The Content of Jewish Peoplehood

PP13[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 Alex Sinclair

Just as in the Talmudic vignette keitzad m’rakdim lifnei hakalah (“how does one dance in front of the bride?”), in which Hillel and Shammai argue over whether truth or peace is more important, so too, Jewish Peoplehood navigates between two competing “goods” that sometimes clash. Firstly, the value of inclusivity: the desire for as many Jews as possible to feel part of the Jewish people, and to derive meaning from those connections. Secondly, the value of content: the desire that Jewishness be about more than “just feeling Jewish,” and to include intensive study of and engagement with Judaism’s rich tradition of ideas and practices.

In this short space I would like to emphasize and reflect on the second of those values: the content that could or should make up Jewish Peoplehood.

I would like to see a Jewish Peoplehood that is excited and explicit about the content of what it means to be part of the Jewish people. For me, that content primarily consists of three components: community, lived Jewishness, and meaning.

Community: Judaism doesn’t exist without community. You can’t be a Jew on a desert island. A rich sense of Jewish Peoplehood begins from a rich relationship with a vibrant, regular Jewish community. This could be a traditional Shabbat-oriented community, a group of volunteers for some common cause, a learning-oriented community, or any other kind. What is critical is that its members meet regularly, are mutually committed to each other’s well-being, and are implicated by each other’s joys and pain.

Lived Jewishness: I still like Kaplan’s term “folkways,” despite its somewhat archaic and clunky feel today. “Lived Jewishness” is not much better; perhaps someone can come up with a more felicitous synonym. Nevertheless, I believe that a rich sense of Jewish Peoplehood emerges from some kind of constant engagement with Jewish folkways. This does not mean strictly following halacha; but it does mean thinking about traditional Jewish customs and practices as one wends one’s way through life, and doing at least some of them. Different Jews will have different approaches to the balance between “thinking about” and “doing”, and that’s fine. But I would argue that when core components of Jewishness like kashrut, Shabbat, and tefillah, are part of our lives, in some form, we are much more likely to feel part of a wider Jewish people with whom we share these components.

Meaning: Both community and folkways sometimes risk becoming rote; as Moshe Greenberg puts it, religious symbols can become “opaque;” i.e., lose their meaning in the eyes of the one who engages with the symbol. Our challenge, as we engage in both community and folkways, is to retain our intentionality about them both as systems of Jewish symbols, so that we gain meaning from them constantly and vibrantly.

Being more explicit about the content of Jewish Peoplehood will propel it from being a nice but somewhat amorphous term into a robust and compelling educational framework for our work as Jewish educators and communal professionals.

Dr Alex Sinclair is Director of Programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the author of “Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism.”

JPeoplehood newThis 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.