More About Peoplehood

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Talking about the decline of Jewish Peoplehood was all the rage in 2007. But the debate between Jewcy’s Joey Kurtzman and JTS’s Jack Wertheimer was more about whether the decline in this collective identity was tragic (Wertheimer) or inevitable (Kurtzman).

The debate was thought-provoking, but it didn’t contain much analysis.

It’s months later, but our friend Rabbi Eliyahu Stern has just published a genuinely brilliant essay about the concept of Jewish Peoplehood in 20th century Jewry and the ways in which the community has since changed.

Stern’s most significant contribution is his observation that Conservative Judaism was the denomination most tied to the concept of Jewish Peoplehood.

According to Solomon Schechter, the esteemed scholar and president of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary: “the collective conscience of catholic Israel . . . [was] the sole true guide for the present and futureâ€? of Judaism.

Mordecai Kaplan is now associated with Reconstructionist Judaism, but he spent most of his life at the Jewish Theological Seminary. For Kaplan “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.'”

Indeed, according to Stern:

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 Americaâ€? (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.

Why is this relevant? Because as Stern insightfully points out, we shouldn’t be surprised that the decline of Jewish Peoplehood is coinciding with the crisis of identity currently afflicting the Conservative movement.

Today Jews who are engaging Jewishly are more interested in meaning, value, and spirituality — things that both the Reform movement and Orthodox movement are more concerned with.

While most of Stern’s article is descriptive, he does end on a prescriptive note:

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.

Posted on February 15, 2008

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