Jewish Peoplehood: From the Literal to the Ineffable and Back
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 13 – Jewish Peoplehood: What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we nurture it? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Adam Weisberg
I’ve come to believe that the concept of Jewish Peoplehood describes the historic and ongoing development of the Jewish collective and its cultural constructs. Using this definition, a personal investment in Jewish Peoplehood is characterized by a commitment to sustaining this enterprise for the sake of human flourishing. But I’ve also come to believe that the emotional experience of Jewish Peoplehood is greater than any rational concept.
For many Jews it is both thrilling and comforting to connect so easily with other Jews, even those we’ve just met. (The truth is that it is usually less thrilling the better we get to know them; but that’s a different story.) The thrill can make us feel a little parochial, insular and unsophisticated. But it is a thrill nonetheless.
The connection between strangers, who are in some ways not strangers at all, is the kernel of every human encounter. For a subset of human beings, to identify as part of the Jewish People affects a particular way of encountering the world and its inhabitants. It offers a shortcut to connection ventured on the probability of trust. But as the social markers of Jewish identity have shifted radically over time, the assumptions of trust that undergird the experience of Jewish Peoplehood have been undermined and our focus has turned to definitions and analysis of the concept.
The foregrounding of Jewish Peoplehood as a concept is certainly useful and I believe that at the start of the 21st century the investigation of Jewish Peoplehood is a critical endeavor. My personal interest in the topic is focused on creating experiences, prompting actions and reactions that transcend the thinking about what Jewish Peoplehood means and invests in what Jewish Peoplehood can feel like: thrilling, comforting and always a bit strange.
Many of the activities that engender emotional connection between Jews, are both ancient in origin and suitable for our contemporaries: studying and reinterpreting our master stories; sharing personal and communal joys and losses; grappling with the tension between the “one“ and the “many“ as it plays out in our beliefs and practices; and living purposefully and particularly as Jews in societies dominated by non-Jews.
Today’s reality is that less and less binds us as Jews in overt and obvious ways. And yet we retain a desire for and sense of an ineffable connection running between us and others we’ve never met and will hardly ever really know. What we do about the ineffable affects not only our own realities and trajectories; it affects and even determines the future of the Jewish people, of Jewishness. It may well be time for each of us to start asking – and answering – the question, “What have we done for Jews and Jewishness lately.“ Not asking now may make the question irrelevant later. And the ineffable is too essential to be made irrelevant.
Adam Weisberg is the director of the San Francisco based Diller Teen Initiatives.
This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 13 – Jewish Peoplehood: What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we nurture it? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.