P eoplehood is a concept so deeply ingrained in those closely involved with Jewish life that we forget it’s a relatively new construct. Credit for introducing the idea belongs to Mordecai M. Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.

In his 1934 book, Judaism As a Civilization, Kaplan talked a lot about Jewish “nationhood.” Yet just a few years later, he had become uncomfortable with the term. He even turned down a reprinting request because, among other things, he felt that “nationhood,” as applied to the Jewish people, had come to be closely identified with statehood, and was, therefore, in need of being replaced by “Peoplehood.”

The first time I know of that Kaplan used the term Peoplehood was in the November 27, 1942, issue of The Reconstructionist, the movement’s journal. By 1948, he had fully developed the concept, laying it out in The Future of the American Jew. Although Steven Cohen and Jack Wertheimer have lamented that “[t]he once-forceful claims of Jewish ‘peoplehood’ have lost their power to compel” (Whatever Happened to the Jewish People, Commentary, June 2006), we need to remember that this concept, which we take for granted, was considered radical not too long ago. To reinvigorate the idea of Peoplehood, we must recapture its radical nature.

Kaplan’s purpose in developing the idea of Peoplehood was to create an understanding of Judaism broad enough to include everyone who identified as a Jew regardless of one’s individual understanding of or approach to that identity. In the first half of the Twentieth Century, Judaism was generally seen as either a system of behaviors (the Orthodox position) or one of beliefs (the Reform stance). Kaplan found both approaches lacking. He saw in the idea of Peoplehood a way to transcend these approaches by suggesting a sense of belonging as primary to the Jewish experience.

Kaplan arrived at this approach well before the ethnic pride movement of later decades. In fact, America’s melting-pot ideology of the time called for the submergence, rather than the promotion, of ethnic differences. Comfort with hyphenated identities (e.g., Irish-American, Italian-American) came much later. In effect, Kaplan’s Peoplehood concept was a challenge not only to the status quo within the Jewish world, but within the larger culture as well.

Kaplan’s immediate hope was that a strong sense of communal identity would strengthen Jews’ connection to Jewish life and to each other — something he felt was in danger of being weakened by the restrictive visions of the Orthodox and Reform movements. But his ultimate goal was nothing less than universal salvation, a healing of the world brought about by people’s commitment to one another.

Kaplan was radical in proposing an organizing principle, Peoplehood, that ran counter to the American ethos of the day, transcended Jews’ understanding of what lay at the root of their identity, and insisted that the Jewish enterprise was not an end in itself. While the ethical culturists and the Reform were also engaged with universal rather than merely parochial concerns, the idea that there was value in a multi-faith, multicultural world was revolutionary. Kaplan understood that people are shaped by their cultures and civilizations, and that groups have greater power than individuals to help bring about a world of peace and wholeness. He also fervently believed that a revitalized Jewish people could use its wisdom and energy to serve all of humanity and, in the process, strengthen itself.

The concept of Peoplehood continues to be radical today. It is a formidable counterpoint to the glib universalism that ignores the power of religions and cultures to attract and shape adherents, and it flies in the face of our society’s consumer-inspired individualism. Kaplan’s vision makes clear that if we are to act on our connections to others, we have to align ourselves with groups to which we feel naturally obligated. Most of us recognize the sense of obligation that comes from being part of a family; Peoplehood insists that our obligations go beyond our families to our people.

There are many Jewish institutions that cultivate this sense of shared purpose, and chief among them is the synagogue. By creating a culture of interdependence and communal responsibility, synagogues are particularly effective at combating our culture’s celebration of the purely individual and transitory.

Israel also plays an important and special role in bolstering Peoplehood. The visceral sense of being part of the Jewish people that comes from spending time there lies behind the power of programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel. Engaging in day-to-day life in Israel can be both inspiring and dispiriting. But whatever our individual experiences, being in Israel means coming face-to-face with the living reality of Jewish nationhood, both in the modern sense of the word and in the sense of Peoplehood which Kaplan wrote about.

Making Peoplehood primary implies that Judaism is, at its core, a family of families, which is Kaplan’s definition of a civilization. It means that while Judaism contains beliefs, creed is not primary; while it contains time-tested patterns of behavior, halakha is not primary. Embracing Judaism as a civilization, as an ever-changing, evolving family of families rather than as a divinely-ordained belief or behavioral system means embracing a people-centered Jewish life.

What makes this concept radical is its outward focus. Peoplehood demands that our attachments to each other serve a greater purpose than our own, our family’s, or even our immediate community’s well-being; and that those attachments be part of a multi-faith, multicultural effort to make the world a better place for all its inhabitants. By harnessing the power of culture and religion, Peoplehood has the potential to be a powerful force for change. Using that force to confront the major challenges of our time is perhaps our chief obligation as 21st-Century Jews.

It’s easy to pay lip service to the idea of Peoplehood without accepting its radical nature. Making Peoplehood primary means nothing less than fully embracing that radicalism and using it to change the way we define Jewish life and order our individual and communal priorities.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz is President of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.