I am reading a generally entertaining book about a religious figure of considerable importance in the Jewish community, and the book contains an interesting story that sounds like it could only happen in a place like New York. The scene is this. Black SUV’s randomly stop when they see someone (perhaps with a yarmulke on?) and out comes a conservatively dressed chasidic Jew asking the question: Are you Jewish? If the answer is affirmative, teffilin is given to the Jewish man with the expectation that they will start wearing it some day, presumably in the morning, and become a more observant Jew. Reading this story gave me a laugh, as it strikes me as just the sort of thing that I would find both ridiculous and somewhat amusing. Nevertheless, it highlights at the same time the sort of identity questions that I find particularly vexing and difficult, and those identity questions are something I would also like to explore.
Before we get into that thicket, though, it is worthwhile to think of some other situations where something like the Tefillin squad would be useful. For example, when I attended the Feast of Tabernacles in Hawaii in 1999, I had not gotten the memo that Hawaiian shirts and not the normally very stuffy shirts I happen to wear to church were the order of the day. Rather than receive the embarrassing news at the opening service and having to engage in some rather hurried shopping, it would have been quite amusing to have a squad of people toss out Hawaiian shirts at the opening service to those who didn’t get the memo so that no one feels awkward and left out and embarrassed to be overdressed. The same situation would apply anytime a particular clothing accessory or item has strong social and identity components to it. It would likely not be a big deal for a sports team to make sure its fans had the right gear to cheer on the team, or that a company could ensure that people were dressed appropriately for a company picnic with some kind of swag for everyone that would help encourage a shared identity. It is only a wonder that such squads are not more common.
While my first instinct was to laugh and my second instinct upon reading the story about the tefillin squads was to think of how other groups of people could do likewise, probably the most enduring instinct I had upon reading the story was to muse about the problem of identity. The tefillin squad springs into action with the question “Are you Jewish?” but for someone like myself that question is not very straightforward. To be sure, I have at least a couple of ancestral lines of Jewish ancestry, both of them going back to colonial America, but in both cases the family assimilated during the course of the late 18th and 19th century. In addition to that, I was circumcised on the eighth day in Squirrel Hill (a heavily Jewish suburb of Pittsburgh) by a family that is Shabbat observant but takes a dim view of the oral law. To be sure, questions as to whether or not I would qualify as Jewish would be deeply vexing for someone who was hesitating whether or not to give someone like myself tefillin or to simply move on and seek less complicated cases.
And that is how I feel in general when it comes to questions of identity. I don’t consider myself a very straightforward person in that regard. The question as to whether or not I would be considered a Christian would also vary widely depending on the person answering the question. If it was as simple a matter as expressing a belief in the inerrancy of scripture, or the identity of Jesus of Nazareth as my personal savior, then the answer would be yes. But for many people, especially those of a more sophisticated bent, there would be further questions about beliefs about the nature of the God, at which point my non-Trinitarian beliefs would draw considerable scrutiny if not hostility, as would my belief in the continued requirements of Sabbath and holy day observance per Leviticus 23 and other places. Again, what should be a simple question is a more complicated one because of the complexity of my own background and beliefs and practices. And so it would go in many cases of identity. Having been born in Western Pennsylvania and raised in rural Central Florida and spending a lot of years in Tampa and its suburbs (especially Town & Country), having gone to school in Southern California, a seminary of sorts in Ohio, and currently residing in the suburbs of Portland, I do not present easy questions to the question “where are you from?” Again, where people expect simplicity when it comes to identity questions, my life provides complexity. And honestly, I like it that way. Instead of a short answer, questions of identity lead to complex stories, leaving the person who asks wishing that there was an easy answer to such questions as was the case for most people.