Hebrew and Peoplehood

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 7 – Reinvigorating Jewish Peoplehood: The Philanthropic Perspective; published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

by Rabbi David Gedzelman

For a disaffected American Jewish young adult, who may have recently warmed to the idea of Jewish connection through a Birthright Israel trip or some spiritual experience, our musings as to how philanthropy might build and strengthen Jewish Peoplehood risk ringing hollow. We use Mordecai Kaplan’s original term, Peoplehood, in the affective sense that all Jews are connected and responsible for one another, without defining what the Jewish People is or why one should want to belong. We argue for connection and commitment without first helping Jews, wherever they may be, articulate and understand to what kind of human grouping being Jewish implies belonging.

American Jews have been taught for a century that being Jewish is a matter of religious identity similar to the ways non-Jewish Americans define themselves as Episcopalians, Roman Catholics or Methodists. The problem is that Christian categories are exclusively a matter of theological commitment, of faith, while being Jewish certainly includes the religious but entails so much more. Being Jewish means being part of the extended family that is the Jewish People.

This family from its very beginnings has accepted those into it who choose its terms of citizenship (Exodus 12: 37-50). One can be born into this family or one can choose to join this family. It has a rich tradition of covenantal openness (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat: 31a). It is a civilization that articulates its reason for being in terms of a mission for bringing blessing to all the families of the earth. (Genesis 12:3) It hopes to be a light of nations and does not expect others to disappear when learning from that light but aspires to a vision by which all peoples can realize themselves as particulars in the context of a universal humankind (Isaiah 42:6).

This family has a language and a literature, although mostly unknown to the vast majority of American Jews. It has a land but has evolved a sophisticated sense of belonging by which one can stand in relation to Jewish life in that land but live elsewhere. It came together in the last century to create a sovereign Jewish state in that land with the promise of awakening and rebirth for Jews wherever they might be. Moreover, that democratic and Jewish state of Israel can contribute profoundly to the revitalization of Jewish life everywhere but should do so by affirming, not negating. In other words, this family and civilization has developed the notion of being what Mordecai Kaplan called, “an international People.”

Yet, the vast majority of American Jews find themselves unable to articulate the idea of the Jewish people, or to articulate any understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Peoplehood or that between Jewish religion and Jewish belonging. They have little knowledge of their family’s history; they do not speak its language nor read its books. If building the house of Jewish Peoplehood is only about programs that get Jews to be with each other but is not about educating Jews in understanding the why and the what, such a house can only be half-built. For that reason, Jewish, Hebrew and Israel education need to be at the center of any American Jewish philanthropic agenda that hopes to build Jewish Peoplehood.

For example, of crucial importance to this is the imperative to promote a philanthropic agenda for the teaching and learning of Modern Israeli Hebrew among Jews in the Diaspora especially American Jews. Hebrew represents a multi-pronged approach. Knowledge of Hebrew in a general sense is a key to Jewish civilization. The understanding, speaking, reading and writing of Modern Israeli Hebrew (in that order of acquisition) as a natural language can lead to understanding of classical Hebrew and the historic national library of the Jewish People. However, the Jewish educational establishment has taken the opposite approach deeming prayerbook Hebrew and phonetic decoding the basis for all else. That flies in the face of the most informed thinking on second language acquisition but is understandable in the context of a history during which Hebrew lost its status as a spoken and natural language. As the center-piece of the Zionist revolution, however, Hebrew has regained that status but we in the Diaspora haven’t yet fully understood the implications.

Proficiency in Modern Hebrew gives Jews around the world a deeper capacity to relate to life in the state of Israel and to forge relationships with Israelis and with each other. It simultaneously brings content and Jewish understanding to those who master it and serves as a vehicle for Jewish connection and relationship. Currently, however, Hebrew divides more than it unites. A tiny percentage of Diaspora Jews are proficient in Hebrew. Of course, for Americans, learning languages seems to be a challenge in general and any attempt to move more Americans to learn Hebrew needs to take that into consideration. That is why bringing Hebrew into contexts that are already recognized as educationally compelling, like dual-language programs in public schools, is an important strategy for furthering Hebrew. Hebrew will be more appealing to Jews if it is legitimate in the public context that they find culturally authoritative in general.

The good news is that a sizeable percentage of the approximately 300,000 Jewish adults age 18 to 38 who have participated in Birthright Israel are genuinely interested in learning Modern Hebrew. To date, this interest has not been effectively capitalized on, but represents a huge opportunity. Taking advantage of that opportunity will depend on a philanthropic will to bring effective methodologies for second language acquisition to this population in ways that are doable, fun and fit the lifestyles of young people.

Speaking and understanding Hebrew provides not only knowledge of Jewish civilization and the tools for further learning but an intimate connection with the family melody of the Jewish People that is the Hebrew language. Creating platforms by which Jews and others around the world can learn Hebrew should be one strategy in an overall educational program by which Jewish Peoplehood might be built on a foundation of knowledge, understanding and connection.

Rabbi David Gedzelman is the Executive Vice President of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.