A Requiem for Peoplehood?

Nov. 26, 2009


‘It never even occurred to me that the Jews were a people.” I had just finished speaking on Shabbat morning at a traditional shul on Long Island. The talk had been about the nation-state and its roots in the Book of Genesis. Along the way, I’d made some comments about the changing nature of American Jewish life today, and the much-reduced role that peoplehood now plays in American Jews’ sense of self.TheSecret

After services, someone told me that members of the liberal synagogue across the street had come to hear the talk. Ouch. I’d been rather direct about the dangers of liberal American Judaism’s diminishing the role of peoplehood in Jewish life, and worried that I might have offended the visitors.

But it turns out that they were more intrigued than anything else.

One woman said that the idea that the Jews were a people had never occurred to her. Another person remarked that peoplehood was an interesting idea, but warned that if Jews are a people, ” you’re going to cut 40% of my congregation out of the picture.”

Almost without our noticing, American Jewish life is being dramatically redefined. Especially among the young and the liberal, American Judaism is being recreated in the model of American Protestantism.

Christianity is not about peoplehood. “The Christian People” is a meaningless phrase. Judaism, like Protestantism, has become a faith system, a purely personal – and highly individual – means of constructing meaning in our world.

Judaism as a faith system, of course, is nothing new. But from time immemorial, we have also seen ourselves as a people. From the moment that Pharaoh refers to the Jews as “the people, the Children of Israel” (Exodus 1:9), it is clear even to our enemies that Abraham’s clan has morphed into a nation.

FOR MILLENNIA, rank-and-file Jews understood this. We cultivated bonds of mutual obligation, even when we profoundly disagreed, even when our faith wore thin. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh, all Jews are responsible one for another, the tradition has long insisted.

And it actually worked. It was peoplehood that got American college students to wage a relentless battle to free Soviet Jews, with whom they had virtually nothing obvious in common.

It was due to peoplehood that IAF pilots flew converted cargo planes into an Ethiopian civil war in order to save people of a different race, a radically different faith system and virtually no shared history, bringing them to Israel in Operation Solomon.

And it is peoplehood that has continually led American Jews – despite their absolute disinterest in making aliya and their profound differences with Israel about conversion policy and the peace process – to support Israel both financially and politically.

This move away from peoplehood will continue as intermarriage becomes more common. Flourishing marriages, after all, are possible even when spouses disagree about important issues. And therefore, in the logic of young American Jews, there’s nothing terribly illogical about my choosing to spend my life with someone who’s not Jewish.

After all, on a host of issues, I have my opinions and she has hers. So, too, in religious life. I have my synagogue, she has her church. I have my holidays and she has hers. I believe my beliefs, and she has hers.

But peoplehood? If I’m a member of a people, then there’s actually a yawning chasm between us. And since she has no interest in becoming Jewish, it’s Judaism – and not she – that must change. Consciously or not, I sense that Judaism must be redefined – as a faith system, a personal odyssey, as “my Judaism,” to use a problematic phrase now popular among American Jews.

As anything but a people.

YET WITHOUT peoplehood at the core of American Jewish life, devotion to Israel becomes a choice, not an instinct, as it used to be. Young American Jews look with horror at the suffering of Palestinians, and decide that this conflict is simply not theirs.

One of the founders of Fast for Gaza (www.fastforgaza.net) wrote recently that “unlike previous generations, [today’s young American Jews] don’t necessarily understand their Judaism in traditionally tribal terms anymore. Rather, they are increasingly viewing their Jewishness against a larger, more universal global reality. In short, to be a Jew and a global citizen is what gives them ‘goose bumps.'”

This writer himself admits – the new, personal, less “tribal” (i.e., less peoplehood-oriented) Judaism is more animated by global citizenship than by a sense of Jewish responsibility. (That’s why they fast for Gazans, and not for Israelis under Gaza rocket fire or for Gilad Schalit, I assume.) From afar, it would seem that there is little that Israel and Israelis can do to influence this seismic shift.

But the dangers to Israel’s security as a result of this change are obvious. Something must be done.

One idea for starters: Recent studies show that a quick trip on Birthright has lasting implications for Jewish identification, and dramatically lowers intermarriage rates, for example. It’s because in Israel, Jews encounter peoplehood, with all its problems, but also with its triumphs.

It’s time to take the Birthright concept and expand it. Two-thirds of Canadian Jews and 75 percent of Australian and French Jews have been to Israel, but about two-thirds of American Jews have never even visited. That has to change.

Even in this economy, there is more than enough American Jewish money to get the vast majority of American Jews to Israel, to witness first-hand the power of peoplehood and, perhaps, to transform the dangerous, emerging American Jewish sense that attachment to other Jews and their state is a relic of the past.

We know what’s at stake. Those people who never even imagined that Jews are a people are the men and women who in a generation will be running the federations, many of America’s synagogues and national organizations. They will be setting communal agendas and disbursing American Jews’ money. Either they will argue our case on Capitol Hill, or no one will.

We would be fools to imagine that we do not need those American Jews at our side. But we’d be equally foolish to believe that they’ll care one whit about us, unless we can restore peoplehood to the central value it used to be.

[Photo credit for “The Secret”: Zion Ozeri, at www.zionozeri.com]

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

38 Comments on "A Requiem for Peoplehood?"

  • I’m a now retired S.African born, UK citizen, living in Greece, whose Judaism has always been (and remains) more tribal than religious…. despite which I ‘married out’ – and have had a wonderful 39 year marriage. Our daughter is clearly not eligible to be Jewish – but regards herself as such – tribally’. My first visit to Israel 20 years ago had an extraordinary effect on my psyche and emotions….as it did on my daughter. This has not taken us towards religious Judaism, but has made us fiercely protective of the Israeli state in our interactions with others who are quick to criticize (and worse. I heartily endorse your suggestion that US based Jews should visit, at least once. Many will be surprised at what they feel when they see the Western Wall. Shalom.

  • Daphna Oren says

    It has never occurred to me that Judaism is about anything OTHER than a peoplehood. Of course, it posits and lays out in occasionally excruciating detail the practical means to following a faith, practicing a religion. But those elements are the means, not the end. (Even though we are taught that halacha is both the means and the end. And even if one doesn’t quite subscribe to the end, the means are vital to Jewish life.) The end – the goal, the objective, the raison d’etre – is the creation and nourishment of a people to elevate existence. It is the existential answer to the meaning of life. Judaism has the power, richness, abundance, and potential it has because it forges a community to support itself as it strives for meaning in a challenging world.
    Adam wasn’t enough to complete the world. He was given a partner k’negdo – to work with/opposite to him – and once they created the mischief they did (as we all do) they became and built a world we have come to know. And if we do not have others k’negdenu – to work with and opposite to us – we don’t have a hope. We are a people often looking for light, sometimes providing light, and even possibly basking in those miraculous rays of light. And we can only engage thusly with the resources of a community to support these efforts.
    It goes without saying that these statements can be categorically true without diminishing other cultures, peoples, religions, groupings. For this people, however, one can still say it’s a glittering path to pursue.

  • At UJA National, we saw how Missions were so wonderful and effective…so Birthright is the way to go!

  • Yes!!!

  • Deena Oren says

    Thank you. You have clarified for me what has been bothering me about Conservative Judaism’s attitude toward Israel as it is in the U.S. today. This will be material for me to focus my efforts within the Israel Affairs committee of my synagogue.

  • Sasha says

    As a European and “only” half-Jewish on my father’s side (the wrong half, according to some) of course the American viewpoint described is very different to that which I, and many acquaintances with a similar background experience. I have been to a synagogue only once in my life and was brought up in a Christian country but with exposure to many faiths and philosophies, and from a religious viewpoint don’t classify myself under any real label (hermeticist would come closest). However as a “person” and in terms of “my people” I am a Greek Jew and have felt that way for as long as I can remember (despite having spent half my life in the UK). Israel was the only other country apart from Greece where I have truly felt as if I was “at home” despite not speaking more than 10 words of Hebrew.

    This is something that I think was up to the older generation (now in their 60s and 70s) to instil, and if that sense is being lost in America (along with many other aspects re identity) then perhaps it really is up to rabbis, Jewish community leaders, and yes, the older generation, to get involved and attempt to pass along that message while there still is time. History lessons at a young age also help considerably (I was 5 when my father sat me down to watch “The Holocaust” film back in the early ’80s – and when I asked why he was letting me watch something I knew was “unsuitable” for my age, I was told: “Because we must never forget”. It worked. Jewish grandparents in the US could do worse than to follow such examples since the family influence “should” be the strongest, while also teaching the younger generations about the more positive aspects of what it means to be Jewish, customs, traditions, and the risks so many ran to keep their sense of peoplehood on pain of death…

  • Lee Jaffe says

    You spoke to my case exactly. I thought my Jewish identity was
    a choice and that I could stand apart. Ironically it was all the
    negative stuff being thrown at the Jews and Israel that made
    me reevaluate that view. It’s like family: you can say want you
    want about your own, avoid them, even disown them, but as
    soon someone else makes a crack, you are once again a loyal
    member. I finally went to Israel for the first time this year at
    the age of 55. I don’t know that I understand things any better
    — I’m more confused, if anything — but my commitment to
    the Jewish people and therefore Israel is strong.

  • Beverly W. Apel says

    Over 55 years ago when I was in Hebrew school, I had a history text book titled “When the Jewish People Were Young”. Obviously, it did its job, as I have always thought of us as a People.

  • Sam Berry says

    I am an almost 90 year old, veteran of
    the American army during WW2, who served in
    North Africa and Italy. In Casablanca I met
    Jews who told me if we, the Americans, had not come they would have been killed. In
    Italy I met Jews from Poland, Yugoslavia and
    other countries, who had either fled their
    countries or had survived the concentration
    To further identify myself, I am an atheist.
    Therefore I can say that you miss the point
    about what Judaism is. Whether we are a
    religion only or a people does not matter.
    The Nazis of Germany, the Fascists of Italy,
    the Iron Guard of Hungary or Romania, the
    anti-semites of Poland, Lithuania, France,
    Yugoslavia, etc. did not ask whether you
    were a religion or a peop[e, whether your
    mother was Jewish or only your father. To
    them you were Jewish and, therefore, subject to immediate death by beating, gas
    chamber or slow death by concentration camp. They did not ask if you were religious or not. They were the ones who
    decided what you were. And they decided
    you were Jewish.
    Therefore, that is my identification. I am
    Jewish, American, and thank the God I do not
    believe in for Israel.

  • Daniel Gordis has a gift for expressing profound ideas in a simple clear way that any reader can understand, and I wish many more people would slow down enough to consider Daniel’s wise counsel. As an Anglican bishop, I have tried to explain the facts, as I understand them, about Jews as a people and not just another branch of American Protestantism to many people. Yes, it seems strange to me, at times, that I cannot become part of that people without surrendering my own heritage, but at other times I “get it” and just accept that G-d will sort it out. I must keep a promise I made as a child to stand with Israel- the people and the Land.

  • Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom All,

    Below is a link to my comments on Rabbi/Dr. Gordis’ post of 5 weeks ago that are on topic for this post as well. I’ve also included a link to a blogpost of Rabbi/Dr. Rami Shapiro which is on topic as well.

    Shavu’a tov,



  • Howard Cohen says

    If you marry a person from a different faith or culture and you find your peoplehood, what of your current relationship? Do you throw it away in the name of finding yourself? These are not simple issues.

  • Leonard Fein says

    This Gordis essay is among the more disturbing things I’ve read lately. As nearly as I can discern, Gordis offers exactly one reason for investing in the idea of Jewish peoplehood: That investment is good for Israel. Jewish peoplehood, in other words, is of instrumental value only; it is without intrinsic value or meaning. I don’t believe Gordis believes that, but that is what he says.

    As it happens, I am not aware that the expression “my Judaism” is, as Gordis says, “popular” among American Jews. Indeed, I have never heard anyone use it. And: What, pray tell, is so wrong-headed about being simultaneously a Jew and a global citizens, a position that Gordis dismisses? Does being part of the Jewish people require one to relinquish the world? Does being Jewish trump everything else? That is not the Jewish peoplehood nor the Judaism I understand.

    Birthright for everyone might help. So would an end the preposterous behavior of Haredi Jews and to the decidedly unhealthy and mutually corrupting rlationship between synagogue and state. So would responsible behavior in respect to Palestinian Israelis. A close relationship to Israel is at least in part contingent on Israel’s realities. If medievalism and discrimination are expressions of Jewish peoplehood, many will wander away. I am sorry that love of Zion is not genetically transmitted, that it is no longer instinctive, that it has become contingent. But it is time to accept the contingency and to understand its sources — and to shape our response to it in ways that have meaning beyond the instrumental.

  • Marc says

    A People–yes! i visited Israel for 1st time last year at 46 yrs old and it changed my life and certainly my perspective on peace in Israel. getting diaspora Jews to visit Israel is important factor for saving Israel.

  • Naomi says

    Thank you for articulating an extremely important point that has bothered me for many years. My son took a World Religions class in his (secular) high school and the non-Jewish teacher talked about “the Jewish faith.” It drove me crazy – Judaism is not a faith, it is a people, a nationality, a way of life. Back in elementary school he had a unit on immigration. What is his national origin? Certainly it is not Russian or German, although his great-grandparents were born in Russia and Germany…his nationality is JEWISH.

  • Miriam Pat says

    Judaism for me has always been peoplehood! I can’t imagine it any other way. So, thanks for writing this very important essay to remind everyone how important it is for American Jews to visit Israel and becoming part of the peoplehood of who we are!

  • CS Goldstein says

    Belonging to the Jewish People is something one is born into, like it, or not.It is not, as Mr. Fein states, contingent on whether, or not, one supports Israel. What Mr. Berry retells resulted from a campaign built on the millinial Hate against the Jews, which has resurfaced again, especially in the last ten years. So, no matter how one actually regards oneself, if one is a Jew by birth, the non-Jewish world defines what and who is a Jew, and uses it for its own purposes of eradicating us.
    Mr. Fein, it is not for those not living in Israel to sit in judgment and make its continuing existence more perilous as you consistently do in your articles.If you do not like parts of Israeli life, fine.Do you like every little bit of life in America? In Argentina, Canada, Russia, China, India? What nation, and/or People, is perfect? The Heridi have every right to be who they are.There are several different forms of the very religious groups.You demonstrate how lacking in Jewish History you are in your statements.Do you think, the terrorists and Arab Israelis, who live better and more freely than in any other Arab/Muslim community in almost 57 countries of Muslims,have a right to murder,
    to terrorize, to launch rockets, day in and day out, regardless of any and all attempts to come to peaceful resolutions? Why are Jews fair game for every psychopathic entity?
    They lost, Mr. Fein, several wars intended to wipe out Israel and millions of
    Jews.The problem is the Arab/Muslim world refuses to accept any standards of International Law. If they had after ’47,
    the War for Independence, the ’67 War, etc.
    they could have had many more decades of prosperity. Instead they cleverly drove home lies, again and again, and the world leaders and media went along with these lies and myths- and paid billions to their corrupt leaders on top of it.
    The hard Truth is any Jew who doesn’t support Israel’s right to exist as the sovereign, democratic nation that it is,
    is living in denial, or in ignorance, and is willing to accept the current policy of the US Administration, the EU, the UN, and Russia,
    and is willing to accept responsibility for
    the destruction of Israel and another 6.2M Jews.They are willing to carry that burden.Ask the Germans what that is like.

  • Steven says

    This is the second time that you have been thinking exactly the same thing as me, at the same time. I was recently contenting with a foolish person claiming that the Jewish people are not a people. It was surreal, he thought that it was some sort of debate, but its a simple matter of fact.

  • Maureen Dewan says

    As a committed Jew, both, bot tribally (though I chose Judaism, was not born into it) and religiously, I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestions as to how to enable the younger generations to identify with the Jewish people. But I think you are missing an important point exposed by your article, which is that we cannot ignore that damage to our own people being done by the plight of the Palestinians. Subtley, almost surreptitiously, it makes us question the depth of our commitment as a people to tikkun olam doesn’t it? I do not suggest that their situation is all our fault…far from it! But if we succeed in teaching our children that we truly care about the suffering of others, can we simultaneously be surprised when they turn their attention to the horrific poverty and deprivation in Gaza? Yes, they should care most about Gilad Shalit, the people of Sderot, and their ISraeli brothers and sisters who serve daily to keep Israel safe, but you have exposed just another consequence of the failure to make peace. Maybe “peace” as a goal is beyond us, but what is within our grasp then? I will be in Israel in about two weeks to visit my dearest friends, and i must still believe that there will be a time when our children and grandchildren will know a different “matsav.” Maureen Dewan

  • Brynn Olenberg Sugarman says

    I agree one hundred percent with this! I would love to see an awakening amongst American Jews of the joys and responsibility of people/nation hood.

    But I wonder if in a generation from now, the American Jewish vote on behalf of Israel will be as important as it is today, not because a pro-Israel contingent isn’t desirable-it always is, everywhere- but because America is a slowly setting sun when it comes to super power status. This is of its own volition: after all, the nation recently voted in a president who apologizes to the world’s despots for the presumptuous behavior of the West, rather than proudly promoting Western democracy.
    As a result, perhaps we should be looking east instead of west – and making sure that the rising suns of China and India continue to democratize-with a pro-Israel interest at heart!

    Brynn Sugarman
    Ra’anana, Israel

  • Glenn Farber says

    Judaism *is* a means of “constructing meaning in our world”. Personal and individual, yes, but also a communal mission to improve the world. Ideally, it needs to be both. Rabbi Gordis chastises those whose Judaism is purely religious, but skips over the opposite side of the story. What about the members of “the people” who are not interested in that communal mission?

    He quotes the book of Exodus, where our enemy Paro defines us as a people, but the rabbis did not define us that way. Even in Egypt, there were those who were part of the genealogical people who chose not to be part of that communal mission. Those people – those who did not engage in the commanded korban Pesach, and those who wished to remain outside of the religious mission of the Hebrews – remained outside of the people Israel.

    The people Israel, as seen in the Torah and in the interpretations of the rabbis, included those who were part of the religious practice, the halakha. And those who chose to remain outside of that religious practice, were recognized as outsiders.

    So the Jews whose Jewish values cause them sympathy for Palestinians are acting in accordance with real Jewish values. And those who have no religious connections or sympathies whatsoever are outside of the Jewish people – even if they write checks to JNF or march in parades carrying the flag of the state of Israel.

    Rabbi Gordis uses the example of the “yawning chasm” that a sense of peoplehood creates in an intermarried couple. But that same tremendous division exists between those who are devoted to Jewish life, and those whose idea of Jewish life is Sunday morning bagels. Peoplehood – nationalism is a false god, and cannot paper over the divisions that Rabbi Gordis thinks it might.

  • Marsha says

    I agree with Daniel Gordis. Judaism is more than a religion. We have always also been a people, even when scattered all over the world. I propose a humble “birthright” idea. Why not have the thousands of ex-pat American, Canadian, and British,etc. families living all over Israel invite their former countrymen to visit them and/or host them for all or part of a future trip to Israel? Perhaps this could be coordinated by regional consul-general offices in those respective countries. In that way we, here in Israel, would actively be reaching out to join hands in sharing our Israel experiences and what better way to express this peoplehood than to personally invite someone? Let’s all try to bring our two halves of the Jewish People together this year.

  • Arlene Stark says

    I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusions but I do think Daniel Gordis has put his finger on something real about American Jews. Those of us who grew up Jewish in places like New York really felt this thing called “peoplehood”. Very often, for secular Jews and Zionist Jews, the religious side of Judaism took a back seat to this sense of culture and community. With the current rate of intermarriage among American Jews, anyone who expects the draw of the religion to entice the children of intermarriage into identification as Jews will, I think, be disappointed. Maybe the draw of Israel will do it — the way Italian and Irish Americans feel a connection with their heritage countries. But what I’d like to say to Daniel Gordis is that Israelis had better find a way quickly to a durable two-state solution. I’m not sure how much longer they can rely on enough Jewish-American support to influence American policy toward an Israel that continues to expand settlements as if they are prepared to live with the status quo indefinitely.

  • Mara says

    Wide dissemination of this article among the leaders and organizers of Birthright would prove to be of benefit to Jewish young adults who have been for a very long time on the waiting list of Birthright. Young adults are not only wait listed but they receive no communication about the status of their application

  • Peter Clemerson says

    I despaired when I read:
    “YET WITHOUT peoplehood at the core of American Jewish life, devotion to Israel becomes a choice, not an instinct, as it used to be.”

    I do not know whether the word “instinct” was being used literally or metaphorically, but if the former, Gordis opens himself to accusations of racism. Instincts are genetically based and those of a given species are universal within that species. No person is born with an instinct for devotion to Israel and to suggest otherwise is to suggest that some people inherit genes for such a devotion that others do not have. That would be as good an example of racism as that of the Nazis who tried to convince themselves that Jews were inferior to other people.

    Gordis must know that no such genes exist.

    He may be referring to a universal inclination, possibly genetically based, to identify possessively with a particular territory, usually the one in which one is born, raised and from which one obtains ones sustenance throughout childhood. However, for that sense of self-identity to be changed, even partly, from one to another, as would be the case for American Jewry, requires years of exposure to a culture promoting the latter.

    One could conclude that he uses the term “instinct” metaphorically although that sense is contrary to the obvious meaning in his article. If so used, any devotion to Israel must once again be accepted as purely cultural. Later in life, one can choose, at least to some extent, whether or not to adhere to the cultural mores in which one was raised.

    There is nothing wrong with a devotion to Israel but let’s be honest with ourselves about its origin. Ultimately, it derives entirely from the exposure to a particular culture.

    I write as a non-jew married to a Jewish woman. If our children choose to be Jewish in any sense other than having that label placed upon them as a consequence of their mother’s cultural background, that is their cultural choice.

    Peter Clemerson

  • David says

    Have you ever read Harold Bloom’s *The American Religion*? It documents how the end-fate of all mainstream American religions is to look alike and demand of its adherents pretty much the same things.

    As per Maureen Dowd’s comments: I can’t think of a nation that has treated the “Other” in its midst – or in this case, a people across the way who have sworn to destroy that nation – with more concern over its suffering. I know of no military that takes more care or is more suffused with the desire to spare the suffering of its enemies and especially its noncombatant civilians. The IDF is not perfect, but it’s the most merciful on the face of the Earth, especially considering its beleaguered and besieged situation.

  • Lee Jaffe says

    A few fitter points… so far noone has mentioned one of the more convincing bits evidence of our peoplehood: when a person chooses Judaism you take a Jewish name appended by bat/ben Avraham v’Sarah; in other words you become one of the Jewish people. Is this true of any other religion?

    Also, in response to another comment, I don’t believe R’ Gordis is arguing that the reason to identify as a people is to defend Israel. Instead I believe he’s saying that the the peculiar nature of Jewish opposition to Israel can only be explained by denial of peoplehood. There is a difference between those who approach these issues while standing with the Jewish people and those who see themselves as apart.

  • Gordis’ point is obvious but extremely important.  Just as are the parallel points made in his new book, ‘Saving Israel’.  Neither Jews nor living Judaism nor a Jewish state can survive unless sufficient heed and sufficient power are devoted both in the USA and in Israel to Jews being aware of and acting as a people. 

    As Gordis notes, here and now in the USA – as always everywhere in the past – being Jewish cannot mean the same sort of thing as being Christian.  Jews are a people.  One can be born Jewish.  No one is ever, or can be,  ‘born Christian’.  There may be a Christendom, but there is no ‘Christian people’.

    The non-fatal weakness of the book ‘Saving Israel’ is that it is needlessly repetitious, being obviously stitched together from various separate essays.  This article’s non-fatal weakness is of another kind.     

    Namely, given its focus on Jews and Judaism in the USA, it is difficult to understand the article’s skimping on a few extra words that could clarify the USA situation, thereby to shed light on possible further options (beyond Birthright Israel) for promoting the centrality of Jewish peoplehood among Jews in the USA.  The article speaks only of a ‘traditional’ as versus a ‘liberal’ synagog – a misleading dichotomy which anyhow does not suffice to describe relevant differences in peoplehood attitudes among USA synagogs or their members, let alone synagog-unaffiliated Jews. And then the article lurches away even from this dichotomy to another difference: between intermarried and non-intermarried Jews. 

    Intermarriage is indeed important. The biggest challenge to Jewish peoplehood is posed by ‘hard’ intermarriages, where the non-Jewish spouse does not eventually convert before serious motherhood. After all, although conversion is a ‘faith’ ritual, its deep import is that, like Ruth, the convert is becoming part of Am Yisrael, a distinctive people. Ironically, in Israel now, the onus seems now to be on those who could – but don’t – administer and promote conversions that acknowledge and thereby legitimize and cement existing attitudes of shared peoplehood.

    Actions like Birthright Israel can materially help change the future outlook, so that peoplehood becomes unquestionably central to Judaism in the USA. In addition to expanding Birthright, other good options may exist too.

    To enable us to grasp what these might be, serious readers would do well to augment this article with a more adequate look at the variety of challenges and opportunities within movements, activities and categories of Jews in the USA and Israel. Two comments follow along that line.

    (1) In the USA as in Israel, a major challenge for Jewish persons and institutions (notably Orthodox and some Renewal) which stress intense observance is to act in accord with the fact that more- and less-intensely observant fellow Jews are equally members of our People. Equally entitled to recognition as Jews. And, in the state of Israel, therefore equally responsible to defend the nation.

    For the Israel case, in Gordis book ‘Saving Israel’ a key recommendation is that Israel’s institutionalized Orthodox leadership finally take responsibility to reach out, in the spirit of HaRav Kook z”l, to promote halakhic dynamism that responds affirmatively and non-frivolously to challenges and opportunities for ordinary Jews in today’s Israel.

    Jews everywhere have waited far too long for this necessary step to happen on its own.  Evidently it won’t. As a matter of survival of nation and people it is past time for responsible national political leadership to get serious and make it a priority.  As ‘Saving Israel’ and other sources have pointed out, our survival as a strong, numerous and united people is imperiled when those who are given political power to be arbiters of membership and heritage-based norms are allowed to indulge or impose gratuitously negative, exclusionary or unconcerned attitudes, or to focus on frivolities.  

    (2) In the USA the Conservative, Reconstructionist and current Reform movements are explicitly or implicitly highly committed to centrality of peoplehood. Members – both more and less ‘liberal’ – view this commitment as supported in our time, not diminished, by the fact that their synagogs’ services usually are egalitarian or otherwise not totally traditional.

    Many other Jews in the USA are synagog-unaffiliated. Some may be indifferent to the Jewish people, but – as will be appreciated by many so-called ‘secular’ Israelis – many really do regard themselves primarily as members of the living Jewish people and less as holders of a specific kind of Jewish ‘faith’. This tenacity of attitude, owing in part to existence of the state of Israel, is notable in a society where for decades Judaism has been publicly imaged as primarily ‘faith’, habit or mere nostalgia.

    In both cases, for the unaffiliated and for the noted synagog movements and their members, the danger to centrality of peoplehood comes primarily from the source Gordis identifies: namely, from the fact of massive inter-marriage and the attempt to make the best of inter-marriage situations. Yes, today inter-marriage reinforces – and is reinforced by – the attitude that Judaism is just a faith and not peoplehood.

    However this attitude in the USA was strongly promoted and established long before intermarriage numbers became significant.  When masses of Jews came to the USA – mainly in the few decades before WW1 – unlike almost all other immigrant ethnics they did not come from their recognized ethnic homeland. In terms of the times, they could not be appreciated as members of a Jewish nation. Moreover, in conformity with the then-predominant old-time (as versus today’s) Reform Jewish voices in the USA, Jews found it easiest to explain their position in the USA by describing themselves as being just like other Americans, only of a distinct ‘faith’. 

    CONCLUSION. Gordis has raised a key issue which is in fact opportune for action in the USA.

    In the last century American society has marched a long road in understanding and acceptance. Nowadays Americans accept that fellow American citizens may well be participating members of distinctive living and developing – not merely extinct or historical – peoples and nations. These include small American native tribes, and at the other extreme China and India. In today’s USA we Jews now have an opportunity to be affirmative, clear and open about our peoplehood and the centrality of Am Yisrael in Judaism.

    Joseph Weinstein, Ph.D., Long Beach CA USA

  • Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom All,

    The further removed in time a non Orthodox Jew in America is from their family’s immigrant experience, the less meaningful ethnic/peoplehood definitions of Judaism will be in her/his daily life. And the waning importance of the State of Israel to most of those Jews is but one spoke in the wheel of ethnic/cultural/peoplehood Jewishness/Judaism. All that’s left of “Judaism” for most who identify as Jews in America is the trivial to nearly meaningless “Jewishness,” that manifests as lifecycle “fixes” (b’not/b’nei mitzva births weddings and funerals), the occasional perceived need for a worship service e.g., high holidays (yet another “guilt fix” for ever fewer Jews), the Holocaust/anti semitism, and let’s not forget an occasional trip to the Jewish deli/restaurant.

    This residual Jewishness will go the way of borscht belt humor and the Catskills. As the older generations pass, nostalgia will have less and less of a pull. It (nostalgia) already holds little or no sway with my two sons, one a Gen X’er and one a Gen Y’er, And the same can be said of their peers.

    People do things for two reasons: because they want to or because they have to. For the vast majority who identify as Jews (probably close to 2 out of 3) who are unaffiliated as well as the majority of the non Orthodox affiliated, Judaism, the synagogue and supporting the State of Israel are not in the “have to” (read obligatory) category and no amount of handwringing or ostrich-like desire to turn the clock back to the “good old days” (read the 1950’s and 60’s) will change that fact. What’s left is the great opportunity to persuade those Jews to “convert” to the “want to” group. In today’s consumerist world, Judaism/the synagogue/Israel must compete in the arena of ideas and leisure time/discretionary income choices. People will give of their time, talents and tithes to that which is perceived to have value. Synagogues, Judaism and Israel are perceived by the masses of Jews as having at best marginal value and thus the result is at best marginal commitment. Most non Orthodox Jews see no meaningful value in Judaism or Jewishness; thus it’s no surprise to see that the idea of a Jewish state for these folks is of little or no real value.

    The problem is relevance, specifically the lack thereof. Most Jews have voted with their feet that the synagogue and/or Judaism is/are irrelevant. Judaism and synagogues have to re-earn their place in the life of most who identify as Jews. To do this, synagogues need to deliver a Judaism which is relevant, practical, challenging and life application oriented, showing that Judaism actually speaks to life as it is lived and experienced in the 21rst century, ie., teach and talk about what Judaism has to say about our physical, financial, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being. The folks want to know that the synagogue and and Jewish teaching, have “walked a mile in their moccasins.” People ought to leave the synagogue saying, “yes they really get it,” and not “so what,” or heaven forbid, “whatever.” The only hope for Judaism’s life transforming prescription of a life of holiness as well as the re prioritizing of Israel, is through the doorway of relevance.

    As Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church as well as the author of “A Purpose Driven Life,” has said: “clergy need to ’say something on Sunday that people can use on Monday.’ ” Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman who wrote “Rethinking Synagogues” calls this: sermons that emphasize where “Torah meets life.” So “on one foot” rabbi’s (and I’ve heard many from the pews over the years) need to become/be made more aware that the content of their bimah teaching always be about answering the question, “why think/do Jewish?”

    In the High Holiday liturgy we find “B’rosh hashana yikateivun, u’v’yom tsom kippur, yeikhateimun, mi yixyeh umi yamut…” On Rosh haShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed; who shall live and who shall die…..So the question is “will the synagogue and non orthodox Judaism be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year?” God only knows and it doesn’ t seem like we’re doing much to help Her/Him out with the decision. What is the necessary redefinition of “t’ shuvah, t’fillah, u’ts’daqah” needed to “avert the severe decree” i.e., to change the fate of the synagogue and non-orthodox Judaism?
    We must restore the relevance of non Orthodox Judaism before we can begin to expect wider support for Israel.

    There is hope and it is in learning the lessons of successful megachurches, a segment of organized religious life that continues to grow in contradistinction to the remainder of protestant denominations as well as non orthodox Judaism, that are in decline. Kudos to the Reform movement who had Pastor Rick Warren at their Biennial convention in Dec., 2007, for recognizing this important Truth. One of those lessons is found above in the paragraph that begins “The problem is relevance…

    Jordan Goodman

  • Murray Kiok says

    All my ancestors are Jewish, and I feel like I’m part of the Jewish People. I worked for the Jewish people for twenty-three years as an Executive Director of Jewish organizations. I have also visited my relatives in Israel and was a host to them when they visited the USA. I feel patriotic when I criticize the American government. I’m trying to right a wrong. Since I do not live in Israel I often find it hard to criticize the Israeli Government. I think expressing my desire to see Israel safe and prosperous in a hostile world is my right as a member of the Jewish people. I also think It is my duty to the Jewish people, to point out actions the Israeli Government has taken which in my humble opinion is not in the best interests of the Jewish people. I can’t be unbiased because I’m Jewish. At the same time, I can’t shut my eyes when I see actions taken by the Israeli Government when that action is not in the best interest of the Jewish people.

  • DJ Stahl says

    The concept of a “people” in the general sense is discussed by anthropologists like Ernst Gellner and Benedict Anderson. These ideas are applied by historians like Rashid Khalidi. And they’re understood in specific ways today in the popular mind, particularly in the upper-middlebrow mindset that today is typical of many American Jews.

    The concept of a “people” goes back millennia. Its utility is questioned by universalists, nowadays Marxists and many therapists. Jung of course was a universalist, and Freud ultimately arrived at that viewpoint, rejecting Jewish peoplehood and advocating assimilation and universalism as the solution for the “Jewish problem.” They and their disciples are influential among most therapists today, and universalism informs most therapy. Not a surprise that many who write generally are vehemently opposed to Zionism and the state of Israel. Joel Kovel, Derek Summerfield, Benyamin Beit-Hallahmi and Carlo Strenger are well known. But undoubtedly such attitudes also permeate any therapy.

    Yet nowadays most progressives also assert that truth is never absolute. If so, how can we know which culture, or “people,” is best for humanity? Clearly dozens or hundreds of “peoples” is best for the globe. We maintain “heirloom” tomatoes and grains; monoculture is bad for wheat. Monoculture, that is, universalism, must also be bad for humanity.

    Further, if the idea of a “people” is retrograde and tribalistic, why defend Palestinian “peoplehood”? It is among the most tenuous and recent.

    The progressive “party line” contains both these inherent contradictions, among others.

  • i grew up in the 50’s in an assimilated home with few traditions other than to DRIVE to our relatives for the high holidays.oh, we didn’t eat bread on passover.
    HOWEVER—my grandparents were from europe and i had great aunts and uncles who spoke with an accent. we lived in a jewish neighborhood,all my friends were jewish( except one) and when old enough, i was only allowed to date jewish boys.
    how does all of this relate to peoplehood? CONNECTION to people who are similar and separation from those who are different. the ‘instinct’ was for israel, the people, who in 1948 were given permission to create a state in the land that was given to us by G-d. WOW!!!that’s a jump— my kids don’t understand that deep connection from jew to jew across continents and centuries. mr. gordis, i fear that the ignorance of judaism experienced and passed on by my generation, has robbed our children of an inheritance that came easily to us. birthright, yes–that’s a quick,but often temporary answer—we NEED to TEACH OUR CHILDREN HOW TO BE JEWISH and that begins with toddlers—not teens.
    back to the basics–
    …though that isnt a guarantee of creating an environment in which the idea of jewish peoplehood can flourish–it is a beginning
    i only wish that i had understood that what came so naturally for me had to be taught to my children.

  • Dave Walker says

    I am an American Jew married to a Christian woman who agreed that if we ever had kids, that they would be raised Jewish. I was not particularly religious, having been raised in a reform synagogue and having basically quit attending shortly after my Bar Mitzvah. After we had children, my wife (to whom religion was a significantly more important part of her life than it was mine) said to me simply, “It is important to me that our children have a religious identity and I cannot raise them to be Jewish on my own. If you want Jewish children, you need to take the lead.” And so I did. We ended up joining a Conservative synagogue (~25% interfaith families although the Conservative movement seems to be having its own significant problems with maintaining membership), had the kids ritually converted by our rabbi and became active members of this small Jewish community. To celebrate our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, we traveled to Israel as part of a 2 week Bar/Bat Mitzvah tour. Rachel cannot wait to go back on Birthright in a couple of years. Our younger daughter has asked if we can go back for her Bat Mitzvah two years from now. And my Christian wife, who was leery about going to Israel before the trip, has been a vocal advocate for both Israeli tourism and the importance of the survival of the State of Israel. Maybe our situation is unique but I think maybe not. We were not the only interfaith family on the tour (of approx. 40 families). But getting there is definitely the key to building a lasting bond.

  • Anne S. says

    I joined the Jewish People. I chose become one with Klal Israel. I educated my children so that they are at one with the Jewish People, and have kept a Jewish home and a Jewish heart.
    If others do not value their Jewish membership, I will serve as a stubborn reminder that Ha Shem chose us for a purpose.
    Running away and embracing foolishness will only make you alone and foolish.
    Together, we are strong, and more likely to listen to G-d’s word.

  • Maurice Finkelstein says

    I assume it was your father, uncle or grandfather who officiated at my Bar Mitzvah 57 yrs ago in Belle Harbor, Rockaway. As I was reading down the comments to your article, universally complimentary, I was surprised to see one from Leonard Fein, my favorite columnist in The Forward. As usual I agree with his comments wholeheartedly.

    Of course Jewish “peoplehood” thrived for hundreds of years when no alternative was realistic. My children live in a totally assimilated world and my grandchildren have little association with Judism even though the oldest five have all been Bar/Bat Mitzvahed. Two of them, plus a nephew, have been to Israel on Birthright. The idea that this 10 day adventure will affect their choice of a life partner is preposturous.

    I would suggest that you make an effort to attend next year’s J Street annual conference. There you’ll find old civil rightsniks like me, but also the future of American Jewry’s views and attitudes toward Israel. The slogan “my country right or wrong” has never been popular with American Jews, and the same goes for our second country, Israel. How does the issue of “dual loyalty” affect your notions of Peoplehood by the way? And you misinterpret our concerns about the Palestinians. Yes, we’re concerned for their “suffering”, but we’re more concerned about the outrageous policies of the Israeli government. Israel may well be a country of Jews, but there’s nothing Jewish about the way its government governs.

    And one more thing. Stop focusing on intermarraige. So far, in my family, everyone has married Jews and there have been 4 divorces. Our Synagogues and JCCs could do a much better job focusing on Jewish couples who show little interest rather than spending so much energy trying to influence who falls in love with whom, a hopeless task.

    Israelis and American Jews couldn’t be more different. In America Pres. Obama got the votes of 78% of our vote. In Israel he’d be lucky to get 22%. Best wishes!

  • DJ Stahl says

    Glenn Farber’s comment is typical of a problem the Jewish people faces today, from the opposite end of the spectrum. Some of what he says is false, and much of it is callous.

    But regrettably I hear more of this sort of thing. It may resonate with those religious Jews who unconsciously are bitter at the sense of deprivation they feel, regarding the pleasures of secular life, and envious of those Jews who partake of them, while still claiming the name “Jew.” What is called “ressentiment.”

    But this attitude is so carefully constructed that it doesn’t seem to have happened by chance. And it appears so often, somewhat like a viral-marketing campaign, that it seems actively driven.

    Lately, for example, I’ve heard not merely Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchick, and Rav Teichtal disparaged, but even Rav Gustman, z”l.

    A sufficient response to Mr. Farber is on aish.com and elsewhere.

  • JP Golbert says

    I have spoken before mixed audiences of Jews and non-Jews about Jews and Israel and I like to pose the following questions.

    I am old enough to remember when Americans spoke of “the American destiny.” I have hardly heard the expression for the last 50 years, not since Vietnam. How many of you believe that America has a destiny, with no further definition? I have not done this since 1986. At that time, about a fourth of the hands went up. My guess is that today, not more than one or two aged hands would go up, but that’s just my guess.

    Now, how many of you believe the Jewish people has a destiny? As late as 1986, nearly all the hands went up. How many would go up today? How many of those would be Jews. I would guess that a larger percentage of non-Jews than Jews would raise their hands.

    Jews are afraid of the implications. Non-Jews are not. A black cabbie at Newark AP once saw the kippa on my head and asked if I’m a rabbi. I said, “no, just an ordinary Jew.” He said, “there’s no such thing as an ordinary Jew.” What Jews do you hear that sort of thing from? Chabadnikim, Kachnikim, Breslavers; yeshiva folks and other religious folks of a sort that are on fire with it. Other Jews know it too, but deny it, suppress it, run from it as fast and hard as they can. But they know it. When I was one of them, I knew it. I knew in my bones that it is important, so important that I couldn’t marry her, even though I could think of absolutely no reason why it should be so important. I had to accept that it is just an existential fact that membership in the Jewish people is the most important fact of my life. Ordinary people all over Spain, Portugal, Latin America and the US Southwest are coming out of 500 years of deep secrecy and reclaiming membership in the Jewish people and recounting what they have gone through for 500 years to preserve that connection.

    When our cup of joy in our peoplehood gets emptied by assimilation, the world has many ways of filling it again. One story came to me just yesterday. See the attachment. The prophets promise that in the end, the non-Jews will grab onto Jews’ clothing and beg us to teach them about our God. What will young Jews in America tell them? And what will be their reaction? They will know it’s not true. And then what? The empty Jews will have to see that their lives have been entirely false and empty and they will go and learn all about what it means to be a member of the Jewish people.

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