Charles Taylor and Jewish Identity in the Twenty-First Century

, December 31, 2013


The Jewish world is losing its ability to discuss its cultural differences. Our intra-Jewish dialogue is becoming less coherent. Indeed, the very ideas underlying our Jewish identities, ideas shaped by our language of values, are diverging. The language we use to describe our values is becoming more specific to the respective Jewish communities to which we belong, in Israel and in the Diaspora. We could be heading for a crisis.

A serious consideration of the work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor may help improve the situation. Born in 1931, Taylor taught at Oxford and at McGill University. Of particular relevance to readers concerned with Jewish communal relations is his work on human cognition and the importance of values in shaping identity. Given the ethics-based content of his work, Taylor’s writings have attracted surprisingly little attention in the Jewish world. Accordingly, this essay offers a view on what Taylor can add to Jewish continuity and success in the twenty-first century.

Taylor offers important insights as to how we understand selfhood, identity and language. He maintains that the shaping of identity is closely related to the shaping of ideas. Different valuations of a given term can lead to pronounced differences in the shaping of personal identity, and on a larger scale to incompatibilities in the shaping of group identity. Taylor’s work also shows that people with different ideas can overcome the differences reflected in value-laden language, suggesting that our current challenge contains the seeds of its resolution. Following Taylor, Jewish communities can pay close attention to key terms used in very different ways by Jews who live in contemporary Diaspora communities and in Israel. Through a dialogue that acknowledges these differences, coupled with awareness that similar terms can be used to express very different concepts, we can reshape the diverging development of language and recreate a mutually intelligible Jewish civilization based on a shared vocabulary of meaning. This would, of course, require an awareness of our typically imprecise use of language. Sometimes, the variation in terminology is unmistakable—the term rabbah used as a title by a growing corps of female rabbis (mostly in the United States) is a good example—and at other times language appears to indicate unity when close examination of a shared term reveals that none exists. Taylor’s insights point us toward a process by which dialogue can yield a more cohesive global Judaism based on a genuinely shared vocabulary of meaning. This is not a call for ideational unity. We do not need to resolve our internal conflicts in order to engage in meaningful dialogue. We do need to agree on what we are talking about. Unless we come to an agreement on the definition of basic terms, our dialogues will continue to be exercises in cultural misunderstanding, and we will miss the opportunity to nurture a truly global Judaism.


A moment of contextualization is in order. The Shoah shattered the structure of the Jewish world. Before 1939, the demographic and cultural centers of the Jewish world were located in Central and Eastern Europe. After 1945, only the United States and Israel possessed the infrastructure needed to build the institutions that had been lost. The astonishing renaissance of Jewish life in these new centers in which eighty percent of world Jewry now resides can obscure the fact that both communities are radical departures from a European-centered Jewish culture, and further, are radically different from each other.

The United States is currently home to two-thirds of Diaspora Jews. While it is anticipated that Diaspora populations will decline in the twenty-first century, the proportion of Diaspora Jews living in America will probably rise. With its pronounced individualism, the United States is the most anomalous of the countries that host and shape a contemporary Jewish culture. 1 Israel is home to two-thirds of Jews who live outside the U.S. and its demographic share is also expected to increase. Israeli culture, with its organic Hebrew base, geographic roots and Jewish calendar-based sense of time, differs palpably from Diaspora culture. We face an unprecedented situation of growing global demographic concentration in two national Jewish cultures that produce increasingly divergent expressions of Jewish identity.


Taylor’s insights provide tools for analyzing the impact of this divergence, pointing us toward a dialogue based on a deep understanding of differences in the language we use to describe our values. He refers to the language of values as “import vocabulary,” alerting us to the notion that language shapes perceptions, valuations, ascriptions of significance and, ultimately, identity.2 Taylor owes a considerable debt to the German philosopher Herder, through the philosopher H. G. Gadamer. Walter Russell Mead, surely one of the most capable teachers of complicated ideas, explains Herder’s thought on the importance of language in the construction of identity as follows: “Herder was a student of both ancient and modern languages; he laid great stress on the way that language shapes thought and perception. Those who speak different languages don’t just use different words; they see different things. Those distinct perceptions and the cultures that form around them are not, as cosmopolitans tend to think, secondary phenomena of only minor importance. They are the stuff and substance of human nature; diversity in an essential part of what it means to be human.” Central to Taylor’s innovation is the link he makes between our conscious experience of something and our emotional response to it. He used the term import to denote an emotional response to a given situation.

Taylor could have been describing the Jewish communities of Israel the United States when he wrote: “… the emotional lives of human beings from different cultures, who have been brought up with very different import vocabularies, differ very greatly.”3 Indeed, different import vocabularies for matters such as individualism, choice versus fate as drivers of identity, religion and its role in a democratic state, the impact of sacrifice, and memorialization and mourning shape divergent experiences in Israel and the United States. Further, differences in import vocabulary are not always immediately apparent. It is the cunning of language that similar words can be used to obscure those differences rather than reveal them. For example, American Reform Jews battle mightily in the United States for their vision of “separation of church and state.” In Israel, their Reform brothers and sisters wield the weapon of “separation of religion and state” in order to procure government funding for their rabbis’ salaries. These two terms are often discussed as though they mean the same thing, when in fact they reflect irreconcilable points of view on the proper relationship among religion, religious bureaucracy and the state. The sister movements, similar in so many ways, have never seriously clarified and indeed have barely addressed their conflicting principles on this cardinal aspect of modern Jewish life.


In building bridges for interaction between people with different import vocabularies, Taylor draws on the ideas of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Gadamer, a twentieth-century German philosopher, described a fusion of horizons4 in which identity is a function of a process of ongoing formation of understanding coupled with self-awareness of that understanding. For Gadamer, understanding takes place when we bring our own experiences, knowledge, and history (our existing “horizon”) into an inevitable contact with the horizon of the “Other.” The two horizons cannot but influence each other. Along with our “Other,” we create a new context for meaning, thus “fusing” our horizons. The new, shared context of meaning can open new understandings for us of what seems strange in the preexisting horizon of the other. In order for the fusion of horizons to “get the job done” it must be based on mutual understanding of what each interlocutor brings to the encounter.

Following Gadamer, we can say that Jewish life developed over millennia through the constant merging of horizons. This variant of the classic “chain of transmission” notion in rabbinic Judaism5 would yield that every encounter between generations along the chain involved some degree of merging of horizons which would indicate change within a conservative system. Our era, with its unique combination of radical demographic and political change in the Jewish world, may stand out due to the sheer scale of the obstacles to the dialogic encounter necessary for the merger of horizons between American and Israeli Jewry.


Gadamer led Taylor to the role language plays in expressing, accessing, and shaping our identities. 6 It is through language that we communicate, both to ourselves as self-interpreters and to our interlocutors with whom we “fuse horizons.” For Taylor, the import of an event is not comprehensible without articulation. Otherwise, we are unable to open ourselves to it.7 This emphasis on language leads to Taylor’s advocacy of avoidance of what is trivial. He tells us that we are not free to give just any articulation of a state of affairs:

…an articulation purports to characterize a feeling; it is meant to be faithful to what it is that moves us. There is a getting it right and getting it wrong in this domain. Articulations are like interpretations in that they are attempts to make clearer the imports things have for us.8

For Taylor, a serious process of assessment, which he terms strong evaluation, is a crucial part of genuine articulation.9

Strong evaluation entails the drawing of a kind of moral map, in which we chart our evaluation of our motivations. It generates our emotional response, even as it is in turn shaped by it. Taylor’s concept follows Gadamer in that he ascribes to “others” an important role in the process. Since our understanding of what is good is derived from language, we require a dialogic relationship with those others which in turn requires us to reach outside of ourselves to “fuse horizons” with them. Each interlocutor emerges changed from the fusion of horizons.

Taylor takes the view that a dialogic relationship is a source for learning what is good.10 Within that new horizon, human freedom functions and reveals itself in our ability and responsibility to make choices that reflect our understanding of the good which can be derived from our encounter not only with our current interlocutor but also with our received values as expressed in Jewish national literature.11

To be sure, this is hard work. Taylor’s insistence on strong evaluation offers a persuasive explanation why our “feeling a certain way”, our “taking” things as Jewish, will not work without trivializing Jewish, or indeed any, identity:

You’re feeling a certain way can never be sufficient ground for respecting your position, because your feeling can’t determine what is significant. Soft relativism self-destructs. Things take on importance against a background of intelligibility. Let us call this a horizon. It follows that one of the things we can’t do, if we are to define ourselves significantly, is suppress or deny the horizons against which things take on significance for us. This is the kind of self-defeating move frequently being carried out in our subjectivist civilization. In stressing the legitimacy of choice between certain options, we very often find ourselves depriving the options of their significance.12

Taylor’s paradigm fits in with much Jewish thought, not the least because it places moral assessment at the core of human identity.13 This stance is reminiscent of Saadia Gaon who declared in his Emunot Vedeot [The Book of Beliefs and Opinions] that, “Our nation of the Children of Israel is a nation only by virtue of its laws.”14

Taylor’s ideas fly in the face of contemporary attempts to build identity around relativistic criteria. If we are Jewish because we “are taken” as “characteristically Jewish,”15 as one thinker has expressed it, we have reduced the significance of the designation “Jewish.” A completely subjective standard is not meaningless, but the term “Jewish” loses much of its content. In Taylor’s terms, it has become “trivial.” That triviality undermines the ascribing of significance. And the precise ascribing of significance is just what we Jews are seeking when we engage in dialogue with one another.


Many possibilities will open up if we conduct our intra-Jewish dialogue along the lines suggested by Taylor. We can learn from Taylor that true dialogue, one which entails “getting the job done,” only takes place in the context of accurately gauging what each party is bringing to the encounter. This “fusion of horizons” precludes the trivial and could reshape our understanding of our identities in the great demographic centers of contemporary Jewish life. It would allow for the development of a twenty-first century world Jewish civilization that brings together the strong points of the Israeli Jewish vision—Hebrew language, willingness to sacrifice, linguistic and cultural creativity—with the strengths of the American Jewish vision—choice and its joyful connectedness, religious innovation, personal commitment, intellectual ferment and depth. Most importantly, adopting Taylor’s notions of identity, selfhood and import can stem the otherwise unavoidable drift of one center of Jewish life away from the other.


*     This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Yehudah Paz of blessed memory, 1930–2013. Born in Brooklyn, N. Y., and raised in the United States, Yehudah came to Israel in 1950, helped found Kibbutz Kissufim in the Negev, farmed the land, educated the young, founded and directed the Afro-Asian Institute of the Trade Union Federation (Histadrut), as well as the Society for International Development, which he co-chaired. He embodied all that is best in American and Israeli Jewry.
1.   I avoid the term “American exceptionalism” with its heavy ideological baggage. However, there can be little disagreement about the fact that alone among nations American culture was foundationally shaped by dissenting Protestant thinking with the result that it encourages a degree of individualism unmatched in Israel or in other communities where Jews live. See: Woodard, C. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Viking, 2011).
2.   Walter Russell Mead, God & Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World (London: Atlantic Books, 2007), 333.
3.   Ibid.
4.   Malpas, Jeff. “Hans-Georg Gadamer.” In Zalta, Edward N.(ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
5.   פרקי אבות א:א “משה קיבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע ויהושע לזקנים וזקנים לנביאים ונביאים לאנשי הכנסת הגדולה. הם אמרו שלושה דברים. הוו מתונים בדין, והעמידו תלמידים הרבה ועשו סייג לתורה.
6.   Taylor often uses the word ‘incorporate,’ alluding to his view that our knowledge is inherently embodied in our physical selves. As Abbey puts it: “Taylor insists that knowledge is, in the first instance, the outcome of embodied existence and experience.” Ruth Abbey, (ed.). “Introduction,” Charles Taylor. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3. See also :Charles Taylor, Human Agency and Language, 62.
7.   Charles Taylor, ibid., 64. This works in two ways: the articulations we come to accept are what constructs the feelings we experience. At the same time, once we articulate, we are fated forever to question whether we have properly characterized what it is that we sense about the event: “…this question, once opened can never be closed.” Taylor suggests that it is this aspect, the ongoing nature of our doubt and our necessary access to new inputs “which justifies our talking of self-interpretation.”
8.   ibid. 65.
9.   Ibid. 66.
10. Professor Kenneth Striker notes that Taylor’s concept creates an important potential problem: a tension with Kantian notions of the equality of the value of persons. In the Kantian system, humans are equal in value because there is something beyond our cultural attributes, something fundamental to what it means to be human and that creates an equality of value between all of us. However, as Striker explains: “If I am dialogically and socially formed, respecting me, but not my culture, may not be possible. The social construction of identity thus seems to undermine the Kantian basis for respecting persons and their cultures.” Kenneth Striker, “Taylor, Equality and the Metaphysics of Persons,” Philosophy of Education Yearbook, 1996,
11. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 37. Taylor’s ideas fly in the face of contemporary attempts to build identity around relativistic criteria. If we are Jewish because we “are taken” as “characteristically Jewish,” as Michael Krausz has expressed it, we have reduced the significance of “Jewish.” A completely subjective standard is not meaningless, but the term “Jewish” has lost much of its content. In Taylor’s terms, it has become “trivial.” That triviality undermines the concept of ascribing significance. Things cannot be left so “in the air” with regard to their significance as they must be when we take a strongly subjectivist or strongly constructionist approach. It may be “taken as characteristically Jewish” to have a sense of humor (at least in North America). See note 15. (On a sense of humor as a defining characteristic of being Jewish see
12. The Ethics of Authenticity, 37. That triviality undermines the concept of ascribing significance. Things cannot be left so “in the air” with regard to their significance as they must be when we take a strongly subjectivist or strongly constructionist approach.
13. “Because this self-resolution is something we do, when we do it, we can be called responsible for ourselves; and because it is within limits always up to us to do it, even when we don’t…we can be called responsible in another sense for ourselves whether we undertake this radical evaluation or not.” Charles Taylor, “What is Human Agency?” in The Self: Psychological and Philosophical Issues, ed. Theodore Mischel, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
14. Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, translated from the Arabic and the Hebrew by Samuel Rosenblat (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), Treatise Three: Command and Prohibition, Chap. 8, p. 158. אמונות ודעות סוף מאמר ג: “אין אומתנו אומה אלא בתורותיה“. The longstanding and accepted translation of “תורותיה“ “is “its (or her) laws” where the plural is taken to refer to the written and the oral law. However, the term also bears the translation “teachings” which more eloquently points in the direction of Taylor’s insights. While this resonance may ease the acceptance of Taylor’s thinking in the Jewish community, so far as I have been able to ascertain, there is no indication that Taylor made use of Jewish sources.
15. See for example: Michael Krausz, “On Being Jewish,” in Jewish Identity, eds. David Theo Goldberg and Michael Krausz, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 264.
Dr. Edward Rettig for many years represented a major American Jewish organization in Israel. He currently serves on the board of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

About Dr. Edward Rettig

DR. EDWARD RETTIG for many years represented a major American Jewish organization in Israel. He currently serves on the board of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.