Debating Peoplehood

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Over at Jewcy, editor Joey Kurtzman and JTS provost Jack Wertheimer recently concluded a heated debate about the state of Jewish life in America, specifically the extent to which Jewish peoplehood still could (and should) exist.

Two things drew me into this exchange: (1) The writing — both Kurtzman’s and Wertheimer’s — is fantastic: clear, smart, sophisticated; (2) I found myself (at different times) fervently disagreeing with both writers.

In many regards I felt more of an affinity with Joey’s positions, and yet, I also found myself more riled up by his ideas. So I’ll focus on his thoughts.

Joey began the dialogue by making the claim that young American Jews are “not merely influenced by the non-Jewish world — we‘re inseparable from it.”

According to him, America’s multicultural reality negates the possibility of Jewish Americans feeling a sense of peoplehood: “What capacious definition of peoplehood could possibly include a population such as the generation of FrankenJews I‘ve described?” Thus, he calls upon Jewish leaders to forge a Judaism stripped of peoplehood.

I agree with Joey that, for the most part, American Jews are part of the non-Jewish world and that traditional notions of Jewish peoplehood could be challenged by contemporary America, but both in his first email and his last, he seems convinced that peoplehood today is not only different but dead.

“It seems to me that if Jewish-American leaders wish for Judaism to survive, they‘ll have to acknowledge that the era of peoplehood has ended, and help reinvent Judaism for modern life.”

This I don’t get. Joey seems to think that American multiculturalism negates any sense of communal identity/responsibility. While I would agree that most American Jews are not “unambiguously” Jewish, I’d argue that this is because American multiculturalism yields a situation in which we are part of multiple communities — i.e. share a sense of peoplehood with multiple peoples.

Wertheimer suggests “Pick a single religion and a single people.” Joey finds this ludicrous, and so do I, but I don’t understand why rejecting this means rejecting peoplehood. To me it means embracing multiple peoplehoods.

I recently told a friend: “If I had to choose between throwing in my fate with my fellow Park Slope liberal democrats or the haredim of Meah Shearim, I’d choose Park Slope.” But that doesn’t mean I’ve completely rejected Jewish peoplehood. I have multiple allegiances and multiple sources of identity and responsiblity. This doesn’t mean I’m alone, alienated without a people. Rather, I’m privileged to have several sources of meaning and connectivity.

Additionally, I’m not sure why Joey assumes Judaism is first and foremost “peoplehood-centered.” There are many other elements of Judaism that are sometimes viewed as the “essence”: Torah, God, Tikkun Olam, Ritual, Spirituality. There’s something odd about Joey’s insistence that the key to a revitalized Judaism is the disavowal of peoplehood. Does he truly believe that abandoning all notions peoplehood would bring the disaffected streaming back into the fold? (In fact he does: “Judaism-after-peoplehood, could sweep Frankenjewish America with all of the wildfire ferocity with which socialism once swept Jewish Europe.”)

I’m also troubled by Joey’s repeated assertion that this shift is something the leaders and scholars must initiate. Joey: If you believe this is important, why don’t you help articulate the vision? Here I agree with Wertheimer who invoked the young activists of 1969 who stormed the Federation’s General Assembly and made sure they were listened to.

Either you care about the future of Jewish life or you don’t. If you don’t, stop complaining about the current state of affairs. If you do, offer some alternatives.

To be fair, Joey does offer one positive aspect of post-peoplehood Judaism. It will be one in which “moral obligations outside the Jewish community are of fundamental importance.” The only problem is, moral obligations outside the Jewish community already are of fundamental importance to the Jewish community.

Ultimately, I think Joey is really bothered by two things: (1) Opposition to intermarriage (“it is unspeakably alien, almost laughable, to imagine that someone is a less appropriate object of our love and commitment because of the particulars of their genealogy”); (2) The idea of being extra responsible for a specific group of people (“You are right: I don’t regard the Jewish people as my family”).

In regards to the first, I think he’s right that too often the American Jewish community is concerned with intermarriage qua intermarriage, i.e. some fetishization of the Jewish “race.” So while I agree that “genealogy” may be an inappropriate marriage factor, tradition and values and ritual-lives are not.

I, for example, want to marry a Jew because living Jewishly is something I’d like to do with a spouse. While some Jews may lament intermarriage on genealogical grounds, I’m guessing Jack Wertheimer is more disappointed by the fact that young Jews are less interested in living Jewish lives as part of their most important relationships.

But ultimately I take more issue with the second point. From my experience, those with strong ties to a particular community are more, not less, likely to do hesed and social activism — even for people beyond the borders of that community. Yes, too much ethnocentrism could lead to racism, but my instincts tell me that if you surveyed New Yorkers tied to specific religious/cultural communities and compared them to your free-floating New Yorker, the former group would be giving more charity and doing more community service.

Once again, my critique here issues from my identifying with much of Joey’s brilliantly written thoughts. Read them. Read Wertheimer’s response. I’d love to hear some comments on this one.

Posted on June 21, 2007

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