Friday August 27, 2021 – י״ט אֱלוּל תשפ״א
“וְעָנִ֨יתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ֜ לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גׇר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃”
“You shall then recite as follows before Adonai your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.” (Deuteronomy 26:5)
It doesn’t matter if it was actually true. What matters is that we said it and believed it. When we came into the Land we didn’t merely show up and begin our lives. We established an obligatory ritual that included an offering (giving of our first fruits to a power greater than ourselves) and the recitation of the first known prescribed liturgical utterance which paired words with deeds and established a unifying standard for all members of our civilization. But that’s not all… Those words became part of a two-part formal declaration that succinctly articulated our collective narrative’s core basis and an aspirational appeal to fulfill a covenant obligating both God and the Jewish people.
The narrative used here is well known. We recite it annually around our Pesach seder tables. We collectively claim that אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י“ my father was a wandering or fugitive Aramean” who went down to Egypt and became a powerful nation. Now we have entered the Promised Land and are set to establish our civilization as a free people in our Land.
That’s the story we tell ourselves… about ourselves. This simple and simplified narrative conveyed the basis of who we are today, and encompassed the full scope of what it means to be Jewish:
- A collective narrative or shared fate.
- Our covenant with the divine and a common destiny
- A relationship with a designated geographic location/Land
- Sovereignty and a national political obligation towards the welfare of our people and all those who live under our rule.
As we near the end of Moses’ momentous soliloquy, the Torah offers us a framework for strategic thinking about Jewish Peoplehood. We see peoplehood encompassing a shared mission with an emphasis on Tikkun Olam, a shared kinship and mutual responsibility, and an obligation for every Jew to be equally responsible as a co-builder and co-creator of all Jewish life. (H/t to Simon Rawidowicz).
Renown educator Avraham Infeld explains it using the following 5 criteria which can be easily teased out of the opening verses of this week’s Parsha:
- Covenant (Halakha)
- Relationship with Israel (Zionism)
- Hebrew (Jewish Language)
For some this is obvious. The Jews are a people, a nation, and an ethnic group. We meet all the criteria of such, and according to the Torah, we were chosen to be God’s treasured people, an עם סגולה and a גוי קדוש – a holy nation.
But for others, it is less obvious. The American experience was one of undoing, of unburdening ourselves of our chosenness, particularism, and ethno-nationalism. We abandoned our language, approached our literature through the filter of translation, and aspired to assimilate into the dominant host culture. We became “faith-based” and adopted a kind of “progressive Protestantism” that – aside from the antisemitic school of Lindbergh, Ford, etc – was much more accepted by the modern cosmopolitan enlightened America.
As a result, we American-Jews now need to re-invent the altneu concept of Peoplehood. We need to try and swing the pendulum in the other direction for fear of what Alan Dershowitz referred to in the late 90s as “The Vanishing American Jew.” But, as Prof. Noam Pianko mildly posits, “can Peoplehood speak to the 21st-century Jews, sensitive to cosmopolitan critiques of collectivity and open to new paradigms of global connectivity?” In today’s world with all our evolution and innovative language around race, gender, and marginalized identities, we are still woefully impoverished when it comes to expressing a language of Jewish identity. We are still stuck using organizational and denominational affiliation, and religiously laden terminology that insufficiently captures the needs and trends of changing identities.
For decades now, American Judaism has danced between secular communal institutions, like Federations, and religious institutions, like synagogues. Peoplehood today should embrace simply “Jewish” at the core, thereby muddling the false distinction between secular and religious expressions. As Pianko continues to explain that “A vision for peoplehood would make Jewishness as the defining noun that serves not just to label members of the group or to refer vaguely to their shared values but as the basis for the collective, active enterprise itself. Placing Jewish as the unifying, varied, and active content at the center of peoplehood … offers the ability to articulate the importance of Judaism in the cultural, social, and political identity of Jews and elevating and emphasizing serious engagement with textual sources, practices, and ideas about religion. Putting Jewish at the center would mean defining what links Jews to one another as the active engagement with Jewish ideas, communities of practice, and other forms of intentional engagement.”
I am talking about essentially a new Jewish State…of mind. How do we transform Jews who don’t live in Israel to look at the world through Jewish eyes, to live in Jewish time, and to speak a Jewish language? Peoplehood (and to an extent Zionism) is more than about Nationalism and sovereignty, it is, at its core, a state of mind, an attitude, and a mindset. It adds the “ness” to being Jewish and centering it at the core of our being.
Pianko offers an evolved sense of peoplehood, in the form of what he calls “Jewishness” It serves as his critique is of the old school Mordecai Kaplan-esque version of peoplehood as “an absolute foundation of Jewish identity.” In today’s world the trends of globalization and individualism, aided by a sense of anti-institutionalism, have eroded the dominance of nationalism in shaping collective identity. Jewish peoplehood risks becoming an outdated paradigm, save for a preferred adoption of “Jewish engagement” that would shape and benefit peoplehood.
Jewish engagement is necessary both in Israel and in the Diaspora. In Israel collective nationalism has succeeded in establishing the body or physical manifestation of sovereignty and existence but can no longer nourish the soul. In the Diaspora, we face the opposite problem of using religious language for people who are simply not very religious yet still crave culture, meaning, and fulfillment.
In reflecting on the year that was as we approach the waning days of 5781, many of us saw the opportunity presented to us by a most unfortunate circumstance to evaluate the entirety of our lives. As we welcome 5782, we have yet another opportunity to grow, imagine, and explore our connection and the potential we have to broaden our Jewish self-definition. 125 years ago, Theodor Herzl called for a ‘State of Jews.’ As we enter this new year, let us call for a new Jewish State of Mind.