Debating Peoplehood

By | Tagged: beliefs

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.

Posted on June 21, 2007

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