are somehow part of a dominant group, any assertions of essence are ipso facto products and reproducers of the system of domination. For subaltern groups, however, essentialism is resistance, the insistence on the “right” of the group to actually exist. Essence, as such, always makes an appeal to the body, to the “real,” the referential. For women, the appeal is to the difference in the reproductive, sexual body; for gay people the appeal is to the difference in their sexual practices; for Jews, the appeal is to filiation. What we see in each of these cases is that the very things appealed to in order to legitimate the subaltern identity are appealed to as well by dominating groups in order to exploit the dominated. The valence of the claim shifts from negative to positive with the political status of the group making the claim. Therefore, I suggest, that which would be racism in the hands of a dominating group is resistance in the hands of a subaltern collective. In order, then, to preserve the positive ethical, political value of Jewish genealogy as a mode of identity, Jews must preserve their subaltern status. I wish to set out, at least in nuce, a notion of identity, which I will call Diaspora identity, which will be of value beyond the articulation of Jewishness alone.