Tag: peoplehood

Jewish Peoplehood Precedes Jewish Religion

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of Shalom Hartman Institute and Director of it’s Engaging Israel Project, blogs wisely about the essence of Judaism. We are a people first; religious faith and tradition secondarily. We learn this on Pesach, which he calls the “Independence Day of the Jewish People.”

…this [peoplehood] identity precedes our religious faith: [just as] Pesach precedes Shavuot. In a Jewish world where all too often one’s particular denomination or religious practice serves as a wall between oneself and fellow Jews, where the central question is often in whose house one does not eat, or in which synagogue one does not pray, the ethos of Pesach calls out and reminds one that Jewish peoplehood comes first. While Judaism does not stop with peoplehood and Sinai is a defining moment shaping the values and content of our national identity, the place of Pesach in our calendar [coming before Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of Torah], I believe, gives it primacy. By this I mean that our Jewish values and practices must not only shape our collective identity but must be shaped by them.

Ours is a world where Conservative Jews belittle the religious sensibilities of Reform Jews, where Reform Jews deny the value of Orthodox Jews practices, where Orthodox reject the halakhic (Jewish legal) outlook of Conservative Jews (and don’t forget the Reconstructionist, Haredi, Renewal, Transdenominational and other Jews). In Israel, the divisions are deeper as they are tied into national politics – from marriage and burial, to the role of women, to the future of the West Bank settlements.

Rabbi Hartman continues:

Religion by its nature creates a God intoxication in which we strive to walk in the way of God, regardless of the consequences to ourselves and to others. The “heroic figure” of Abraham in Genesis 22 [the Akedah, Abraham’s almost sacrifice of Isaac] models such a religious pathos. 

Pesach, I believe, requires of us a peoplehood intoxication, a commitment not only to loyalty and love of the Jewish people but also to filter our individual religious commitments through the prism of what will serve our people as a whole. In the Ethics of our Fathers, according to Rabbi Nathan, Chapter 2, we are taught that Moses broke the Tablets of the Ten Commandments without Divine approval, because he was fearful that giving the Torah to the Jewish people at that time would condemn them as idolatrous sinners and consequently warrant their destruction. 

Declarations of Jewish unity will not suffice. Like Moses we have to ask ourselves: Which part of Torah we are willing to relinquish for the sake of the Jewish people, which truth or personal commitment, while dear to us, is too dear, and causes hurt and alienation? When doing so it is not a religious compromise but rather a religious value, a fulfillment of the dictates of our tradition which celebrates Pesach first and makes it the foundation of Sinai and not the opposite.

Rabbi Hartman’s wisdom rings true. Peoplehood, not lip serviced declarations, but real commitment to Jewish peoplehood might shine a way forward in the Jewish religious battles in Israel. May this reaffirmation of the primacy of Jewish peoplehood strengthen us as our brothers and sisters in Israel struggle to redefine the role of religion in public life, and we in America struggle to deepen our connections despite divergent opinions about Jewish living and Israeli politics.

Touching the Moment of Israel’s Creation

Anat Hoffman, the energetic, inspirational, forward-thinking Executive Director of the IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) in Jerusalem, reflects upon Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. In The Pluralist, the IRAC’s insightful eNewsletter, Hoffman captures the multi-sensory joy Jews feel at the creation/rebirth and existence of the State of Israel:

I am drawn again and again to A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz’s memoir of his early life in a young and bewildered Israel, a country which does not even formerly exist as such until a couple hundred pages into the book.

Every Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, I think back to the passage in which Oz describes crawling into bed at three or four in the morning, still fully dressed, after celebrating the U.N.’s vote to create the state of Israel.

As a child, Oz understands the solemnity of the event, its historical dimensions, from observing the actions of his father, who lies down next to him and does something so out of character: he cries – tears of joy. And, in amazement, Oz takes note of his father’s reaction:

“I reached out sleepily to touch his face, just below his high forehead, and all of a sudden instead of his glasses my fingers met tears. Never in my life, before or after that night, not even when my mother died, did I see my father cry. And in fact I didn’t see him cry that night either: it was too dark. Only my left hand saw.”

Only his left hand saw. We remain in this moment with him – still our hand searches in the dark, tries to reach back in time to touch the moment of Israel’s creation, to grasp even a bit of what it must have been like to live through that time.

Oz does not choose the more reliable senses of sight or sound to translate the emotional incredibleness of one night years ago. He uses touch; and while we might imagine the sensation of hot tears on skin, something remains always out of our reach.

Oz, one of our greatest writers, comes close to but cannot pin down the ineffableness of that moment. Emotionally we get it, but putting it into words is like assembling a puzzle in a dream. But Oz invites us to try – with all our senses.

So I challenge you to do the same. Celebrate the event that made even Amos Oz’s father cry with joy. Tonight, as we move from Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day, to Yom Ha’atzmaut, let’s celebrate with all our senses.

So What are We Jews? A Religious Group or a People?

So what are we Jews?  A religion or faith group (like Protestants or Catholics)? An ethnic group with our bagels and lox?  A people?Ask many non-involved Jews and they will most likely answer: a religion.  But we have only consider ourselves a religious group since Napoleon offered Jews emancipation from the ghetto if we became Frenchmen of the Mosaic persuasion (a religious group).  Before that, and since, we have been primarily a people. 
Thus Daniel Gordis writes in A Requiem for Peoplehood (in a Jerusalem Post article):

Judaism as a faith system, of course, is nothing new. But from time immemorial, we have also seen ourselves as a people. From the moment that Pharaoh refers to the Jews as “the people, the Children of Israel” (Exodus 1:9), it is clear even to our enemies that Abraham’s clan has morphed into a nation.FOR MILLENNIA, rank-and-file Jews understood this. We cultivated bonds of mutual obligation, even when we profoundly disagreed, even when our faith wore thin. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh, all Jews are responsible one for another, the tradition has long insisted.And it actually worked. It was peoplehood that got American college students to wage a relentless battle to free Soviet Jews, with whom they had virtually nothing obvious in common.It was due to peoplehood that IAF pilots flew converted cargo planes into an Ethiopian civil war in order to save people of a different race, a radically different faith system and virtually no shared history, bringing them to Israel in Operation Solomon.And it is peoplehood that has continually led American Jews – despite their absolute disinterest in making aliya and their profound differences with Israel about conversion policy and the peace process – to support Israel both financially and politically.

Perhaps the answer is D, all of the above.  Still, the notion that Jews are a people transcends time and space.  It helps explain what connects Jews of different backgrounds, different racial heritages, or different nationalities.  Which leaves me wondering: How do we reinforce the peoplehood part of being a Jew in a country that prefers to compare us to other religions?