The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Shlomi Ravid

In the early 1950’s while contemplating the corporate identity of the Jews, Mordecai Kaplan proposed: “… the problems of nationhood, religion and Diaspora will have to be dealt with by a permanent international Jewish conference created for that purpose, or by an existing institution like the Hebrew University, which should establish such a conference”. Sixty years later, living in a very different world, we decided to explore the questions of the purpose, the content and the place of the collective Jewish conversation in the 21st Century.

This issue of the Peoplehood Papers aims at exploring the nature of the Jewish collective agenda and conversation in the 21st century. Questions relating to the essence of our covenant, to our collective mission in the world, to Jewish continuity and our commitment to the Jewish enterprise, need to be addressed. What is the Jewish collective agenda today and how and where is it to be discussed in the age of Jewish diversity? Is the answer institutional/organizational or alternatively should the collective conversation emerge from the people and in turn engage them? And if the latter, how in the age of social media is that to happen? How does one leverage the advancement in global communication against modernity’s challenge to our collective identity?

Our contributors focused on all of the above issues and more. For the convenience of the reader we grouped the articles in this introduction into four sub-groups. Their discussions, however, span well beyond the limits of the sub-grouping. In the publication they appear, as is our custom, in alphabetical order.

The content and purpose of the Jewish collective vision

We are honored to host and open this current exchange by an article from Shimon Peres the President of the State of Israel. Peres views the Jews as a People driven by an eternal dissatisfaction with the status quo, leading to a “never-ending quest for Tikkun Olam – a betterment of the World”. “Tikkun Olam”, according to Peres, “encompasses the three foundations of our vision – morality, knowledge and peace. These three components constitute the firm basis upon which the Jewish People has stood and endured throughout history”. They are also the pillars of the vision of the future.

From the other side of the Ocean, Jerry Silverman the CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, echoes a similar sentiment. He ends his article with a quote from Kathy Manning, the lay chair of JFNA’s board: “Our greatest strength has been our willingness to envision a better world and our ability to work together as a global people to accomplish big goals.” JFNA and its partners, realizing that “a key to nurturing the collective is … to foster a real global Jewish dialogue that engages a broad range of views”, are launching a Global Planning Table. “The goal is to animate new voices and dialogue, by convening more participants, new funders, and new partners. Through social media and mobile technology, we will have the ability to dynamically promote this new forum and connect with Jews around the world.”

Professor Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of JTS, calls for “including all Jews in the conversation about covenant” because “the Jews, as a ‘kingdom of priests and holy nation,’ are bound in covenant explicitly to one another, to the world, and to God”. Eisen believes that “it is time for members of the Jewish people, however they understand the covenant to which they are party, and the God who is likewise party to that covenant – to discard the dichotomy of “religious” and “secular” and simply talk to one another on a regular basis about who we are and what we hope to accomplish.” He even proposes to do it concretely through an expanded version of a virtual “daph yomi”.

The role and framework of the collective conversation today

Yossi Beilin brings a new dimension into the debate which is the interface between the “public” and “formal conversations”. For him: “The main purpose, and the framework under which the collective conversation is to take place, is ensuring Jewish continuity.” The two conversations can contribute to each other as key issues need to be discussed and figured out. The challenge is in creating the “connection between that eclectic exchange and the frameworks where decisions are being made”.

Maya Bernstein proposes using current approaches, tools and concepts from the business and software development worlds to better connect the public and formal conversations and enrich the Jewish collective exchange: “If we are willing to approach our challenges with an attitude of “How” – believing that we can work together towards creative solutions – “Might” – bringing an approach of humility to the work – and “We” – inviting everyone to the table, then our conversations, and their fruit, will be more nourishing and sustaining for our entire family”.

Sanford Antignas and Moty Kristal provide a refreshing and provocative analysis of the history of the collective Jewish conversation. Their claim is that as a grassroot, non-hierarchical, open communal exchange of equals it served the Jewish people well for 1900 years. In the Twentieth Century “with the emergence of the idea of the Jewish nation state – the appearance of Zionism and the need to rebuild a people and a nation from the ashes of the Holocaust- came the change, the aberration, in the nature of the global Jewish conversation.” That dramatic yet necessary change stifled the collective conversation and created a centralized un-pluralistic and un-creative system. The writers hope that the new technology will assist the Jewish people in finding a new and appropriate equilibrium, a system without hierarchy whereby pluralism and dialogue are both its means and its ends.

Engaging the people in the collective conversation

In a similar spirit, though with a different focus, Jay Michaelson expresses skepticism about the ability to advance the collective conversation through organizational entities and the establishment. He calls instead for “networking”
and “building deeper relationships between very different sorts of Jews”. Alan Hoffmann and Ilan Wagner of JAFI, propose an experiential relation-building approach: “Rather than try to superimpose artificial collective concepts, our task should be to expand the boundaries of the personal and direct so that connections are made with others, who while sharing some similar characteristics also introduce into the interaction identifiable differences as well. The ensuing interaction … will act to widen personal definitions of meaning and identity and create shared and collective understandings.” Helena Miller of Limmud International takes this approach a step further: “Limmud is not just about bringing people together, it is about opportunities to develop our Jewish values – to deepen our Jewish knowledge. Data from the Limmud international study showed that, for the majority of country groupings, motivation to learn with others is cited as the primary reason for getting involved with Limmud.” In a sense, she proposes to leverage the Jewish desire to learn together towards the development of a pluralistic peoplehood.

Using the collective conversation to strengthen the Jewish community

Steven M. Cohen, Jacob B. Ukeles and Ron Miller, the three authors of the comprehensive report of the recently conducted Jewish Community Study of New York (2011) reflect on the growing multi-faceted diversity of New York’s 1.54 million Jews. It could be seen as a daunting challenge to Jewish unity, but also as an opportunity. Or in their words: “To us, the diversity poses a remarkable opportunity: to enhance personal and communal creativity, to build patterns of mutual enrichment, to celebrate difference while building bridges across difference. Ultimately we can develop a new model of Jewish collectivity that celebrates diversity while seeking integration. To do so, we will need not only a principled commitment to Jewish Peoplehood, but an instinctual appreciation of Jewish diversity. And we will need the relational and interpersonal skills, bred by the practice of Jewish Peoplehood, to learn how to learn from one another. In so doing, we can overcome the local, national and worldwide challenges to Jewish Peoplehood in the early 21st century, turning the diversity so boldly drawn in New York elsewhere into a rich resource.”

Gábor Balázs and Mircea Cernov provide a rare glimpse of the complex state of the Hungarian Jewish community. They propose that Jewish Peoplehood can provide a unifying organizing concept for the community: “Since the Jewish population of Hungary has been prominently non-religious, it would be natural for these Jews to identify with the common fate of different Jewish communities, and with the historical, cultural heritage and the natural values of the Jewish people”. This process could be a catalyst to developing “a social and collective identity of the Jewish people and community in Hungary”.

It is interesting to note that with the exception of Yossi Beilin, none of the contributors followed Kaplan’s suggestion of setting up some international Jewish forum to address the challenges of the Jewish collective. Is it because the Jewish world has become too diverse and pluralistic to take directions from some central institution? Is it because our current system of developing responses to collective challenges by the existing institutions and challenge focused initiatives works well? Or is it because the nature of our covenant today does not require collective decision making forums as Kristal and Antignas suggest? We leave those questions to our readers as this exchange was really set to open rather than close the conversation.

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.