Is it time for us to stop thinking of ourselves as “the Jewish people”?
Are we not one, but many?
Some influential writers think so.
They start with what is obvious: today’s Jewish population is incredibly diverse. World Jewry includes people of all races and nationalities. It includes Jews who call Israel their home and Jews who rarely think of it except in synagogue. It also includes as “honorary members” people who are not Jewish and don’t intend to convert, such as some interfaith spouses and children.
That’s just the demographic side. We also disagree, often bitterly, about belief and observance. The headline “Orthodox rabbi says Reform isn’t Jewish” has become a regular occurrence.1
Most Jews think we’ve got a problem. But what kind of problem is it? There are two viewpoints:
- The problem is not the situation itself, but how we think about it.
- The problem is the situation itself.
How We Think About Peoplehood
William Shakespeare wrote that “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”2
Jewish Studies scholar Noam Pianko doesn’t go that far, but he says that the way we think about peoplehood causes most of the trouble.
We commonly believe that Jewish peoplehood is an old idea, but Pianko argues that it’s quite new. He traces the term’s origin to American Zionist Mordecai Kaplan in the early 1940s. The graph at the beginning of this article shows that published mentions of Jewish peoplehood were almost non-existent before that decade.
Kaplan wanted to build support for Zionism, and until 1942 he did it by talking about Jews as a nation. However, he worried that calling Jews a nation would invite accusations that American Jews had dual loyalty. Similar accusations had been leveled many times in history, most recently and tragically in Europe. Kaplan needed an alternative term, one that implied similar duties of loyalty as a nation but without the potential anti-Semitic implications. By 1948, “peoplehood” had become his term of choice. Pianko observes that:
“The success of the term peoplehood can be attributed in part to the ambiguity of the term itself, which does not appear in English dictionaries until the late 1960s. Peoplehood came to offer a largely blank slate that alluded to many elements associated with nationhood, while avoiding the highly charged language of nation …”3
Apart from its application to the Jewish people, it was a good fit on general grounds as well. Political scientist Rogers Smith described “political peoples” as:
“All human associations, groups, and communities commonly understood to assert that their members owe them a measure of allegiance against the demands of other associations, communities, and groups.”4
“A measure” of allegiance was just what Kaplan needed. It encouraged support for Zionism but couldn’t be used to justify accusations of national disloyalty. Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University, summarized:
“The myth of Jewish peoplehood enabled Jews who abandoned religion and chose not to immigrate to Israel to make sense of their identity as part of a larger collective without bumping up against national affiliation or dual allegiance.”5
Drawbacks of Peoplehood
However, in Pianko’s view, the idea of peoplehood had serious drawbacks. In particular, it was too closely related to the idea of nationhood, which implies a national essence, political solidarity, and clear boundaries of membership. It misled us into looking for a Jewish unity that wasn’t there. To replace it, he proposes “peoplehood in a new key” (a.k.a “Jewishhood”) that doesn’t require unity:
“Peoplehood in a new key must recognize a diversity of Judaisms not as a problem that must be overcome, but as the basis for building a sustainable alternate model of collectivity.”6
If we think of the Jews as one people, his idea sounds like nonsense. But it makes perfect sense when you recognize the kind of argument he’s making:
“Is Jewish collectivity fundamentally about unity? Modern notions of Jewish peoplehood certainly have insisted that the answer is yes. … This makes sense as long as Jewish peoplehood defines itself according to the logic of nationhood, which concentrated on unity and shared characteristics to create (rather than merely describe) a political, cultural, and economic entity.”7
Notice how he contrasts his viewpoint with peoplehood that tries to “create (rather than merely describe) a political, cultural, and economic entity.”
The contrast shows that he is not prescribing an ideal situation and urging us to make it a reality. Instead, he is describing our actual situation and suggesting that we learn to live with it. If world Jewry is fragmented and diverse, then he thinks we should simply “get with the program” and embrace it. The question then becomes: Should we?
Jewish Peoplehood in a Diverse Key
Embracing fragmentation requires changing the very concept of Jewish peoplehood, says Pianko, who also refers to his proposal as “post-Jewish.”
Instead of asking who is Jewish, what values unite us, and how we differ from the non-Jewish world, it would ask each of us what we do in the Jewish community, what parts of Judaism are meaningful to us, and how we manage our allegiances to the non-Jewish world.8 He sees it as a decentralized “neighborhood model” of Judaism:
“A neighborhood model [seeks] to build collective consciousness by recognizing the organizing power of specific groups to develop different, and sometimes even mutually incompatible, visions of what it means to be part of the Jewish people. A sense of connection to a larger entity is generated most authentically— and thus enduringly— from the bottom up.”9
“Disparate neighborhoods, all doing different things, descended from a unified population:” That reminded me of a passage in another book, this one by renowned biologist Ernst Mayr:
“What happens in the isolated population? There may be new mutations, certain genes may be lost owing to accidents of sampling, recombination results in the production of a diversity of new phenotypes that are different from those of the parent species, and there may be the occasional immigration of different genes from other populations. The isolated population will diverge increasingly from the parental species. If this process continues long enough, the isolated population changes enough to qualify as a different species.”10
In biology, the neighborhood model results in the evolution of new species and the possible disappearance of the parent species. In the case of the Jewish people, it might not, but the analogy is uncomfortably close.
For people to understand each other, they must have something in common. For people to be loyal to each other, they must have some kind of relationship, however remote: familial, pragmatic, or religious. Separate “Jewish neighborhoods” operating independently of each other do not have that kind of relationship. There is no “larger entity” to which they can connect. Dozens of different Jewish neighborhoods, doing different things and holding incompatible values, will not long remain united by nothing but a name. Soon, the name itself will disappear. And then what is left?
Group members who have nothing in common except a name have no reason for being in a group and no reason to be loyal to each other. If all that’s left is the name, then what’s the point? We might as well join the Masons or convert to Islam, whose adherents at least think they have a reason for being Muslims.
An Element of Circularity
Pianko is not blind to the problem of defining a group by a variety of different, unrelated, and incompatible beliefs and activities. That definition could classify as Jewish almost any group doing almost anything: bicycle mechanics, Buddhists, football clubs, and so forth. His solution is to specify that the activities must be Jewish:
“Putting Jewish at the center would mean defining what links Jews to one another as the active engagement with Jewish ideas, communities of practice, and other forms of intentional engagement … connections to what we now call peoplehood would be just as strong for someone studying the weekly Torah portion as it would be for someone who regularly participates in organizations such as AIPAC, J Street, the American Jewish Committee, and others explicitly dedicated to advocating on behalf of collective Jewish interests.”11
That sounds reasonable. And it is. But it doesn’t solve the problem. In essence, the argument is:
- Activities are Jewish if they are on behalf of Jewish interests.
- Interests are Jewish if they are the object of activities that are Jewish.
It’s circular reasoning. Unless “Jewish” is defined independently of the activities, as for example by religion, nation, or peoplehood, then the argument is self-fulfilling. It doesn’t help us.
His examples imply that he wants to “grandfather in” as Jewish any activities currently considered Jewish. However, with an open-ended definition of the concept, such activities might or might not be retained over time. Jewish activities in a hundred years might be nothing on our current list.
Why Have Any Group At All?
As Franz Rosenzweig said, “From Mendelssohn on … the Jewishness of every individual has squirmed on the needle point of a ‘why?'”12
Why should we care if the Jewish people continue to exist as a distinct group? What difference does it make? What worthy goal does it achieve?
Throughout history and prehistory, people have banded together into groups. Why? And why are groups so omnipresent: where we find people, we find them organized in groups.
Do the Jewish people have, as they say in business, a “unique selling proposition”?
As it happens, we have several of them. They define the ways in which the Jewish people can be a group that matters — to us, to the world, and to God.
Loyalty to God
Many contemporary Jews don’t believe our people were chosen by God, so I hesitated about putting it first. But if it is true, then it’s certainly the most important reason.
Our mission, should we decide to accept it, is to share God’s, truth, love, and justice with the world, and by our own conduct to set an example for others. It is a difficult mission, and we will often — painfully often — fall short. But we betray both ourselves and all of humanity if we don’t even try. Whether or not God exists, we can do a lot of good in the world if we assume that He does.
Loyalty to Humanity
Goodness in human life never appears in the abstract. It always appears in specific social, religious, and historical contexts.
The Jews (our people) and the Jewish tradition (our tradition) have brought goodness into the world in unique ways that no other group can replace. For us to give up existence as a separate people and forsake our unique tradition would deprive not only us but everyone else in the world of something precious that only we can provide.
Loyalty to Each Other
The reason humans and lower animals band together in groups is that it provides a safer, richer, and happier life than living alone. It gives both our families and us as individuals a better chance to survive and prosper. Our ancestors struggled to give us that chance, and we should pay it forward to our children and the generations that follow. Political philosopher Edmund Burke said it well:
“History is a pact between the living, the dead, and the yet unborn.”
Those who came before us passed along the heritage of a great people and a challenging tradition. We are their heirs. Our sacred duty is to exemplify and share that tradition — both as individuals and as a distinct people.
“Does Jewish Peoplehood Have a Future?” Video lecture (16 minutes) by Dr. Noam Pianko.
“I am just a Jew.” Excellent video (2 minutes) created by Nachman Weiss, a 7th grader at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Los Angeles. Orthodox perspective but inclusive.
“Is There Such a Thing as the Jewish People?” A Moment Magazine symposium with comments from Adin Steinsalz, Jill Jacobs, and other leading Jewish thinkers.
“The Video That Every Jew Needs to Watch.” A commentary by Dr. Mayim Bialik about the issues raised in the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy video.
Cohen, S. (1999), The Beginnings of Jewishness. Berkeley: University of California Press. Kindle edition.
Glatzer, N., ed. (1998), Franz Rosenzeig: His Life and Thought. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Mayr, E. (2001), What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books. Kindle edition.
Pianko, N. (2015), Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Kindle edition.
Smith, R. (2015), Political Peoplehood: The Roles of Values, Interests, and Identities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle edition.
- Kershner, I., “Israeli Minister Says Reform Jews Are Not Really Jewish.” The New York Times, July 7, 2015. ↩
- Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2. ↩
- Pianko, N. (2015), loc. 737. ↩
- Smith, R. (2015), loc. 74. ↩
- Magid, S., “Letting Go of Jewish Peoplehood.” The Forward, July 9, 2016. ↩
- Pianko, N. (2015), loc. 2812. ↩
- Ibid, loc. 2842. ↩
- Pianko, N. (2015), Video lecture “Does Jewish Peoplehood Have a Future?” ↩
- Pianko, N. (2015), loc. 2860. ↩
- Mayr, E. (2001), loc. 2843. ↩
- Pianko, N. (2015), loc. 2791. ↩
- Glatzer, N. (1998), p. 238. ↩