Jewish Peoplehood for What?

Israel Friedlaender; photo courtesy JDC Archives
Israel Friedlaender; photo courtesy JDC Archives

Dr Gil Graff

Writing in 1915, Israel Friedlaender, Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary – who, among many positions as an active volunteer, served as Chairman of the Board of the Bureau of Jewish Education of the New York Kehillah, President of Young Judaea, member of the National Executive Committee of the Federation of American Zionists and member of the board of the Intercollegiate Menorah Society – wrote an essay titled “The Present Crisis of American Jewry.” In his essay, Friedlaender pointed to the ideological tension within American Jewry, apart from socio-economic disparity, between the established, German-Jewish understanding of Judaism as, exclusively, a religious faith and the Russian Jewish immigrants’ emphasis on Jewish nationalism. Friedlaender, who had grown up in Warsaw and earned a doctorate in Germany (spending four years of study at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary, in Berlin, along the line, before being recruited by Solomon Schechter to join the JTS faculty), was, in the words of Jehuda Reinharz, “celebrated for his uncanny ability to appreciate contrasting perceptions of a problem and to offer Solomonic reconciliation between them….”

I often think of Friedlaender as I read columns on this site commenting on Jewish peoplehood. The question that Friedlaender – whose life was, tragically, cut short at age forty-four when he was murdered while on a mission to the Ukraine on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee, in 1920 – would, surely, have posed is: Jewish Peoplehood for What? A frequent speaker at Menorah Society (a pre-Hillel, Jewish intercollegiate association) gatherings at college campuses, Friedlaender addressed the group’s national convention, held at Penn, in December 1915. Observing that the Jewish people are to be nivdalim, “separated,” he explained that this separateness requires a nationalism that is unique. Jewish nationalism includes a spiritual dimension; Israel’s ideal is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. In Friedlaender’s words: “If Israel is to survive, he must have the courage to be different, to think his own thoughts, to feel his own feelings, to live his own life, but to do so not from any narrow or chauvinistic motive, but with lofty consciousness that only in this way does he fulfill his destiny for the benefit of mankind.” Deeply devoted to Zionism, Friedlaender understood and described Jewish nationalism as rooted in a universalistic vision: If Israel is to be a light, it must radiate beyond itself while remaining distinct.

Zionism, for Friedlaender – who translated essays by Ahad Ha’Am into German and English to render them more broadly accessible – held the capacity to gather the scattered energies of the people Israel and, in turn, to send out its rays to the stiffening limbs of Diaspora Jewry, enabling Judaism to shine forth once more as the bearer of a spiritual message to humanity. Assessing Jewish vitality in his adopted land, Friedlaender observed that “the Jews of America, as represented in their noblest and best, display larger Jewish sympathies, a broader outlook on Jewish life, a deeper understanding of the spiritual interests of Judaism than most of their brethren of the Mosaic persuasion in the lands of assimilation and emancipation.” Central to the possibility of a robust Jewish future in the United States, in Friedlaender’s view, was strengthening Jewish education; hence, his commitment to such projects as the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Intercollegiate Menorah Association and the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

At this time of year, many Jews count the days and weeks linking Pesach and Shavuot. Passover is the holiday of freedom from slavery. Shavuot is associated, in Jewish tradition, with experiencing Torah; it is the juncture at which Israel is charged to become “a kingdom of priests and a consecrated people.”

Born a Moabite, the Biblical Ruth – whose story is read at Shavuot – embraces her mother-in-law’s way of life, pronouncing: “your nation is my nation and your God is my God.” Recognition and appreciation of these twin dimensions of Jewish peoplehood, so clear to Ruth the “outsider,” millennia ago, stand at the core of Friedlaender’s essays and lectures. Friedlaender’s lost voice reminds us that if Jewish nationalism and peoplehood are to be consequential and enduring, they must be grounded in purpose.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.