Something I Discovered While Unpacking the Concept of Peoplehood

By Dr. Shlomi Ravid

Many years ago I had a Philosophy professor who used to claim:” If you cannot explain the key ideas of Emanuel Kant to your next door neighbor in three sentences, you probably don’t understand them yourself.” While he may have exaggerated some, there is something to the claim that some of those struggling with explaining what Peoplehood mean may experience difficulties in understanding it themselves.

To address this challenge we created recently, at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education a series of short Peoplehood Introductory Clips  that frame the core themes, conversations and challenges of Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st century. Please don’t take this lightly. To capture the notion of Judaism as a civilization which took Mordechai Kaplan 600 pages and frame Israel in the context of Peoplehood in less than two minutes, or articulate the tension between Particularism and Universalism in 90 seconds, is no small task. But it is important as it gives us both a bird eye’s view of our collective agenda and opens good conversations regarding our collective mission and ethos.

However as we were unpacking the core themes that constitute our collective agenda I realized something rather dramatic: We seem to disagree more than agree on our collective vision and our interpretation of our common goals. Some believe that Jewish Peoplehood is all about what is “good for the Jews” while others think that our mission is to improve the world. Some believe we live in the age of pluralism and Judaism needs to adjust to that challenge, while others still hold on to an Orthodox dominance of the religious sphere. Some believe our Jewish collective identity is all encompassing but others believe we need to adjust to a multi identity paradigm. Some believe Israel is the center of the Jewish world and all Jews should move there, while others believe we are a global people whose national project should be perceived as an important Jewish community among others. In short we disagree pretty much over everything that needs to unify us.

If this is indeed the case it raises a good question of what can unite the Jews today. What can make this “imagined community”, as Benedict Anderson called it, stick in the minds and hearts of Jews. My answer is that while Jewish unity does not and cannot depend on some fake sense of consensus regarding core ideological issues, it can be based on our collective interest in the issues themselves. We may hold conflicting opinions on any of the above issues but the fact that we are grappling with them collectively keeps us together. Both Particularists and Universalists are concerned with the essence of Jewish collectivity today. Proponents of a multi identity approach are still struggling with what their Jewish identity will look like. Challengers of Israel’s dominance of the Jewish global conversation still recognize its unique and important contribution to the Jewish world. We may have different takes, opinions and perspectives but we share the agenda.

This understanding does not make the challenge of sustaining Jewish Peoplehood go away. It requires us as a collective to set a worthy agenda for the future that will continue attracting Jews to both agree and disagree on – to sustain the Jewish conversation. We need to make sure that the overall interest in “being at the table” is rich and compelling enough. Jews do not have to agree on issues but they need to agree that addressing them collectively and having conversation about them is of value.

It also calls upon us to consider with each agenda item the breadth of relevant Jewish perspectives and at the same time draw the line of when certain acts or policies cross the Jewish lines. To seek a balanced approach but also stand firm when the lines are being broken. The Jewish collective voices and conversations should be diverse and pluralistic but always as an expression of Jewish values and ethics. Our commitment to those values and our continued search for a meaningful collective destiny should enable us to find a path to move forward as a cohesive People.

As the New Year settles in and Yom Kippur approaches we may want to pause and think of what being part of the collective Jewish enterprise means to us. What did it mean to our parents? What will it mean to our children? How can we engage them in continuing this enterprise, which we inherited from past generations, for generations to come?

Shana Tova

Dr. Shlomi Ravid is the Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.