A Name to Hide. On philo-Semitic Desires, Subjugation and Recognition

Strategies of Shaming
It is slightly weird, but a certain institution, that describes itself as educating “Rabbis for Europe,” consistently refers to me as Christine Steuer-Tzuberi, all the time, again and again, determined and systematically. In the beginning, this provoked in me an urge to shout: My name has never been Christine! My given name is Christiane! There is an “a” between the “i” and the “n”!!!! Don’t drop the “a”!!!! Mind the details!!!! Don’t you think that rabbis should mind details? Of course, I never gave in to that urge – an “a” gone astray in the heat of anger is not that big a deal.

Besides the lost “a,” however, what grabs my attention is another question: What exactly is this naming supposed to do? It is clear, of course, that “unveiling” Hannah as Christine and thereby marking me as a convert is supposed to hurt. This is like pointing at someone with one’s finger and detecting the other’s “deformation,” with the “deformation” being conversion: a thing Christine is assumed to want to hide. Yet why, exactly, should I have such interest? What notion of Jewishness underlies the idea that the mere marking of someone as a convert hurts? This question is so the more interesting given that the marking here is made by a liberal Jewish institution, that is, by an institution that claims self-realization and individual agency to be its ultimate values. Why does an institution that celebrates individual agency, use the quintessence of individual agency – a freely chosen embrace of Judaism – as a tool for shaming? This is puzzling and highly counter-intuitive!

In the absence of a Jewish mother, a converted Jew’s recognition as a Jew necessarily relies on sources other than yichus/genealogy. In orthodox conversions, recognition is tied to subjugation: a desire or willingness to be subordinated, subjected to power, to be defined and “made” by it. A wish to be carved by the other, penetrable in a way, and then, to act from that point onwards.[1]

Maybe this kind of desire is comparable to the desire of turning from someone who is in love to someone who is a lover: When one is in love, love may not be answered and one may remain alone, without one’s love ever being recognized or physically enacted. One may never encounter the beloved’s body for real, beyond imagination. The one, who is in love, therefore has also no obligation or responsibility for the beloved; and the beloved also has no such thing for the one who is in love: both remain separated, at a distance. When becoming a lover things change: Desire is now no longer self-referential, and the other’s needs, the other’s body, the other’s being enters with full force into the lover’s life: In contrast to the one in love, the lover will have to change: she will, from now on, be constituted by the other’s touch and is, from now on, accountable for the other far beyond individual desire.

Transferred to conversions, the moment of recognition is when the beloved returns the love: this is the moment that marks the beginning of one’s accountability as a Jew to the entire Jewish collective, and the moment that individual desire transcends the level of the individual: in a way, it is no longer individual at all, because from now on, it formally is not subject to desire’s up- and downs anymore: the individual has now become part of a much larger, communal web that obligates him or her regardless of individual wants.[2] In the moment of recognition then, an Orthodox convert’s desire becomes objectified, yet it is precisely this objectification, that marks the difference between a philo-Semite and a converted Jew and provides the latter with tremendous freedom: While this converted Jew absolutely originates in philo-Semtic desire, he is no longer constituted by it, but instead, by the legal recognition of subjugation. This is a very stable, firm ground, upon which he or she can act without perceiving of origins and personal history – a name – as a shame, a de-legitimation, or a “diminution” of Jewishness.

A name to hide
The question then is, if in Jewish formations that are not based on subjugation and recognition, this stable ground is lacking? It seems obvious, that when individual autonomy is an ultimate, incontestable value, a desire for Jewishness cannot be framed as a desire for subjugation – as subjugation is the antithesis of individual autonomy. Yet when everything depends on the agency of an autonomous, free self, then the absence of a Jewish mother may, indeed, cause a sense of instability: individual desire for Jewishness then ultimately remains Jewishness’ principal source. It lives out of itself, and does not require an exterior “gaze” that echoes and recognizes it. Formal and informal mechanisms of recognition of course exist here too, yet they do not depend on an individual’s subjugation (and are also not described as such by non-Orthodox converts themselves), but on association and identification.

The liberal convert’s freedom thus may turn out to be ambivalent: It ties him to his own desire as his primary constitutive element, and forces him to come to terms with desire’s notoriously capricious nature. In order to gain stability, he may be inclined to hide his dependency on desire and come to think of its exposure as a shame – as some doubtlessly do: Or why, exactly, should anyone assume my name to constitute a smashing argument?


[1] This is Foucault, of course: “If we understand power as forming the subject as well, as providing the very condition of its existence and the trajectory of its desire, then power is not simply what we oppose but also, in a strong sense, what we depend on for our existence and what we harbor and preserve in the beings that we are. (…) “Subjection” signifies the process of becoming subordinated by power as well as the process of becoming a subject” (J. Butler, The Psychic Life of Power. Theories in Subjection, Stanford University Press 1997, p. 2).
[2] Obviously, the moment of recognition then also entails a certain degree of objectification, or at least, a notion of oneself as being subjugated to the law: the idiom through which subjugation and recognition are articulated in Orthodox Judaism.

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2 Responses to A Name to Hide. On philo-Semitic Desires, Subjugation and Recognition

  1. pëll says:

    Stay strong, Hannah.

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