Who is a Jew? Peoplehood Versus Religion
by Avraham Infeld
I’ll begin with a story. A few weeks ago, eJewish Philanthropy ran on its front page a quote: “Being Jewish is defined by membership in the People and not by religion.”
It was attributed to me.
I confess: Guilty, as charged. I said that and I stand by it.
Soon afterwards my phone rang. It was a well-known charedi rabbi who was less than pleased. “How dare you wear a kippa and say something like that? Who do you think you are making a statement like that?” he blasted me.
I told the rabbi that I would be happy to meet with him and talk it over in person, but since we were on the phone anyway, I had a halachic question for him.
You see, every morning I daven on my porch and my next door neighbor, who happens to not be Jewish, sees me praying and it got him thinking. One day he came to me with an unusual request. He wondered whether I would go with him to buy tfillin and help him wrap his arm so that he could pray in the morning, too.
“So, rabbi,” I asked, “what should I tell him?”
“You’re not allowed to, of course!” the rabbi responded.
“Why not?” I asked, innocently.
“Why not?” he repeated my question. “Because he is not a member of the Jewish people, that’s why!”
It was music to my ears.
“Rabbi, did you hear what you just said?”
There was a pause and then he sheepishly admitted that maybe I was right. That just maybe, it is membership in a People that defines whether you are a Jew or not.
Here’s the part where I confess that the non-Jewish neighbor with tfillin-envy never happened, but this scenario came to me during my conversation with the rabbi to illustrate my deep conviction that everything goes back to Peoplehood.
In other words, this concept of Peoplehood that is so fashionable these days, wasn’t invented by Mordecai Kapalan in the 20th century. It is, in fact, the oldest phrase in Jewish history. We were always known as am Israel, the People of Israel. Even Pharaoh in Egypt spoke about the Jews as an am, as a People.
And yet, to my mind, the most serious danger facing the Jewish people today is that Jews of all kinds have forgotten that word: People.
We are not a religion and we’ve never been a religion. Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. It bases itself entirely on the covenant between a People and God Almighty – not between an individual and God.
And yet, we are losing more and more Jews because fewer and fewer Jews recognize the fact that we are a People. That is why so many organizations and educators have awakened this very word that we should have never have lost in the first place – to carry us back to our roots.
But before we examine how it is that we are a People over a religion, we must first ask ourselves, how we lost this identity in the first place?
If there is anything about which Jews have been in agreement throughout the generations, it was the understanding of what it meant to be a Jew.
Up until great emancipation in the beginning of the 19th century, being a Jew meant being a member of a particular People. Once upon a time we were slaves in Egypt and when we left Egypt and came to Mt. Sinai to meet the creator, we signed a covenant with him by which we agreed that we would be his People and he would be our God; he would take care of us and give us rain in the right season and take care of our land and we would keep His commandments.
I know of no Jewish philosopher before the emancipation who understood being Jewish as anything other than this covenant of Peoplehood.
But back to the covenant itself. It turns out that God kept his side of the bargain, but we sinned and because of our sins, we were scattered among the nations of the earth. This is why for thousand of years every Jew understood inherently that our role in life was to keep ourselves distinct as a People, which was why Jews lived in ghettos. It was there that we could more easily keep God’s commandments. It was there that we hoped and prayed that God would forgive us and bring us to back to the land of Israel. Then around 250 years ago, along comes modernity, and with it, modern nationalism, and with that, modern liberalism and suddenly, Jews are faced with the opportunity to leave the ghetto and in order to do so, many of them have to change their understanding of what it means to be a Jew.
Some simply stopped being Jewish.
The charedim among us became more ghettoized.
But the mass of Jews accepted two new issues of what it meant to be Jewish. One is that Judaism is a religion, which most of the Western world still believes today, and the second is that Jews are a nation, which is a product of Zionism.
For many who left the ghetto eager to become assimilated, they adhered to one non-written rule: We can act like them, but we can’t accept their God. From that day on, Judaism became a religion.
For the Zionists, the manifesto became: We are a nation.
The American Jews declared: We are a religion.
And so it was that the basic idea of who we are started getting lost. All Mordecai Kaplan did was try to reawaken the oldest idea of what it means to be a Jew – that Judaism is a culture of that particular people.
When I was President of Hillel International, I used to travel around the Jewish world meeting with young students. I always carried a chart with me that was divided into three columns. The top line listed: apples, oranges, bananas. Down the side read: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber. A final line that asked the students to fill in the blanks: Jew, it listed, and then two blank spots. In other words, What is to a Jew as an apple is to an orange?
In the USA, over 200,000 responses were unanimous: Jew, Christian, Muslim.
What does that say? Judaism is a religion.
But from the over 40,000 responses from Israelis, not one said Jew, Christian, Muslim. Instead they said Arab or Italian or American. In other words, for them, Judaism is a nationality.
When it came to the Russian Jews, 10,000 responded this way: Jew, non-Jewish is a Russian?
What does this all tell us? I’ll tell you what this tells us: the Jewish people are totally confused about our identity!
So now we see organizations, like the former UJA, making statements like, “We are one.” We are one what? We are one hell of a mess, that’s what we are!
Therefore, the time is ripe to remind the Jews that we are first and foremost a People. Let is remember what Ruth, the first convert to Judaism, the great-grandmother of King David, the forerunner to the messiah for both Jews and Christians once said, “Your people shall be my people and your God is my God.”
The order is not accidental. If I want to become Christian I would say, “Your God is my God,” but when it comes to Judaism, I cannot first say, “Your God is my God” until I say, “Your people is my people.”
It is not that I am anti-religions. I am an observant Jew. But I am bound to the commandments only because I am a member of a People. The moment you define Judaism as a religion, the first thing that happens is you create religions denominations. Where was Reform, even Orthodox Judaism 700 years ago? They did not exist because we did not define ourselves as a religion.
Also, if Judaism were only a religion, what right would Jews have to their own state? No other religion has a state.
We are only perpetuating confusion by not educating our children that they are members of a People.
Only when we understand Judaism in the context of Peoplehood can we begin to understand what it means to be a Jew. And only when we see ourselves as part of a People will Judaism unite – instead of divide – us.
Without Peoplehood what would Israelis have in common with Jews in the Diaspora?
The time is now to teach our children that Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. The State of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish People and all the organizations that are supposed to serve the Jewish people should put up front and center the message of Jewish Peoplehood.
That is why I have become a fanatic about teaching about the Jewish People.
If you want to know the truth, I hate the word Peoplehood. It is confusing. I want to teach about am Israel. I want to create a sense of belonging in every Jew to the Jewish People. How do you interpret the culture of Jewish Peoplehood into your life?
The mission of Jewish leaders in the 21st century should therefore be how to ensure the continued, significant renaissance of the Jewish people, ensuring a sense of belonging by every Jew to his people, its heritage, its values, its State, and its dreams and aspirations to work as Jews to make this a better world for all.
Avraham Infeld is President Emeritus of Hillel International, Chairman of the Board of the Hillels of Israel, consultant on tikkun olam to the Reut Institute, President of IsraelWays, and well-known educator and speaker. He lives in Jerusalem and shares four children and 15 grandchildren with his wife, Ellen, who is originally from New Jersey.