Many people think of being Jewish as belonging to a particular religion. What many people don’t realize is that it is more than that: being Jewish means being part of a specific culture and holding an identity as a Jew. Many people also know of the different denominations of Judaism; for example, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. From a simplistic point of view, one might say that these categories reflect different “strengths” of Jewishness. A more nuanced view would see that these are “different ways of being Jewish”. That is, Orthodox Jews hold to a traditional vision, in which one must dress, act, and think in ways prescribed in the Bible. In comparison, Reform Jews retain very few of the traditional Jewish ways, especially in the area of religious practice. To the outward eye, Reform Jews might not appear “Jewish” at all.
Yet, the members of all of these different denominations maintain some basic tenets of Judaism, such as: a belief in one God who is not visible to humanity, a respect for the Torah as a document of Jewish history and way of life, a belief in the importance of the state of Israel as a cultural and historical homeland and symbol of Jewish identity, and a belief in the commonality of Jews worldwide, despite the diaspora of Jews since the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. While Orthodox Jews might not respect Reform Jews for eating bacon, not following Kosher, and not praying every day, Orthodox Jews will still recognize a Reform Jew as being at the most basic level, “Jewish,” due to the fact that Reform Jews DO still maintain the most basic core tenets of Judaism. And while most Reform Jews choose not to live such a structured life as the Orthodox do, Reform Jews recognize that the Orthodox serve a purpose: to illustrate what being Jewish is “supposed to be”. In addition, Reform Jews know that Orthodox Jews serve as a bulwark against the total assimilation of the Jewish people by serving as a reminder of the Jewish “way”, when one gets tempted to become totally subsumed within the majority society.
There are some Jews who do not practice the religious aspects of being Jewish, but hold on to the cultural aspects – foods, language, and even some holidays like Hanukkah as a cultural (rather than religious) tradition — as well as a Jewish identity. Even these “culturally Jewish” people are recognized as being nominally Jewish by their more religious counterparts. But, there are some people who are Jewish by heritage yet for whatever reasons, choose to repudiate their Jewish identity and heritage. These people will not endorse or demonstrate the basic tenets of being Jewish outlined above. Although these people have the technical right to claim their Jewish heritage, and all the Jewish denominations would express a wish for these people to “come home” to their Jewish heritage and people, none of these denominations, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or even Reform, are going to say that that person is in any way “culturally Jewish”, despite their recognition of that person’s biological heritage.
Although Deaf people are consistently being labeled by Hearing people as having a medical condition (which in their eyes requires medical and cultural/linguistic intervention), since at least the 1700s, there has been a cultural Deaf community consisting of people who are Deaf, sign, and share common values and norms centering around a visually-oriented way of life and a recognition of Deaf people as not only culturally, but biologically different from the Hearing people surrounding them. Unlike most cultures of the world, the characteristic of being Deaf is not typically passed on from parent to child; only about 10% of Deaf people have Deaf parents. However, the culture is perpetuated through the use of a form of what is sociologically termed “fictive kinship”, in which others of the same ethnicity are “adopted into the tribe” through formal or informal processes. That is, Deaf people, in recognizing others as like themselves – Deaf – become willing to introduce the newcomer, regardless of upbringing, into the ways of culturally Deaf people, including using ASL and how to live as a culturally Deaf person. Yet, like many cultures, the process of “adoption” is not instantaneous: one has to learn how to “live Deaf”. Moreover, one has to demonstrate that one has not only learned how to “live Deaf”, but is “living Deaf”, which includes acceptance of the values, norms and behaviors of the Deaf culture. For those who do learn and demonstrate this acceptance, we can call these people “culturally Deaf”. As we all know, there are some cases where some individuals, for one reason or another, choose not to learn, or stop learning, and not only do they not demonstrate acceptance of the cultural values, norms and behaviors of Deaf people, they may actively repudiate Deaf cultural ways, if not association with Deaf people themselves. Like those of Jewish heritage, these Deaf people may be biologically Deaf, but in no way can they be regarded as members of Deaf culture (although they may be part of the larger Deaf community).
This comparison can be taken further. As indicated above, one has to demonstrate acceptance of the values of being Jewish (or Deaf). This necessitates a “screening process” of sorts in which members of the cultural community evaluate others (and even themselves) according to the criteria by which the culture defines itself. For example, let’s say an American Jew wants to go to Israel and join a Kibbutz. Being of Jewish heritage, that American is granted fairly automatic (given time for paperwork to clear, of course) citizenship and entry into the state of Israel. Now, our intrepid American Jew can go from his or her port of entry to the Kibbutz. Upon reaching the Kibbutz, this person might or might not be welcomed by individual Kibbutzniks, and the residents of the Kibbutz might or might not be friendly to our hypothetical hero. The residents will help our hypothetical adventurer learn Hebrew, and they will instruct in the ways of the Kibbutz, and most certainly, our traveler will be put to work right away. But one thing that will not happen: even though our hypothetical person is Jewish, and eager to become part of the Kibbutz, the residents will not accept this person as an “Israeli”. In all likelihood, they will be having private side bets on how long it will take before the newcomer quits and decides to return to his/her soft American life. It would take some time, probably a couple of years of working and living alongside the Israelis plus some sort of demonstration that the newcomer now thinks, understands, and accepts the Israeli way of life before they truly accepted the newcomer as “one of them”. Thus, one can see that being Israeli and being Jewish are two different things.
The same can be said of Deaf culture. Becoming Deaf at any point in our lives (whether from birth, in early childhood, or in adulthood) grants us automatic entry and citizenship into the “State of Deafhood”. It does not matter to what degree one is Deaf (from an audiological perspective), whether mildly or profoundly. The important criterion is that one simply is not “Hearing”. Thus, Deafhood is like the state of Israel – being Deaf means you’re granted entry and citizenship within. Within the “State of Deafhood” is the “Deaf Kibbutz” – Deaf culture. Newcomers to Deaf culture may meet with welcoming embraces by some or indifference by others. Some people might attempt to take a Deaf newcomer under their wing and teach them the ways of Deaf people. But regardless of whether the newcomer gained a welcoming sponsor, the cultural Deaf community will not accept the newcomer as culturally Deaf, until some time after the newcomer demonstrates that not only has s/he learned how to “live Deaf”, but that s/he accepts and embraces living as a culturally Deaf person. Like the Israelis, this does not happen overnight; it takes a significant of time, perhaps years before full acceptance is achieved.
Some might bemoan this and say this is not fair to those who did not have the opportunity at a younger age to learn the culturally Deaf ways. And perhaps it is not. Yet it is a necessary component for Deaf culture, and indeed, many minority cultures to have this “screening process”. It is necessary for one simple reason: cultural survival. If any culture were to randomly accept anyone as part of that culture, it would inevitably happen that the culture would become “overrun” with a multitude of newcomers who do not understand or think in the ways of the culture, and bring in outside influences that do not fit in with the culture’s values. This ultimately would lead to the assimilation of the minority culture to the point where the minority culture no longer exists. In the case of Deaf culture, what we would end up with is a whole bunch of “Hearing people that don’t hear”, without any real Deaf culture remaining to speak of.
This is not to say that this means ex-oral or mainstreamed or Deaf with cochlear implants cannot become part of Deaf culture. Not at all. There are many such Deaf people who have learned the cultural ways and live “Deaf”, despite coming from such backgrounds. But the important thing is that they had to learn the culture and show they accept it before being accepted by culturally Deaf people. It may not always be easy, but the end result can be quite satisfying!