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Jewish 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 “Jewish Journeying” in light of some of the stellar essays I have recently read. Among the best was the essay “Peoplehood With Purpose” by Yossi Abramowitz in the Spring edition of Contact.  In the middle of his essay Abramowitz makes some substantial statements with respect to the concept of Peoplehood, its importance and its role in the future of Jewish life. In particular, Abramowitz states:

  • “Jewish Peoplehood – and its universalistic, noble purpose – must replace the eroding definition of Jews as essentially a faith community.”
  • “Neither faith nor nationalism can continue to be the grand, unifying field theories of world Jewry. Only Peoplehood can, because it is inherently inclusive and encompasses religion, nationalism and culture.”
  • “The goal should be for a critical mass of our institutions, endeavors, philanthropists and leaders to be engines and agents of Jewish Peoplehood.”
  • “Peoplehood is… an organizing principle to recalibrate and synchronize the Jewish enterprise and philanthropy. It is our future blueprint.”

Abramowitz then summarizes, in a clear and convincing fashion that “the purpose – the essence of Jewish Peoplehood – is to be an ongoing, distinctive catalyst for the advancement of morality in civilization.

However, I am not convinced.

If you take all five of the statements I cite above, and recalibrate them into a summary statement of Abramowitz’s argument, it might read as follows:

A critical mass of our institutions, endeavors, philanthropists and leaders should become engines and agents in replacing the eroding definition of Jews as essentially a faith community with a conceptual understanding of the Jewish people as an ongoing distinctive catalyst of the advancement of morality in civilization. As a result, these actions will create an inherently inclusive conception of the Jewish people, encompassing religion, nationalism and culture, and serve to recalibrate and synchronize Jewish enterprise and philanthropy.

That is a pretty big statement, and I must admit, I really like it. But here’s the problem, I don’t think it works.

Why?  Quite simply because I think the catalytic nature of Jews is not simply from their distinctive values, but from their distinctive experiences as well. The catalytic impact on history and society has not only been by the values of the Jews, but by the “otherness” that has often resulted from adherence to those values.  The experiences of the Jews are not just ritualistic or faith-oriented, but also social and cultural. Not only are they communal, but also deeply personal.  Some of the most catalytic Jews were transformed into those catalysts by an experience (not a knowing expression of Jewish Peoplehood) that triggered an unawakened component of their personal value system.  And therefore it was not the overarching Jewish system of values, nor was it an awesome sense of Peoplehood that triggered the development of their own personal identity, but rather, it was a personal experience in their life journey, and as Jews, it was part of their Jewish Journey.

So while I agree with much of what Abramowitz articulates with respect to his conception of Peoplehood, I once again have to state that I don’t think that we should over-emphasize that concept at the expense of understanding Jewish Journeying as a central concept of Jewish life.

In understanding Jewish Journeying, we can understand the limitations of what we can achieve by focusing on Peoplehood exclusively.  The paths of individual Jews are distinctive journeys, and although we may try to infuse them with an understanding of Jewish faith, nationalism, history and culture, it is their journey and we can only act as influencers. But we need to be tactical in the way we endeavor to influence the identity of those on a journey, and using categorical terms such as Peoplehood is not tactical.  It is universal.  Which is all well and good when we are debating conceptual frameworks, but in practice it is a non-starter.

Abramowitz correctly articulates that Peoplehood “will not work as a rallying cry to the Jewish public, which is post-tribal in its inclinations and commitments.”  I whole-heartedly agree.  But then why focus on this concept as an organizing principle when we know its organizational utility is limited?  Each of those post-tribal Jews may not resonate with a conception of Peoplehood that is vague and amorphous, but they can inherently identify with the idea of journeying. They are each on an individual journey, emotionally, socially, religiously and Jewishly.  In the way Peoplehood won’t resonate, Jewish journeying will.

Let’s go back to Abramowitz’s statement that “Peoplehood is… an organizing principle to recalibrate and synchronize the Jewish enterprise and philanthropy. It is our future blueprint.” How would I revise that statement? I might say that Peoplehood should be a central experiential element of Jewish Journeying (as opposed to an organizing principle). And rather than a blueprint (which implies some sort of construction) it should be viewed as the topography of Jewish Journeying. Accordingly, I would then propose that the development of an individual-oriented understanding of Jewish journeying be an organizing principle used to calibrate and synchronize Jewish institutions.  Before we start understanding Peoplehood, we must understand the journeys of the people who comprise it.  And before we try to frame for individual Jews their experiences in the context of Peoplehood, we should use an understanding of their Jewish Journeying to better frame our understanding of how to meet them at the “peoplehood points” of their journeys.

Then we will understand Jewish Journeying with greater purpose, and an understanding of Peoplehood with greater meaning.

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