The Past, Present and Future of Jewish Peoplehood: Gleanings from a Conference

by Dr. Jeffrey Schein

I read eJewish Philanthropy primarily because I appreciate the “boundary crossings” of its various contributors within and between articles. I find the mixture of topics addressed – Jewish education, philanthropy, Pew musings, reaching teens/milleniels and theories of organizational development/communal transformation – fresh and stimulating. My guess is that readers of the Reconstructionist magazine in the 1930’s and 40’s experienced the same sense of operating outside of conventional wisdoms and confining conceptual boxes. It is with my own highly subjective sense of the readership of eJewish Philanthropy in mind that I offer these comments about peoplehood and the Pew study that swirled around the recently concluded conference “Architect of the Jewish Future: A Conference The Life, Work, and Legacy of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan.”

The Conference

The conference occurred in Washington March 2nd and 3rd and was co-sponsored by the recently launched Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood, the Department of Jewish Studies of McGill University, and the Program for Jewish Civilization Georgetown University. A variety of scholars and practitioners helped conference participants traverse the many worlds of Kaplan’s thought and life. Peoplehood, social justice, God, and Israel were among the topics explored. Well-known personages such as Drs. David Ellenson and Susannah Heschel were among the contributors to the conference. Numerous original papers were presented as well as a veritable yalkut of Kaplan maisehs flowing through Mel Scult, Kaplan scholar and editor of his diaries.

Origins of “Peoplehood”

One might think from frequency of use that the notion of peoplehood was revealed along with the Torah at Mt.Sinai. It was helpful then to hear from Rabbi Dr. Deborah Waxman, historian and recently appointed President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, the actual history of the term. She relays,

“The term peoplehood emerged in a discussion at the 1942 summer Reconstructionist Institute. The editorial board of the magazine had little to do with it. The. Reconstructionist leaders started using the term peoplehood regularly by 1945, and there is evidence that it started being used fairly regularly in the Jewish world shortly after that. It appeared in Webster’s 1961 edition of the new heritage dictionary, and the attribution can be traced to the Reconstructionist movement. That means it was already in fairly mainstream usage by that point. One notes widespread adoption by agencies that previously resisted the notion in later years, and the WZO’s recent embrace is particularly significant, but American Jewish agencies had been using the word for decades by the time they adopted it in 2010.”

God, Religion and Peoplehood

Is the gap in the percentage of Jews who claim to be “Jewish but not religious” between the greatest generation (7%) and Millennials (32%) deeply troubling? On one level, to the Washington conference gathering of folks almost universally familiar with Rabbi Kaplan’s framing of Judaism as the “evolving religious civilization” of the Jewish people it evokes little more than a yawn. Conceptually, finding Jewish artists, poets, activists without beliefs in God or religion is a strong possibility within the expansive realms of “Judaism as an evolving religious CIVILIZATION. (Capitalize “RELIGIOUS” and you see the possibility differently; capitalize EVOLVING and you are less likely to be stuck within ones own presentism).

Perhaps the collective we of the conference, however, would be less sanguine with the Pew finding that suggests that the non-religious Jews among the 94% of Jews voicing pride in Jewishness are much less likely to convert their Jewish pride into Jewish philanthropy, Jewish child-rearing, or strong connections to Israel. It would be hard indeed to equate under a banner of Kaplanian Jewish peoplehood those evincing a modicum of Jewish pride with the portrait of peoplehood shared by several of Kaplan’s students at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Kaplan alone and forlorn in the halls of the Seminary actually (not metaphorically through scholarship and hermeneutics) wailing and weeping “my people, my people, what will become of the Jewish people.”

Yet, the measure of any good conference is that it raises critical questions about the terms of inquiry that guide our Jewish thought and action. Mordecai Kaplan would certainly challenge all of us to think clearly about our own ideas about God and divinity. For myself, I heard a strong echo of my friend and colleague Dr. Roberta Goodman, herself a dedicated Jewish educator and student of faith theorist James Fowler, asking her students “tell me more about the God you don’t believe in” when they profess to be not religious or atheists. William Kaufman explored this phenomenon from a scholarly perspective as he shared excerpts from his recently released “A Jewish Philosophical Response to the New Atheists: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens” (Edwin Mellen Press). Essentially, Kaufman suggests that the “trans-naturalism” informing Kaplan’s understanding of God might constitute a new understanding of God and religion for many contemporary Jews. Perhaps what they have rejected is not God and religion per se but the supernatural version of it found in most Jewish liturgies and the American marketplace of religious ideas. The Pew studies, for all its social scientific rigor, is ill equipped to explore such nuances of personal meaning.

The Future of Peoplehood

I was part of a panel of four Reconstructionist rabbis on a panel on Kaplan and the Future of the Reconstructionist Movement. It turns out that the panel focused more on the future of North American Jewry than the Reconstructiont movement per se. Perhaps this was appropriate given the depth of Rabbi Kaplan’s resistance to denominationalism (even his own movement’s). Sid Schwartz and I represented the voice of graduates of the first ten years of RRC and Rachel Gartner and Jessica Lott, both Hillel rabbis, the post 2000 graduates.

Lott and Gartner provided a close up view of today’s Jewish milleniels as they live out their Jewish identities on Jewish campuses. They painted a portrait of today’s college Jews as open and experimental, almost seamlessly embracing multiple identities as Jews and Americans. These milleniels are working very hard at finding meaning and coherence amidst these multiple identities.

Sid Schwartz suggested a point of view more thoroughly articulated in his new book “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future” that the key to reaching these younger Jews lies in recognizing that they are no longer “tribal Jews”. Their Jewish identities can now be shaped and nourished by a different set of assumptions that treats them as “covenantal Jews”, Jews eagerly embracing Judaism when (and likely only when) it is linked to some universal aspiration of meaning-making. This affirmation echoed quotes shared earlier by Dr. Eric Caplan of McGill who in chairing a panel on Kaplan and social justice pointed to these passages of Kaplan:

“The canvassing of all social, political and economic problems for the purpose of habituating ourselves to act in the interest of a better future for the world should formally and actively be accepted as Torah study for our day…” (Future of the American Jew)

“489 [Education] has to deal mainly with the promise of a better world, in the upbuilding of which all human beings must share. It is this purpose that makes Jewish education religious… The story of the Exodus from Egypt, for example, may be taught with the aid of the biblical text, together with the rabbinic commentaries on it. As such it is only a lesson either in language or literature; it is not part of religious education. If, on the other hand, the “secular” writings of Pinsker, Achad Ha-am, or Brandeis are taught with the view of inspiring the student to participate in the self-emancipation of the Jewish people and of all peoples that are the victims of discrimination and oppression, they become matter for Jewish religious education” (Future of the American Jew).

I conclude by sharing one final “peoplehood” reflection occasioned by the conference. In 1984 as the concern for peoplehood and the accompanying rhetoric around it mounted in communal discourse I co-authored a volume “Creative Jewish Education” with Dr. Jacob Staub of RRC. We argued at the time that contra the emerging discourse (and the specific understanding of Kaplanian peoplehood found in Charles Leibman’s 1970 American Jewish Yearbook study of Reconstructionism) the deeper understanding of Kaplanian thought points not to peoplehood alone but to “spiritual peoplehood”. We then outlined five different educational pathways of Jewish spiritual peoplehood: hidur mitzvah (Jewish arts and creativity), tikkun olam (world transformation), chokmah (wisdom for living), kedushah (holiness), and tsiyonut (peoplehood and connection to Israel).

These “values of spiritual peoplehood” became the template for much of the educational work in Reconstructionist schools and the educational cornerstone of Camp JRF. In the context of this moment in Jewish life one might hope that at every level of Jewish life (congregational, community, national, and international) “radiant centers” merge that can magnetize the spiritual compasses of today’s Jewish youth through these substantive Jewish and human values.

Dr. Jeffrey Schein is a Reconstructionist Rabbi and is director of the Adolescent Initiative and Special Projects at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland.