On Jewish Peoplehood – The right word, the right concept?

July 27, 2008

In my spare time I endeavor to be a good student of Jewish communal issues – the language we use, the approaches we take and the ongoing combination of the two. Recently I have been considering the ongoing dialogue about Jewish peoplehood. Like other ‘buzz words’ before it, the term ‘peoplehood’ has taken on a life and dialogue all its own. In the few years those who are concerned with the future of the Jewish people have, at least in part, rallied around the exploration of what ‘peoplehood’ means in order to discern the paths forward for the Jewish people.

And I have recently been reading essays on ‘peoplehood’ from some of our global Jewish community’s finest thinkers. Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, Leonard Saxe, Rabbi David Gedzelman, Rabbi Joy Levitt, Dr. Alan Mintz, Professor Douglas Rushkoff, Rokhl Kafrissen, Ruth Ouzana and Yossef Israel Abramowitz each wrote thoughtful essays on peoplehood in the Spring edition of Contact, a publication of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Before that, I read The Peoplehood Papers published by UJC that included thoughtful essays by Dr. Shlomi Revid, Dr. Misha Galperin, Jay Michaelson, Einat Wilf, Barbara Lerner Spectre, Ahava Zarembski, Alan D. Hoffman, Jonathan Ariel, Eric Levine, Wayne Firestone and Gil Troy. I have read countless books on the subject and topics ancillary to it. And I have tried thoughtfully struggle with the question of how one can best understand the Jewish experience and the opportunity embedded within that experience.

Now I am not classically trained in Jewish thought, history law, social services or education. Nor am I an academic or a Jewish communal professional. Everything I have leaned is the result of my (reluctant) congregational schooling as a child, my experiences as an adult learner (including my experience in the Wexner Heritage program) and as a constant reader. It is important that I share that information because what I am about to say needs to be put in the context of my limited knowledge – I am humbled by what I do not know – and therefore this statement is made in the most humble of ways.

I think we are getting it all wrong in the way we focus on ‘peoplehood’ as a centralizing term of the Jewish experience.

I don’t mean we are wrong in considering the importance of the term, nor are we wrong in expending the time of our greatest thinkers on thinking and writing about this topic. We should do both, it is an interesting area of thought exploration and we enhance our community dialogue by discussing it.

What I do mean, fundamentally, is that in our current dialogue about peoplehood we are emphasizing the wrong structural concept of Jewish existence. I believe we are, using a phrase Abraham Joshua Heschel has used in a different context, making a category mistake.

By using the term ‘peoplehood’ we treat Jewish existence, and the Jew, as part of a greater object. Peoplehood confers upon the Jewish experience an attribute that is static in its boundaries and stationary in its attribution. It is a “sense” of being. That sense, at its core, objectifies the Jewish endeavor in this world.

I think the exploration of the term is with merit, but I think we will, by the very nature of the concept we are exploring, find it confounding and self-limiting. In personally trying to get my mind around the concept of ‘peoplehood’ I was reminded of two passages, each from one of the most prominent Jewish thinkers of the modern era.

First, I am reminded of the passage by Heschel (in his collection of essays titled Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity) in which he wrote:

“Jewish existence is not only the adherence to particular doctrines and observances, but primarily the living in the spiritual order of the Jewish people, the living in the Jewish of the past and with the Jews of the present. Not only is it a certain quality of the souls of the individuals but it is the primary involvement and participation in the covenant and community of Israel. It is more than an experience or a creed, more than the possession of psychic traits or the acceptance of theological doctrine; it is, above all, the living in a holy dimension, in a spiritual order. Our share in holiness we acquire living in the Jewish community. What we do as individuals may be a trivial episode; what we attain as Israel causes us to grow into the infinite.”

Living. Involving. Acquiring. Doing. Attaining. Those are action words. Peoplehood is not.

And second, I am reminded of the much shorter statement by Leo Baeck in his book This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence. Commenting on the life of Moses Hess (a Jewish German philosopher and early socialist), Baeck wrote:

“The longing for the great justice which bridges the peoples and unites them, and makes each people truly a people; and the longing for the right of this people amidst the peoples, are qualities which cannot be reduced fundamentally.”

The traits of that which binds us as a Jewish people cannot be reduced fundamentally. We may be able to scientifically, philosophically and anecdotally explore the concept of ‘peoplehood’ but only within a limited understanding that, by its nature, frustrates the term’s usage as a unifying concept.

And without commencing (at this point) a more expansive analysis of the state of modern Jewry, we nonetheless reflexively understand the challenge of framing the continuity of the Jewish experience in the category of an object (or, alternatively, an objective trait). At this stage of modernity, while we may nevertheless bind together based on common traits, comment understandings, values and histories, we tend to resist external categorization of what those bonds are. As a 34 year old engaged Jew with a understanding of the importance of Jewish experience, I can inherently feel a sense of peoplehood and sense of belonging (as Shlomi Ravid perceptively points out in his essay “What is Jewish Peoplehood?”) and can concur effusively that such a feeling is a desirable dominant characteristic of Jewish experience. But it is only a characteristic I can discern for myself innately, and it is not one that I have adopted based on my selection of traits, values and affinities, but rather as a result of the process and actions in which I internalized them.

Peoplehood is not an action word. And we live in a world of action. People experience Jewish life through action, selection and experiencing. Not through categorization and alignment with conceptual senses of being.

So as an alternative (and with appreciation to my friend Michael Karlin who has helped instigate my thoughts on this topic), I submit we need to thoughtfully focus on the Jewish endeavor, its, past, its present and its future in the context of a concept that more deeply and thoroughly captures the Jewish experience.

Jewish Journeying.

In the Jewish experience, as much as there is a dominant characteristic of peoplehood, there has been an equal if not greater essence of journeying. Jewish existence has been shaped by journeys – including Abraham’s first journey out of Ur, the journey of Jacob, the Exodus from Egypt, the scattering of Jews following the destruction of the second Temple, the Expulsion from Spain (and almost every other European country), the journeys of the Baal Shem Tov (and the world of Hassidic journeying the followed after), the migration of Jews to America, the journeying of the Halutzim and the creation of the State of Israel, and all the way to the most recent Birthright Israel trip that occurred last week. All are about journeying. And it is not just historical journeying. It is religious journeying, philosophical journeying, artistic journeying, social journeying and so on.

Journeying is an action word – whether it applies to religious, philosophical personal and communal journeying. And we live in a world of action. Living, dynamic, building and even destroying action. We live in a world of constant process, choice and experience. Concepts and characteristics matter, but the journeying we do in selecting, rejecting and refining our lives individually and collectively is as important if not more so. Because in those actions, we embody the essential objects of Jewish existence. In Jewish Journeying we encounter the Jewish experience as more than, an embodiment of the common qualities of our collective souls.

Journeying. Not just peoplehood.
If we are to resonate in this post-modern era with our thoroughly post-modern Jewish people, we will need to understand the fundamental experience of the Jewish people as an experience of journeying. As Heschel states, we are, as individuals and collectively, growing into the infinite. But rather than focus on how we define the “collective we,” I propose we focus on the ‘growing’ that, at its essence, is journeying.

Over the next few weeks I am going to continue to explore this concept further, both in a comparative analysis of how peoplehood us used by some of the authors mentioned above as compared to the concept of journeying. Also I am going to consider (and will endeavor to do so thoughtfully) how journeying fits into a broader historical, religious and social context. And most importantly, how the concept of journeying as a central element of understanding the Jewish experience can help us shape our focus on the future.

I would be delighted to hear any of your input, and for those who are interested in joining a conversation on this topic, I would also be happy to open up this blog for others to have the ability to post (not just comment) on this blog.

For even this concept of Jewish journeying is a journey itself, and I welcome any fellow travelers.



  1. I lump both peoplehood and journeying into the same category – meaningless buzzwords. They are an attempt to formulate a vocabulary so broad that nobody could possibly be read out of it. That’s the problem with them. The truth of the matter is that you cannot define yourself without excluding people who then become an ‘other’. When the only people you exclude are people who choose to exclude themselves, you’ve turned from prophet to salesman.

    I agree with you that Jewish peoplehood, like Heschel says, is the result of Jews taking action, but that alone, it is a passive word. I can even agree with you that journeying is the quintessential Jewish action. But not every journey a Jew takes is a Jewish journey. Many of these journeys are journeys away from Judaism. An even greater number of these journeys are not even aimed at any destination, and instead become meaningless meanderings that lead to withering, not growth, disenchantment, not commitment, and disillusionment, not revelation.

    Perhaps the lesson we can draw from the wanderings of Abraham, Jacob, the Exodus, and the Diaspora is that God decreed that we set off on all these wanderings, and that every single one of them had the same ultimate goal – to reach the Promised Land and worship God there.

  2. […] Journeying With Purpose (and Peoplehood With Meaning) August 3, 2008 As I referenced in my earlier post critiquing the current over-emphasis of the concept of “Peoplehood” in attempting to framing solutions for the Jewish future, I have been considering my own theory of […]

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