Wrestling with Jewish Peoplehood

In April, 2016, the Mordecai Kaplan Center and co-sponsors organized a Shabbaton and a a major conference in Philadelphia on Jewish peoplehood.  Here are some reflections and highlights.

It would be difficult to summarize dozens of people – academics, rabbis, Jewish activists, artists, musicians, and others from North America and Israel — over several days.  Fortunately the Kaplan Center (www.kaplancenter.org) will post video of many of the non-Shabbat plenaries, though not of the smaller breakout groups.

It was good to see people from many backgrounds and perspectives listening and learning together.  Is Jewish peoplehood a meaningful construct?  How are millenials and younger Jews understanding and creating their identities?  What is the space for some sense of “Jewish collectivity” whether we call it peoplehood or not?

Here are a handful of personal notes and highlights.  This handful of notes is surely incomplete and does not do justice to complex presentations.

Noam Pianko on the history of the term “peoplehood” and his raising possibities on the term today — a) reaffirm it as it is currently used; b) discard the term; c) recalibrate. (I wrote a review of his book in the Feb. issue of the RRA Connection newsletter.) Would focusing on neighborhoods (literal or symbolic) rather than nationhood, and on what people do Jewishly rather than on issues of descent be more positive?

Deborah Waxman (same panel) who notes that “peoplehood” and “civilization” were co-extensive for Kaplan.  She notes a contemporary focus on how to be the best Jew and how to be the best citizen of the world.

Yitz Greenberg saw 20th cent. peoplehood as a weak substitute for diminished religiosity.   The change of American attitudes toward Jews and the collapse of systemic antisemitism have vastly changed the situation.

Shaul Magid (still on the same panel) cited Yeshayahu Libowitz who said traditional ideas of Jewish collective ended by mid-19th century when many Jews did not see themselves bound in a system of mitzvoth (commandments) from God.  He critiques the “myth of Jewish peoplehood.”  In a multi-ethnic world we need to include Jews, half-Jews, non-Jews. We need to re-examine role of “unlikeness” in Jewish life.  He believes we can create a positive diaspora existence, not only including but welcoming non-Jews who want to participate.

Other notes, other sessions:.

A session featuring innovative outreach/engagement of younger Jews: Lex Rofus from Open Hillel shared a future vision based on the Hebrew “Im” — meaning both “with” and a “plural signifier”–Jewish with others.

Shira Stutman at 6th and I Street Historic Synagogue (more of a community center) in DC  focusing on 20s-30s, the post-Birthright generation.  Again, welcoming people with multiple identities (even Jewish Republicans!).  She notes that younger people can embrace some version of mitzvah (not in sense of divine command, but action, involvement) but as a whole are not interested in the Jewish traditions of brit (covenant) and am (people). They are not that interested in questions of whether their great-grandchildren will be Jewish.

Aliza Kline of One Table– a program that helps promote and subsidize home Shabbat dinners for young adults—spoke about addressing needs of people who feel tired, disoriented, and lonely, who are not used to even organizing a dinner IRL (In Real Life).

I also liked a panel on dissent with Jane Eisner of the Forward and journalist Peter Beinart.   And one on Inclusion, Exclusion with Maurice Harris (formerly of Interfaith Family)  sociologist Steven Cohen (who repeated his concerns that the quantity of Jews matters as well as the quality of Jewish life),  April Baskin, a self-identified Jew of color and the new URJ Director of Audacious Hospitality (yes, a real title) and Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NYC.

Steve Cohen described peoplehood as a “theology of ethnicity” but said the older 20th century building blocks are not working (God, family, community, Israel.)   He is not convinced we are post-ethnic.

Sharon Kleinbaum saw the keys to successful community as striving toward:  a) excellence of prayer and music; b) challenging intellectual life;  c) people they like to hang out with.  (Comment, I think from another panelist– this list did not include connections/concerns with any wider Jewish collectivity.)

In another session, on Expression of Peoplehood, linguist/social scientist  Sarah Benor talked about how language can provide building blocks of connection, noting the role of “Hebrew infusion” in classes and life that build a shared bond.  (My example:  most Jews do not say to another Jew:  “I have to stop at the store to buy unleavened bread for our Passover eve dinner.”)  This learning can promote camaraderie with Jews around the world. Food, music, art, architecture might also promote connections.    Shai Held talked about the “anxiety about particularity” expressed in liturgy, especially for younger Jews.  (The traditional aleynu prayer, for example.)  His drash: Moses was only fit to lead the Israelites after two rescues by him: saving the Israelite being beaten by Egyptian; and rescuing the young Midianite women threatened at the well. Only then is he appointed leader.   (Moses shows concern for both Israelites and non-Israelites.)  Shai continued, in a post-ethnic society, there can be no deep sustainable sense of peoplehood without robust theology.  But theology is hard to sustain in post-ethnic society.  How counter-cultural can theology be?

Again, these are just a few personal notes from more complex presentations and discussions among presenters.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s