Against Definition

Recently I was talking with a colleague who asked about my organization and what we do. When I explained that we work with partner organizations to plan cultural programming, she retorted: “Define cultural programming.” This isn’t unusual. I work for the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, and by now I’m used to being asked to define “Jewish culture,” not to mention “Jewish music” and “Jewish literature.”

It’s not just a question of culture. Not long ago I was part of a conversation about changes in Modern Orthodoxy where one participant asked another to define “Orthodox Judaism.” The list lengthens quickly. What is tikkun olam? Who is a Jew? What is loyalty? What is anti-Semitism?

These demands for definitions appear to seek clarity, but they are really about something else. It’s not like asking someone to explain the meaning of, say, “eleemosynary,” a word whose meaning may not be familiar. Everyone knows more or less what “Jewish” and “culture” mean. Seeking an a priori definition of “Jewish culture” is actually the first step in a negotiation about boundaries, deciding what’s included and what’s kept out.

Whether it comes from an impulse for control, or from a simple bureaucratic desire for tidiness, such a negotiation is unhealthy. It replaces a flexible, intuitive, shared understanding of an idea with a category circumscribed in the abstract. It diverts energies away from producing concrete results and towards a verbal border skirmish over disputed territory. It may be tempting to debate a semantic question rather than resolve a substantive issue, but that debate adds little value.

Setting rigid boundaries is especially counterproductive in qualitative pursuits like the arts, and it is undesirable wherever barriers promote exclusion based on illusory or arbitrary differences. Yet bureaucracies often make definitions an end in themselves. Such differentiations, created largely for their own sake, take on a life of their own, and the result is to marginalize and exclude things that don’t fall within the new definitions.

Of course some distinctions are necessary. The government of the United States is obliged to delineate who is a citizen and who is not. Property owners need to know the exact boundaries of their property. The precise meanings of common terms like “resident” or “employee” need to be spelled out. Distinctions like these are a necessity in the context of contracts, finances, or the law – but not in ordinary conversation in the Jewish community.

The phrase “Jewish Peoplehood” has resurfaced lately, and predictably, one response has been to try to define it and articulate a theory and practice of the concept. If that impulse succeeds, institutions will ultimately erect barriers between what Peoplehood includes for their purposes and what it doesn’t. That would be regrettable for a number of reasons, starting with the irony of taking the word “Peoplehood” out of the hands of the very people it is meant to embrace.

This is a singular opportunity for a grass-roots process to determine what Peoplehood is all about. Rather than convening experts and conducting research to define it, why not invite the whole spectrum of interested Jewish individuals and organizations to enact what they believe Peoplehood to be. Let it take shape according to the collective experience of our many communities. If that isn’t Peoplehood, what is?

Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He also blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.