Toward a Pluralistic Form of Peoplehood
The growing interest we have been witnessing in the notion of peoplehood in recent years is, in my opinion, an attempt at sustaining a sense of Jewish unity in a Jewishly pluralistic world.
The main challenge of the introduction of the pluralistic approach is that while it allows for significantly different religious perspectives, it erodes at the premise of Jewish commonality which provided the basis for feeling part of the Jewish collective. To put it bluntly, religion in modern days seems to have created more divisiveness and antagonism between Jews than a sense of unity. This, to be sure, is expected as at the core are fundamental beliefs and existential perceptions. Nonetheless, the challenge of sustaining a sense of being part of one people, sharing a past and a future has become ever more complicated.
The growing interest we have been witnessing in the notion of peoplehood in recent years is, in my opinion, an attempt at sustaining a sense of Jewish unity in a Jewishly pluralistic world. Because the essence of peoplehood is the collective dimension of Jewish existence, it is very well poised to contain the different modes of being a contemporary Jew. Peoplehood seeks to engage Jews in the conversation about the Jewish enterprise (Kaplan framed it as their “civilization”), regardless of their religious Jewish affiliation, or lack of it as is the case for most Israeli Jews. It seeks to provide a sense of joint responsibility and concern for hareidim, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular Jews. Peoplehood is the space where they can come to discuss what they share beyond their particular religious differences. Peoplehood transcends the national and ethnic dimensions of Judaism and has respect for all forms of Jewish life throughout the globe.
In a sense, peoplehood takes the question of what can Jews in modern times have in common beyond the religious domain. Intellectually it is an attempt to revisit questions Ahad Ha’am, Kaplan and others grappled with a century ago, which has been interrupted by the Holocaust and then by the utopian aspirations to “solve the Jewish problem” that came with the Zionist enterprise. The current reality of a weaker and growingly divided Jewish world brings new urgency to the task of reinterpreting what Jewish peoplehood can mean. Just like pluralism became a cornerstone of the modern Jewish scene, the meaning of being part of a people needs to be carved by modern Jews so as to fit the current and emerging paradigms.
The challenge, then, is not whether peoplehood and pluralism can co-exist. If they are to complement each other in shaping a sustainable model that allows for a plurality of individual religious expressions, yet still within the framework of a collective identity, the nature and substance of that identity needs to be figured out. While pluralistic in its approach, Jewish peoplehood is in search of a substance that will make it a relevant and meaningful framework for Jews in modern time.
The twentieth century thinkers grappling with the notion of connecting Jews in a modern pluralistic paradigm pointed to four unique assets Jews have that could provide the building blocks of modern-day peoplehood. Ahad Ha’am suggested that the Jewish ethical heritage and sensitivity could turn the modern Jewish people into a global universal ethical avant-garde. Both he and Kaplan saw the role Jewish culture can play in the development of a religiously pluralistic Jewish civilization. Soloveitchik pointed to the covenant of fate and covenant of faith which links all Jews, whether they be religious, irreligious, or non-religious. If we add to those the emergence of Israel as the modern experiment in Jewish sovereignty, we are looking at a fairly rich base for conversation and collaboration upon which a significant and meaningful Jewish peoplehood can be built.
These pillars provide only a schematic list upon which to build the concept of peoplehood. How to fill that scheme with content, relevant to this generation, is the real challenge of the day. The decision of what form of ethical commitment— is it Tikkun Olam and what do we actually mean by it?—is the role of the next generation. What will a covenant of fate and covenant of faith mean and what place the notion of Jewish civilization will take in modern identity are also to be defined by them. The role of educators here is to raise the questions and lead the conversation so they achieve the goal of reinterpreting what can make being part of our people relevant and significant.
This role is not to be underestimated. Part of the problem of developing a vibrant sense of peoplehood is that we were caught by surprise. What used to be developed effortlessly without a need of a distinct pedagogy, partly as a result of the unique existential Jewish situation, does not seem to work anymore. The sense of belonging to a global people in a free world where most Jews are equal citizens of their countries is no longer bred intuitively. It now requires justification before it can be taught. It also conflicts with contemporary trends of individualism on the one hand and universalism on the other.
What this requires of educators, many of whom are products of this paradigm themselves, is first and foremost their own grappling with the questions as well as their own interpretations of what Jewish peoplehood can and should mean. This is not to enforce their views on their students, but to frame the questions and engage students in a significant conversation. This task, which we are only beginning to understand as it unfolds, is extremely complicated, and winning the day is by no means certain. However, if we are not successful in inspiring the conversation about a pluralistic and vibrant sense of peoplehood, we risk losing the basis for our collective conversation altogether. ♦
Dr. Shlomi Ravid is Director of The International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies at Beth Hatefutsoth in Tel Aviv. He can be reached at email@example.com.