Meaning, Authenticity, and Recognition

The meaning of meaning emerges out of the interaction of three crucially important concepts that I would like to outline here. They are meaning, authenticity, and recognition.

My interest in the issue of meaning goes back to the beginning of my career when I was trying to reconcile two very different approaches to the ways we interpret systems of meaning in people’s lives.  First, there was psychoanalysis, which taught me that meaning is often disguised, hidden, or not what we think it is; there is a cognitive, rational dimension to it, but there is also an emotional or affective one. Psychoanalysis also showed me that meanings in my adult life—including my values, philosophical ideas, and cultural identity—are built upon layers of childhood experiences and family dynamics that I only partially understand. 

The second approach to the question of meaning was existentialism, which taught me that meaning is something we create as a way of coping with the chaos of human existence; that meaning is not a pre-determined ingredient of our experiences and lives, but rather something that we superimpose on it.

I came to several important conclusions.

The overarching sense of meaning in people’s lives is not necessarily a thing that can be clearly stipulated or articulated. Rather, it is often an unarticulated by-product of a process of fitting the fragmentary details of our experiences into a kind of personal myth. I use the term “personal myth” in the sense that every one of us has constructs about ourselves through which we express our understanding of how we fit into the world, how we got here and where we are going, the values and ideas that guide us, and how our own story fits into larger family, cultural, and religious narratives. It is a myth, not because it is false or illusory, but rather because it embodies the organizing ideas through which we understand reality at a deeper level.

The meanings embodied in our autobiographical narratives are provisional, under construction and subject to change. The older we get, the more complicated some parts of the story become; some aspects lose their meaning and are deleted, while in other cases, the layers of meaning, like rings of a tree, thicken and become stronger. It’s easy to refer to organic metaphors when describing meaning. It grows, ripens, develops deeper roots, and sends new branches, though it also can wither, decay, and die.

I also believe that the question of meaning must be considered in connection to the issue of authenticity, since the experience or creation of meaning is an indispensable ingredient in feeling that my life is authentic, not merely following a script or playing a role that was imposed by other people or groups. I will doubtless discover meaning in my life in connection with other people, but that meaning is authentic only when it feels like it truly belongs to me and is connected to who I really am. 

I’d like to outline two different models for meaning that I think are directly relevant to Jewish meaning or the meaning of Jewishness.

In the first model, which I will call Meaning1, meaning represents the inherent truth, essence, or reality of particular religious and cultural experiences, practices, and beliefs. A member of the group automatically gains access to this meaning by aligning him/herself with traditions attributed to sacred times, sacred places, or sacred models from real or imagined ancestors. This is not a kind of meaning that we just make up or invent for ourselves. Rather, we only have to acknowledge it, affirm it, and enact it in our lives. When the Rabbis described the Torah as not merely a humanly produced Hebrew text but a divine template, or blueprint, for understanding the entire meaning of the universe, they were making two claims about meaning. First, there is a preexisting meaning that is part of the structure of the reality of the universe. Second, this meaning can be discovered or experienced through a prescribed model for living and for studying our sacred texts. There is no possibility for meaninglessness, since if any aspect of a life of Torah ever seems void of meaning, it is only a sign that a person has simply not been looking hard enough. Paraphrasing a line from the Talmud, if a part of Torah ever seems empty of meaning, then the problem is not in Torah, but in you. The meaning is there to be found, even if it has to be pieced together like fragments unearthed at an archeological site.

In this model, meaning is closely connected to a sense of primal authenticity. To be a real human being and a real member of the group is to see one’s life as the fulfillment of a group model whose meaning is grounded in some transcendent dimension of reality. It is what today would be called an “essentialist” model of meaning and authenticity. To live an authentic life is to find meaning in a preexisting transcendent model that defines the essence of what it means to be a Jew.

The second kind of meaning, which I call Meaning2, reflects the modern idea that meaning is not inherent in reality but something that we make, imagine, and construct. The question is not “What does this mean?” but rather, “What does this mean to me?” At times, we may feel that these two forms of meanings may overlap, but they are by no means identical. The premise of Meaning2, or existential meaning, is that meaning is not something that we find buried or hidden, revealed on mountaintops or in sacred scriptures, nor is it permanent or unchanging.

The two kinds of meaning just described are not really compatible with each other. From the perspective of Meaning1, Meaning2 can seem self-centered, indulgent, and narcissistic, while from the perspective of Meaning2, Meaning1 may seem inflexible, antiquated, and authoritarian. One of the critical challenges for Jewish educators is to balance this tension between Meaning1 and Meaning2. For some it will involve trying to uphold and embody Meaningas a role model for students, while for others it will focus more on empowering students to discover their own deeply felt Meaning2, regardless of whether or not it conforms in some way to Meaning1. Still others may feel that the goal is to bring Meaning1 and Meaning2 into some kind of dialogue.

Some of the earliest empirical research I did involved exploring how children understood certain religious stories and ideas. I wanted to find out which religious characters they most identified with and why. I found that the meaning of stories, and many other things, is refracted through multiple lenses.

One of the most important lenses was gender. I wasn’t that surprised to find that gender has a big impact on experiences of meaning. Girls and boys identified with characters differently and understood the meaning of various traditions and stories through different lenses.

The fact that there are multiple lenses through which we perceive meaning suggests the need for an intersectional approach to meaning, to borrow a concept from feminist sociology and critical social theory. Jewish meaning is embedded in other kinds of meaning and does not exist separately from them.

The unique intersections of meaning that emerge from our specific cultural, historical, political, economic, racial, and gender situation brings me to the third important category. This is the idea that meaning emerges in connection with particular forms of recognition related to these different aspects of our identities. 

In the early days of the women’s spirituality movement, Jewish feminist Judith Plaskow described the powerful experience that occurred when a group of women were sharing their personal stories at a retreat on women and theology. She described what happened there as a transformative experience of the importance of recognition. The participants found that in listening to other women’s stories and ideas, they recognized themselves in what they heard from each other and arrived at a new awareness of themselves and new levels of meaning. We all have had those “yeah, yeah” experiences when something we hear or read resonates deeply within us as something personally meaningful and authentic, and we nod our heads and think “yeah, yeah.” So recognition is also related to the different groups or communities where people find meaning in the same ways we do. For meaning to be authentic, we need to recognize ourselves in it.

And finally, there is another important dimension of recognition, when we also experience the recognition and validation from others of the authenticity of our own experiences and life story. Jewish educators need to be especially sensitive to all of the intersectional dimensions of their students’ identities that need this kind of recognition as they engage in the process of constructing Jewish meaning.

In the recent Pew study on the religious involvement of Americans, there were several examples of Jewish meaning intersecting with other aspects of people’s lives. These are examples of some of the things that need to be considered by Jewish educators as they help different people negotiate issues of Jewish meaning.

1. One in six Jews were raised in a different religion. A crucial part of the meaning of being Jewish is the idea of Jewish peoplehood, something that gives us a sense of belonging, of origins, and of a connection to ancestors. For people who began in a different religion, with different origins and other ancestors, the meaning of their original religious roots will need to be transformed and reconceived in light of a new commitment of being Jewish.

2. One out of ten American Jews interviewed identify as non-white or mixed race. The experience of being racially different from the majority of American Jews creates intersecting meanings that will have to be recognized, confronted, and analyzed. The unmarked whiteness of most American Jews makes racial diversity a complex issue that will require exploring what belonging and authenticity for those who may “look Jewish” in new ways.

3. An estimated seven to ten percent of the American Jewish population identify as LGBT. Over 40 percent of LGBT people, according to Pew, are religiously unaffiliated, suggesting that many in this community find it hard to recognize themselves in the existing religious narratives or feel recognized by the mainstream communities. This issue goes beyond the mere acceptance of LGBT people in Jewish communities. It will require a more serious wrestling with an intersectional appreciation of queer Jewish meaning. It will include a critique of the heteronormativity of Jewish history, ritual, and theology comparable to the feminist critique of Judaism a generation ago. 

4. One out of four people who were raised as Jews no longer identify as such. Jewish educators need to think about the implications of defection and loss of meaning as inevitable aspects of what philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the fragility of meaning.” We live in a time when all our constructions of meaning are fragile. A moment may come when our path or values no longer feel justifiable and we can no longer recognize ourselves in or through them. What is the process by which ideas, practices, or even a simple sense of belonging lose their meaning and begin to feel inessential or inauthentic? Once a sense of authentic Jewish meaning has faded, people may no longer recognize the people who still are committed to it as “their people.” 

The Pew study on religion in America found that one of the fastest growing categories is people who list their religious affiliation as “none.” Those with no religious affiliation now account for about a third of all adults under the age of 30. These are people who often describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious, who don’t find religious services meaningful to them but may feel a deep connection to nature and the earth, who may be agnostics and atheists. They, too, are concerned about the meaning of meaning, even if their sense of meaning and authenticity is defined outside of the mainstream institutional options and traditional models of meaning.

Doubting, questioning, and abandoning traditional Jewish structures of meaning will naturally seem like a bad thing for those who still support those approaches and practices, though some might argue that the quest for meaning is itself an intrinsic Jewish value, regardless of the outcome of that quest in terms of theology or observance. Jewish educators can greatly benefit from exploring not only why Jewish ideas, practices, places, and texts that once had meaning for some people no longer do, but also what new forms of Jewish meaning may yet be possibilities for a new generation. Doing so has always been the key to the vitality of Jewish tradition and the secret of Jewish survival.  

Dr. Stuart Charmé is a professor of Religion at Rutgers University. He received his BA in Religion from Columbia University and his MA and PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School. Dr. Charmé is a specialist in the work of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, the focus of two books (Meaning and Myth in the Study of Lives: A Sartrean Approach and Vulgarity and Authenticity: Dimensions of Otherness in the World of Sartre) and many articles. His most recent research deals with the philosophical, anthropological, and historical significance of the concept of authenticity in contemporary Jewish life.