Jewish Peoplehood is a modern term but an ancient concept. It implies awareness and a desire for initiative on behalf of the Jewish people. Jewish Peoplehood represents a loyalty and commitment to the well-being, not merely of Judaism or individual Jews, but to all Jews as a distinct community. It understands Judaism first and foremost as a collective identity, and only afterward as a system that promulgates particular laws, values, and beliefs.
As an ancient concept, it has roots throughout our history. It is because of the idea of Jewish Peoplehood that for more than two thousand years, a potential convert, echoing Ruth, must first say, “Your people are my people,” and only then, “Your God is my God.” It is due to the centrality of Jewish Peoplehood that according to the rabbis, Moses decides on his own accord to break the Tablets of the Covenant when he realizes that delivering the Torah to the Jewish people at that time would lead to their destruction. He prioritized his loyalty to the well-being of the people over his loyalty to Torah. It is for this reason that according to the rabbinic tradition, God expels Moses from Mt. Sinai, saying: “I have given you greatness only for the sake of the people. And now that they have sinned, what need do I have for you?”
In the modern era, Jewish Peoplehood gave birth to two most significant expressions of Jewish collective identity: the Jewish State and the North American Jewish community.
For much of our history, Jewish Peoplehood assumed that we were a family, brothers and sisters who both stood side-by-side and always had each other’s backs. The emergence of our newfound multiple identities does not entail the breaking-up of the family, nor the undermining of Jewish Peoplehood. It does, however, change the former and challenge the latter.
Jewish Peoplehood in the past did not merely assume a sense of loyalty and belonging, but a primacy of identity. One was first and foremost a Jew, a member of a people with a story of a common ancestry and a shared past who have walked together for more than three thousand years. We walked together as slaves in Egypt, in the desert for forty years, and into the Promised Land. We walked together into exile and back, into exile again, and now into our newfound homes in Israel and North America. We walked through the valley of the shadow of death, together, entering and exiting as one people.
Our shared history, coupled with the relationship to our tradition, positioned Jewishness as our principal identity. For most of our history, antisemitism made it our exclusive one. While a Jew could think of themselves as having multiple identities, such as a Frenchman, a liberal, an intellectual, a member of the middle or upper class, the antisemite declared that to be a mere delusion. A Jew in their eyes had only one, singular identity: Jew.
The latter part of the twentieth century and now the early stages of the twenty-first pose a new challenge to Jewish Peoplehood. While we know all too well that the scourge of antisemitism is alive and growing, it no longer redefines Jewish identity as a singular one. In both Israel and in North America, collectively home to ninety percent of Jews worldwide, Jews have multiple identities in addition to their Jewish one - the most significant being Israeli, American, and Canadian, and most recently, right-wing or left-wing, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. As has lately been the case, many of these identities are also increasingly the dominant one.
Jews are at home in Israel and in North America, and with their citizenship comes a transformation in their consciousness. We do not merely live in each location but see ourselves as belonging.
Israelis, while defining Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, very naturally see themselves as principally Israeli Jews, with consequences for their loyalties, responsibilities, and political commitments. While Israelis are committed to helping any Jew anywhere in the world who find themselves in dire need or imminent danger, as Israelis they give priority to their own needs and interests, especially in relation to Jews in North America, who do not face those challenges.
It is for this reason that Israelis choose coalition governments which support their defense and economic interests, even though some of their policies alienate North American Jews. They support diplomatic ties and relationships with countries that are pro-Israel, even though they may be, paradoxically at the same time, “soft” on antisemitism. They support “right-wing” policies which reflect their values and priorities, even though they are at odds with their liberal brothers and sisters in North America.
Similarly, North American Jews naturally affiliate with political parties and leaders who best reflect their beliefs and values about the US and Canada, even though they may be considered “soft” on Israel. They support policies in their home countries as well as for Israel, which reflect their “liberal” Jewish values and political perspectives, even when they are at odds with those of the government of Israel and the declared positions of Israelis.
Jewish Peoplehood needs a new Torah to support it. What does loyalty to the other mean and entail, and what are its boundaries? How do we engage with the other in a way that deepens our understanding, breeds respect, and encourages a meaningful relationship?
For much of our history, Jewish Peoplehood assumed that we were a family, brothers and sisters who stood side-by-side and always had each other’s backs. The emergence of our newfound multiple identities does not entail the breaking-up of the family, nor the undermining of Jewish Peoplehood. It does, however, change the former and challenge the latter.
Jews with multiple identities are akin to siblings who have grown up and have married or have significant others. Being in an adult, committed relationship changes the dynamic between siblings and naturally reprioritizes one’s loyalties. It is both natural and necessary for an individual to be both sensitive to, and in most cases prioritize, the needs and interests of their spouse. We must assume no less from “the adult, committed” Jews of the twenty-first century.
Jewish Peoplehood, the modern term and ancient concept, is facing new challenges. We cannot, nor do we want to, count on antisemitism to singularize and prioritize our Jewishness. We cannot, nor do we want to, count on the weakening of one Jewish home, whether in Israel or North America, and its absorption into the other.
Jewish Peoplehood needs a new Torah to support it. What does loyalty to the other mean and entail, and what are its boundaries? How do we engage with the other in a way that deepens our understanding, breeds respect, and encourages a meaningful relationship? In short, how does the family model transform itself from one that is inherited and often dysfunctional into one that Jews will choose not because they have to, but because they want to, because they experience being with the other as enriching and valuable to their lives?
The Shalom Hartman Institute has multiple goals and many programs, but none is more important than developing this new Torah of Jewish Peoplehood and delivering it to leaders and change agents in Israel and in North America who are capable of making it a lived Torah in the lives of our people.
On behalf of all the faculty and staff of the Shalom Hartman Institute, I want to thank you, our friends and supporters, for all that you have done on our behalf. But more importantly, I want to make a commitment to you. A commitment to use what are now the significant financial, intellectual, and educational resources of the Institute in Israel and in North America to work tirelessly to fulfill this mission.
With an appropriate sense of responsibility and fear, and with much love and appreciation,
Donniel Hartman, President