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Jewish Peoplehood

by Isaiah Milbauer

On a scorching Monday afternoon this past summer I found myself sitting in a circle with twenty perfect strangers. We sat in a grassy field under a sun canopy, thousands of miles from New York City, in a country that was totally foreign to me. My entire life, I had been told that these twenty perfect strangers were an extension of my family, and this country an extension of my home.

You may have guessed it —perhaps my last name gave it away— I am Jewish, and I was in Israel. The summer program I participated in included a mifgash (Hebrew for encounter). For a week, American Jews and Israeli Jews were meant to explore connection between our two groups.

The concept of a Jewish Peoplehood is at the core of modern Judaism. All Jews are supposed to be–and repeatedly told that we are– under the same tent. In theory, Jewish Peoplehood is a beautiful idea; despite geographic and linguistic differences, Jews all belong to one big family. In practice however, the concept has flaws. Is there really a Jewish thread of commonality, or as Vamik Volkan would say, a shared second garment, that unites all Jews? Modern Jews hold vastly different views and practice in vastly different ways. A secular Jew living in Park Slope might eat a bagel every Saturday and call it her Jewish practice and an ultra-Orthodox rabbi might spend his days studying the Bible in Israel. But what ties the Jewish life of this Brooklynite to the Jewish life of an ultra-orthodox Israeli rabbi? One might say that genetics link these Jews together. However, a genetic argument for Jewish Peoplehood casts Judaism as a race. In the past few years, the theory of genetic linkage has fallen under scrutiny and come up short. In 2016, University of Sheffield geneticist Eran Elhaik published a paper which argued that there is no genetic hallmark for Jewishness.[1]

The fabric of Jewish Peoplehood is further challenged by geography. The majority of modern Jews live outside of Israel. Diaspora Judaism means straddling multiple allegiances, differentiation from the dominant culture. Can one be an American without diluting his or her Jewishness? Can one belong to multiple tents without compromising any part of their identity? Some of the Israelis I encountered over the past summer would say no. They would argue that an American identity fundamentally weakens an individual’s ability to carry out a full Jewish life. Prominent Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua claims that Jews outside of Israel are only “playing with Judaism.” But must all people under the same tent stand on the same ground?

The nature of Jewish geography makes the “pole” of the Jewish “tent” hard to define. Volkan defines the “pole” as the leadership of the group. Judaism does not have clear leadership. Many would argue that Israel is the center, the authority on Judaism. Others, such as American Jewish philosopher Simon Rawidowicz, would argue that Judaism is an ellipse with Israel and America as its foci. The American Jewish philosopher Jacob Rader Marcus would argue that Jewish authority is always hegemonic, and American Judaism is the current hegemon. However, even within Israel and America, Judaism has a number of different authorities, as do most religious groups. In America, religious authority is thoroughly decentralized. An individualized, customizable approach to Judaism has become popular. In Israel, religious authority has mixed with political authority to a troubling end. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is recognized by law as the Jewish spiritual authority in Israel. As a result, branches of Judaism in Israel, such as reform Judaism, have not been able to practice freely.

Evidently, the tent of Jewish Peoplehood is complex. Perhaps Jewish Peoplehood is better understood through a Jewish form of tent, a chuppah. A chuppah is a canopy under which Jews marry. Like different Jewish groups, partners may come from vastly different places and backgrounds, yet are unified over a desire to be together. Further, chuppahs are not upheld at one point, but rather are upheld by many poll bearers. The poll bearers may be very different, but are all integral in keeping the structure aloft.

The chuppah model emphasizes Jewish diversity, meaningful Jewish practice and a commitment to the Jewish collective more than it emphasizes a Jewish common denominator. This model allows for a more flexible form of Judaism. Instead of asking Jews to practice in a uniform manner, it encourages Jews to find aspects of Judaism significant to them.

Is there a common denominator that connects all Jews? I hope and am optimistic that one exists. Though I’ve found none entirely convincing, many well reasoned theories that identify a common denominator exist. Some would say that all Jews connect to the Jewish narrative. Jews might interact with different segments of this story —a Yiddishist might draw meaning from Jewish culture in 19th century Eastern Europe, a Reform Jew might draw meaning from Prophet Isaiah’s dreams of peace from the 8th century BCE, and Orthodox Jew might draw meaning from the Rabbinic Era— but all jews connect to some part of the Jewish narrative.


Commentary by Bernice Arricale

As Isaiah eloquently demonstrates, tents can be very complicated places and membership can be fluid and contradictory. But would all this complication be evident to someone outside the tent? Would, say, a Klan member or Nazi be confused (or care) about the finer points of Jewishness? How does “the other” help define which tent we belong under? Can we “escape” our tents if we wanted to?