On July 22, 2007, the New York Times ran an article by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman on the repercussions of his marrying outside his Jewish faith. The article, entitled “Orthodox Paradox,” details how Feldman, a Yeshiva day-school graduate, Rhodes scholar, and all-around Jewish wunderkind went from being super-Jew to persona non grata, shunned by his high school and ostracized by his community. Feldman’s piece sparked responses from virtually every major Jewish notable and brought to the fore the challenges of holding on to the sacrosanct concept of Jewish peoplehood in an age of intermarriage.
Few ideas in the twentieth century exercised more weight in the Jewish collective imagination than the notion of “peoplehood.” Peoplehood functioned not only as a way of perpetuating Jewish children but as a placeholder and a worldview that upheld and solidified the core movements, institutions, and practices of twentieth century American Jewry. Yet, as the brouhaha over Feldman’s piece suggests in the twenty-first century, few ideas have come under more fire than that of Jewish peoplehood.
Jewish identity appears to be slowly but steadily moving away from a paradigm of Jewish peoplehood toward one of Jewish meaning. In this new paradigm, texts, ideas, values, and practices that answer the question “Why be Jewish?” become the primary portals for Jewish identity. Despite this apparent shift, a more dialectical appraisal of contemporary Judaism suggests not the destruction of peoplehood but a realignment of its position in Jewish life. Whereas peoplehood was the bedrock of Jewish identity in the twentieth century, the concept today is being defined by means of the religious-existential question posed above.
Until the modern period, Jewish peoplehood—the notion that the Jews are a distinct group based on both historical and biological criteria—was almost always embedded in the larger tapestry of Jewish ritual, ideas, texts, and history. While the historian Jonathan Sarna may be right that the split between the Jews as a people and Judaism as a religion came about as a result of the mass forced conversion of Jews during the medieval Spanish expulsion, historically, for the most part, Jews saw themselves as not just an amalgam of individuals thrown together by the whims of history but as a unique people chosen to follow God’s word.
The situation changed in the nineteenth century, when Jews tossed God, tradition, and halakhah into the dustbins of history. The Jewish fight for survival, struggle for emancipation, and a shared lachrymose conception of history were adopted as better ways to express Jewish identity. Here secular Jewish thinkers, writers, and politicos, most notably from Eastern Europe, salvaged the idea of peoplehood from what they saw as the carnage of Judaism—a religion based on superstition.
In Europe and America, Jewish peoplehood provided the perfect response for those Jews grappling with the critique of religion issued by the likes of Darwin and Freud. The idea of an eternal people freed Jews from the theological and philosophical problem of an eternal God. No longer did being a “good Jew” entail practicing obscure rituals whose well of meaning had long ago dried up or studying ancient texts that had little significance to the new world inhabited by Jews. Rather, it demanded one thing only: the positive and unconditional attachment and identification to a specific group or nationality. Peoplehood for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jews became a bendlach—spiritually protecting Jews against threats from the outside while acting as the thin thread that could tie together the myriad and disparate Jewish groups and movements.
In the twentieth century, the Holocaust, skepticism about God’s existence, global anti-Semitism, and the foundation of the State of Israel all contributed to Jews’ seeing their attachment to a unique people as the starting point (and in most cases also the end point) for Jewish identification. No one articulated this position more astutely than Mordechai Kaplan.
Kaplan advocated drawing a distinction between Judaism as a religion versus the Jewish people as a civilization, favoring the latter over the former. “Paradoxical as it may sound,” Kaplan suggested, “the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation.”
Instead, Kaplan proposed that the locus of Judaism was in its history as a civilization. Judaism’s gift to the world was its ability “to make its collective experience yield meaning for the enrichment of the life of the individual Jew and for the spiritual greatness of the Jewish people.” At the heart of such an understanding of Judaism was the concept of peoplehood, which Kaplan defined as “the awareness which an individual has of being a member of a group that is known, both by its own members and by outsiders, as a people.”
Kaplan, however, was neither the first nor the only voice arguing that at the core of Jewish identity was the idea of an organic Jewish people. Though Kaplan started out an Orthodox rabbi and finished his career as the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, he would spend the majority of his life in the Conservative movement. Solomon Schechter, the great scholar and chief spokesperson for Conservative Judaism in the first half of the twentieth century, preceded Kaplan in emphasizing that “the collective conscience of catholic Israel . . . [was] the sole true guide for the present and future” of Judaism. Schechter’s conception of “catholic Israel” was part of a larger project directed at dethroning texts and rabbinic response as the determining criteria for legal innovation. Instead, by putting the emphasis on the Jewish people, Schechter hoped to make folk custom and practice the defining elements of Jewish law.
The ideas of Schechter and Kaplan gained considerable social traction following the horrors of the Holocaust and the Jewish migration to America after the Second World War. The damage that Freud and Darwin inflicted on Judaism amounted to little more than a scratch compared to the social and theological blows levied by the the destruction of European Jewry. Survival, regeneration, and protecting Jews worldwide would become the most pressing of issues for Jewry in the second half of the twentieth century. It was no surprise that the Conservative movement—the movement of catholic Israel—would become the denomination of choice for most Jewish Americans. Its emphasis on social and communal relationships as the defining element in its religious worldview made it the most attractive option for the growing number of suburban Jews looking for a sense identity and tradition in suburban yenemsvelt .
Whereas Orthodoxy made belief (doxa) its starting point, and Reform Judaism put ethical monotheism atop its theological pedestal, Conservative Judaism’s worldview emanated from a specific assumption about the social nature of Judaism. It was no wonder that the greatest of Jewish social scientists were part of the Conservative movement. In Conservative Judaism, the traditions, norms, and mores created and developed by the Jewish people became the final authority of Jewish life and practice. In the words of the towering rabbinic figure Rabbi Robert Gordis, a new “minhag America” (American Jewish religious custom) would determine the shape and form of Jewish ritual. What mattered most was the historical experience of Jews—the way they lived, played, and practiced their Judaism.
Conservative Judaism’s emphasis on peoplehood translated into unabashed support for the greatest Jewish peoplehood project of the century. In contrast to Reform Jews and the Orthodox—who for theological reasons were originally ambivalent about the State of Israel—Conservative Judaism, true to its intellectual roots, proudly supported the fledgling state from its inception. As one Conservative thinker succinctly put it, “Conservative Judaism emphasizes the People Israel . . . [the] early and constant concern for founding a state for the Jewish People in the Jewish homeland is easy to understand.”
The same sentiments that made Conservative Judaism the movement du jour for baby boomers also contributed to making the fight against anti-Semitism an important ritual in Jewish life. For good reason, Jews were now more concerned with their own survival than they were with God’s fate. “Not giving Hitler a posthumous victory” and “Am Yisrael Chai” became slogans that virtually any rabbi or communal leader could count on to send chills down the spines of packed congregations and rallies.
These mantras were repeated in fund-raising letters issued by lay-led organizations such as the World Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, and others. As central Jewish organizations that spoke on behalf of American and world Jewry, their energies were primarily directed toward protecting and supporting the Jewish people. Being a Jew meant standing in opposition to anti-Semitism and defending the right not to be discriminated against. These organizations were often led by secular Jews whose knowledge and interest in Judaism began and ended with saving Jewish lives and promoting the political interests of American Jewry.
The fight against anti-Semitism was most acutely waged by those Jews wanting to be loved and embraced by a people or nation (i.e., America), which did not seem interested in reciprocating such feelings. Socially, it became the scarlet letter that Jews wore proudly when they were not allowed to marry someone’s Protestant daughter, denied entry into their local country clubs, Ivy League universities, and banking professions. Anti-Semitism probably did more to engender a strong sense of peoplehood than any text or idea in the Jewish tradition. As has been documented numerous times, Jews responded to acts of anti-Semitic discrimination by creating their own universities (Brandeis), co-opting others (City College and then Brooklyn College), building their own clubs (JCCs), and dominating professions such as real estate that were historically not identified as Jewish.
What made JCCs and similar cultural institutions Jewish was that they brought together people who identified as Jews to play what amounted to games commonly associated with non-Jews. JCCs were the embodiment of the philosophy of peoplehood. While many have dubbed such affiliations as cultural Judaism, the more apt term would be social Judaism. Although Mordechai Kaplan may have envisioned something slightly different, the majority of JCCs around the country became places for Jews to spend time together and to create a parallel universe where they could live out their American social fantasies. Pottery classes, basketball games, swimming pools, and engaging lectures replaced learning, praying, ritual, and spiritual growth as the activities of choice for American Jewry.
The purpose of JCCs was not to develop specifically Jewish forms of art, music, or dance. Rather, it was to provide opportunities for Jews to enjoy the music, art, and dance of the Gentile world in a Jewish social setting. Yes there was the occasional Israeli dance, Bible class, or Jewish film festival. But the Jewish linchpin of such institutions was the Jewishness of its participants, not the emphasis on the development of a uniquely Jewish culture.
Parents who joined peoplehood institutions, JCCs, Jewish-defense organizations, and Israel advocacy groups raised children who were rarely taught Hebrew, Jewish history, or practiced any core Jewish rituals. Yet it was not seen as impolitic or unreasonable for the same parent to expect that, at twenty-five, their child would naturally marry a Jewish spouse. The continuation of the Jewish people was a core value, and in-marriage was seen as nonnegotiable. While Jewish children may never have been given a compelling rationale for why they should be Jewish, parents never even saw the question as being worth asking. If such a conversation between parent and child were to have ensued, it would not be outlandish to surmise that it went as follows: “What do you mean why be Jewish? You are Jewish!”
It seems, however, that as taken as Jews were with defending Jews and Israel against their enemies, they were equally enamored with the possibility of shedding their Jewish identity in the arms of other peoples and nationalities. The skyrocketing intermarriage rate that came to the fore in the 1970s and 1980s and recognized by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey called into question the legitimacy of peoplehood as a communal rallying cry.
While much has been made of the whopping 53 percent of Jews who were intermarrying, studies done on the subject have glossed over the broader constellation of developments that have created this situation. A line of peoplehood runs through the JCCs, the Conservative movement, Kaplan’s ideas, the fight against anti-Semitism, and the major secular Jewish organizations. In some instances, this constellation impressed upon Jews the need for a more robust identity expressed in a commitment to Judaism¯its texts, practices, and values. In most cases, however, it was only attractive enough to ensure that Jews would continue to congregate with one another, befriend other Jews, and marry Jews.
On all fronts, the bendlach of peoplehood has been pulled apart by the multicultural and multiethnic living experience of American Jewry. As reported by Steven Cohen in his study “A Tale of Two Jewries,” over only a decade, from 1990 to 2000, young Jews who claim other Jews as their close friends declined from 43 percent to 33 percent. Conservative Judaism—the movement of peoplehood—is in a state of crisis and flux. And it is precisely the idea of peoplehood that made Conservative Judaism the most popular movement in the 1950s and 1960s that has also made it fall out of favor for American Jews in the twenty-first century. In its stead, movements that have traditionally made ideas, values, and in some cases ritual the defining elements of their worldview have grown in numbers and in influence. While Reform’s growth could be challenged based on their redefinition of Jewish identity (to include those Jews born of a Jewish a parent), what cannot be waved aside is the very noticeable emphasis it is placing on ritual adult education and Jewish study.
At the other end of the spectrum, Orthodoxy’s revival is at least partly indicative of the same trend, namely the stress it places on Judaism as a religion and a way of life. As seen from the Israeli chief rabbinate’s decision not to recognize Conservative and Reform conversions and the general complacency toward such a decision on the part of most American Orthodox Jews, Orthodoxy may actually have been the chief culprit in destroying the concept of peoplehood. Orthodoxy has and continues to be the movement that places the least emphasis on peoplehood as a central Jewish concept. Its founder Sampson Raphael Hirsch’s sectarian decision to break with the organized Jewish community was in line with his general philosophy—that Judaism was eternal, not based on history, social development, or people’s mores and norms. In this regard, Orthodoxy and Hirsch stood diametrically opposed to the Conservative movement’s emphasis on the history of the Jewish people as a core Jewish value. Orthodoxy’s revival has now been documented by many. Its ascendancy can be traced to a number of different factors, not least among them high birthrates, low attrition rates, and a stress on values, learning, and ritual in creating a Jewish culture. Likewise, as seen from a growing involvement of Orthodox Jews in AIPAC and identification with the State of Israel, peoplehood does play a role in the Orthodox worldview. Yet, for better and for worse, it has always been a secondary value for Jewry’s right-wing adherents.
The shift that has raised the profiles of Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism and contributed to the weakening of the Conservative movement has also been replicated in other institutional arenas. Many of the Jewish organizational world’s onetime giants have been reduced to paper tigers, existing more in name and reputation than in need and influence. Slowly they are being replaced by groups promoting Jewish values that have gained in influence and prominence both within Jewish life and in the world at large.
A very tangible microcosmic example of the shift being described is the emergence of the Birthright Israel program, which has already taken more than 100,000 children with one or two Jewish parents to Israel. The program’s success mirrors the argument being made here—namely, as Leonard Saxe’s research has shown, students who go on the ten-day trip do so primarily because it promises a meaningful and enjoyable Jewish experience. The trip itself stresses Jewish learning and visiting religious sites. And by the time they finish, program attendees claim a heightened sense of peoplehood and attachment to the Jewish community. Birthright’s success in instilling a sense of peoplehood is borne out of its engagement with unabashedly Jewish content.
Many peoplehood-oriented organizations and institutions continue to thrive, but newer programs and institutions have leaned more toward using Judaism as a starting point and welcoming mat for engagement and identification. Perhaps one of the most telling statistics in Jewish life is that, whereas in the 1950s and 1960s Jews preferred engaging in non-Jewish activities with Jews, today the opposite trend is emerging. According to Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, in major cities there is increasing evidence that young Jews prefer “to do Jewish”—attend Jewish film festivals, concerts, and text studies—with non-Jews.
The interest in uniquely Jewish activities suggests that one’s Jewish identity is influenced most by the ability of communities and groups to explore and provide credible answers to the question “Why be Jewish?” In other words, what does identification with this people or religion offer to one’s life? At a recent gathering hosted by The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which asked precisely that question, just about the only thing the group of leading Jewish scholars, writers, rabbis, and professors could agree on was that there is no longer one story, narrative, or idea that could hold the totality or even a majority of Jews together.
The challenge confronting the next generation of Jews is to keep the concept of peoplehood from going by the wayside. Many, such as the media guru Douglas Rushkoff, have cavalierly staked out a position that jettisons the concept entirely, writing it off as racist and tribal. The response to those such as Rushkoff and others has been a well-intentioned though historically inaccurate and socially misguided attempt at reasserting the old twentieth-century idea of peoplehood as a starting point for Jewish identity.
What is needed instead is a return to the original Jewish model, where peoplehood was embraced as an outcome of a shared destiny and values, where group attachment was the powerful end result of an engagement with a compelling tradition and spiritual practice. As the past fifty years have demonstrated, peoplehood without the spiritual, ethical, or religious infrastructure of Judaism will not survive. Going back to the holistic model will demand a great deal more attention to creating a thicker and richer Jewish culture capable of answering the existential question of how Judaism can enrich one’s experience of living.
For centuries, questions such as “Why be Jewish?” trumped or at the very least always existed in tandem with Jewish survival and peoplehood questions in communal conversation. We stand up at synagogue for the reading of the Ten Commandments, not for a headcount of the twelve tribes.
While modernity, the Holocaust, the American Jewish experience, and threats to Israel’s existence have forced us to confront serious demographic concerns, oftentimes we use such issues as a veil to cover our ignorance of our own tradition. As the Hebraist Simon Rawidowicz wrote in his classic Israel: the Ever-Dying People , it is easier to kvetch about one’s grandchildren needing to be Jewish than to give them a reason why they should be.
Eliyahu Stern is director of special projects at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and writes for beliefnet.com .