[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 Zachary Truboff
In the 10th century, the great Babylonian scholar Saadia Gaon wrote that “the Jewish people is a people only by virtue of the Torah“ (Emunot V’Deot 3:132). This statement has often been interpreted to mean that Jewish Peoplehood is defined by the extent to which individuals study and internalize the Torah’s values and ritual practices. According to this approach, a Jew could become excluded from the Jewish people simply by failing to live a life guided by the Torah’s laws. Too often this understanding is used to dismiss broad segments of the Jewish people.
There is, however, another way to understand how Jewish Peoplehood is defined by Torah. Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook explains (Orot HaTorah, Chapter 1) that while the Written Torah is given to the Jewish people by God, it is the Oral Torah that emerges from the spirit of the Jewish people in all that it does. This notion critically changes the way one thinks about Jewish Peoplehood. Since the Oral Torah emerges from the Jewish people, all Jews have a role to play in bringing it forth. For Rabbi Kook, the Oral Torah is embodied not just in the legislation enacted by the rabbis but by the broader cultural creativity of the Jewish people. As a mystic, Rabbi Kook believes that the creative soul of the Jewish people is deeply rooted in God and Torah. Whether the Jewish people are conscious of it or not, all that they produce is in some way understood as being in dialogue with the Divine word. The literature, poetry, film, and philosophy that emanates from the Jewish people are all understood as manifestations of Torah.
This conception of Jewish Peoplehood deeply impacts the ways in which one seeks to cultivate Jewish identity. Instead of seeing Jewish Peoplehood as simply a set of ethical values or familial relationships, one is challenged to define his or her Jewishness and Torah by what he or she creates. Opportunities that seek to nurture the creativity of the Jewish people will inevitably strengthen the Jewish collective. Rabbi Kook’s vision of Jewish Peoplehood is fundamentally an inclusive one. All Jews have the potential to participate in the great endeavor that is the creation of Torah. It is also important to note that just as all Jews can create Torah, the study of Torah connects one to all Jews. Rabbi Kook explains (Orot Yisrael 3:7) that even one who engages in the traditional study of Torah will inescapably find oneself connected more deeply to the Jewish people at large.
Rabbi Zachary Truboff is the Senior Rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue and the co-founder of the Cleveland Jewish Arts and Culture Lab.
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.