REALIGNING JEWISH PEOPLEHOOD
by Eliyahu Stern
On July 22, 2007, the New York Times ran an article by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman on the repercussions of his marrying outside his Jewish faith. The article, entitled “Orthodox Paradox,” details how Feldman, a Yeshiva day-school graduate, Rhodes scholar, and all-around Jewishwunderkind went from being super-Jew to persona non grata, shunned by his high school and ostracized by his community. Feldman’s piece sparked responses from virtually every major Jewish notable and brought to the fore the challenges of holding on to the sacrosanct concept of Jewish peoplehood in an age of intermarriage.
Few ideas in the twentieth century exercised more weight in the Jewish collective imagination than the notion of “peoplehood.” Peoplehood functioned not only as a way of perpetuating Jewish children but as a placeholder and a worldview that upheld and solidified the core movements, institutions, and practices of twentieth century American Jewry. Yet, as the brouhaha over Feldman’s piece suggests in the twenty-first century, few ideas have come under more fire than that of Jewish peoplehood.
Jewish identity appears to be slowly but steadily moving away from a paradigm of Jewish peoplehood toward one of Jewish meaning. In this new paradigm, texts, ideas, values, and practices that answer the question “Why be Jewish?” become the primary portals for Jewish identity. Despite this apparent shift, a more dialectical appraisal of contemporary Judaism suggests not the destruction of peoplehood but a realignment of its position in Jewish life. Whereas peoplehood was the bedrock of Jewish identity in the twentieth century, the concept today is being defined by means of the religious-existential question posed above.
Until the modern period, Jewish peoplehood—the notion that the Jews are a distinct group based on both historical and biological criteria—was almost always embedded in the larger tapestry of Jewish ritual, ideas, texts, and history. While the historian Jonathan Sarna may be right that the split between the Jews as a people and Judaism as a religion came about as a result of the mass forced conversion of Jews during the medieval Spanish expulsion, historically, for the most part, Jews saw themselves as not just an amalgam of individuals thrown together by the whims of history but as a unique people chosen to follow God’s word.
The situation changed in the nineteenth century, when Jews tossed God, tradition, and halakhah into the dustbins of history. The Jewish fight for survival, struggle for emancipation, and a shared lachrymose conception of history were adopted as better ways to express Jewish identity. Here secular Jewish thinkers, writers, and politicos, most notably from Eastern Europe, salvaged the idea of peoplehood from what they saw as the carnage of Judaism—a religion based on superstition.
In Europe and America, Jewish peoplehood provided the perfect response for those Jews grappling with the critique of religion issued by the likes of Darwin and Freud. The idea of an eternal people freed Jews from the theological and philosophical problem of an eternal God. No longer did being a “good Jew” entail practicing obscure rituals whose well of meaning had long ago dried up or studying ancient texts that had little significance to the new world inhabited by Jews. Rather, it demanded one thing only: the positive and unconditional attachment and identification to a specific group or nationality. Peoplehood for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jews became a bendlach—spiritually protecting Jews against threats from the outside while acting as the thin thread that could tie together the myriad and disparate Jewish groups and movements.
In the twentieth century, the Holocaust, skepticism about God’s existence, global anti-Semitism, and the foundation of the State of Israel all contributed to Jews’ seeing their attachment to a unique people as the starting point (and in most cases also the end point) for Jewish identification. No one articulated this position more astutely than Mordechai Kaplan.