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Six Arguments for Jewish Peoplehood

A sense of collective identity among a group as diverse as the Jewish people isn't easy to come by, but the notion may still be worth holding on to.

“Do not separate yourself from the community.”

It’s hard to imagine that this succinct, 2000-year-old piece of advice from Rabbi Hillel the Elder has ever been more challenging than it is for modern Jews. While the specific implications of Hillel’s aphorism continue to be debated, he is generally advocating for the importance of feeling a particular obligation and affinity toward fellow Jews. It’s not enough to feel Jewish pride; being Jewish comes with some responsibilities toward fellow Jews.

Many Jews today are uncomfortable with the idea of Jewish peoplehood for a variety of reasons. First, tribal affiliation is often associated with insularity and closed-mindedness (particularly among liberal Jews). Second, the unprecedented level of material success and social acceptance American Jews have achieved seemingly obviates the need to prioritize the needs of fellow Jews. On top of that, the American Jewish community is incredibly diverse – ideologically, spiritually, politically, ethnically – which makes it difficult to identity what, if anything, does or should bind us together.

Why then should we continue to hold on to a notion of Jewish peoplehood? Here are six different answers:

  1. Anti-Semitism: As is increasingly obvious, anti-Semitism remains a persistent problem. While we can never let external hate define us, we also can’t ignore it. And like any threatened group, there is strength in numbers. The aforementioned Rabbi Hillel also famously stated: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” What is true for a person is true for a people. Hillel doesn’t stop with self-concern, but continues: “Yet if I am only for myself, what am I?” Many people seem unable to look past their own suffering to see the suffering of others. Instead of turning us inward, our fight against oppression should connect us to all other victims of hate.
  2. Tribal Impulse: While there are plenty of dangers that come with tribalism, there are also some benefits. Johann Hari, in talking about his 2018 book Lost Connections, observed: “loneliness causes depression and anxiety … every instinct human beings have is to be in a cooperative tribe. Just like bees need a hive, humans need a tribe. And there’s really strong evidence that we are the first humans to really try to disband our tribes.” Jewish peoplehood is one such “cooperative tribe.” In theory, one should be able to form community around any type of identity, but in practice it seems most communities form around either a particular inherited identity or religious belief.
  3. Emotional Benefit: Even if a tribal affiliation with Judaism doesn’t lead one to an active community, there is still an emotional benefit to maintaining this sense of identity, either chosen or inherited. Granted, there are other identities that may feel more relevant or enticing, but we each contain many different identities. Why not include in that mix the tribal identity of Judaism, with its long and rich history? Those roots run deep and may provide a much-needed and under-appreciated sense of belonging.
  4. Diversity: Another benefit to Jewish peoplehood is the way it facilitates encounters with diversity. Of course, that diversity is limited to Jewish people. But the Jewish world today is more diverse than ever before, especially across lines of race, politics, and nationality. By seeing ourselves as being connected to such a diverse group of people, we are forced to engage with those differences. This feels especially important in an increasingly polarized world. So while seeing our fate as tied up with people we don’t know may seem arbitrary, it also exposes us to and connects us to a diverse group of people from across the world.
  5. Shared Texts: A different way of understanding Jewish unity is that we are not united as a people but as a religion. Religious Jews argue about almost everything. Unity built around Judaism therefore cannot stem from a shared belief or practice, but only from a shared text in which every Jew has an equal stake. There is a tradition that the number of letters in the Torah is equal to the number of Jews present at the revelation. This suggests that every Jew makes up an essential part of the Torah. Framed this way, unity does not promote uniformity but the opposite: United around an interpretive text, we encourage the value of disagreement and argument, which serves as a constant reminder that none of us individually have a full grasp of the truth.
  6. Jewish Values: While Jews do argue about almost everything, there are some things that are not up for debate. Perhaps Jewish unity can be framed around these shared values and ideals. This list includes caring for the stranger, speaking truth to power, and performing acts of loving-kindness. Anti-Semitism is always an attack — not only on Jews, but on what Jews stand for. And there’s something powerful in feeling solidarity with a people defined by a lofty mission to fix the brokenness of this world.

The paradox of Jewish solidarity is that it requires a shared definition and understanding of who is a Jew, of which there is none. Nevertheless, this ideal still has resonance today, despite many modern trends pushing us in the opposite direction.

“All Jews are responsible for one another,” says the Talmud (Shavuot 39a). This sense of interconnectedness, whether chosen or merely accepted, may very well be a Jewish value worth holding on to.

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