OF THE



A s of late, “Jewish Peoplehood” has become a new rallying cry in the Jewish communal world similar to the way “Jewish Continuity” was the preferred slogan in the wake of the findings of the 1990 Jewish Population Survey. As a student of the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan, I am wary of the swallowing up of Kaplan’s original and nuanced term into the machine of empty rhetoric that is used simplemindedly as a call for Jewish unity without defining who the Jews are and what is their reason for being. When Peoplehood is not defined substantively, its meaning is left to speculation that can justifiably assume a narrow xenophobia, tribalism, even racism on the part of those who champion the idea of the Jewish People.

Contrary to such speculation, however, the Peoplehood of Israel, from its earliest articulations in the Hebrew Bible to the Universalist Zionist thought of Kaplan, Martin Buber and A. D. Gordon, has been informed by a tradition of openness, universal mission and an affirmation of the value of all human beings that stands in tension with competing traditions of who the Jewish people should be. That is, different Jews at different times in history have had different notions of what the Jewish people is or might be. I will attempt to present a number of highlights that point in an abbreviated way to one possible articulation of the idea of the Jewish People.

Joining the Covenant of Israel is extended to those not born as Israelites not as an afterthought in the Torah but at the foundational moment of Jewish Peoplehood, the Exodus from Egypt.

In the Hebrew Bible, there is a continuous strand of outlook that posits the Jewish People, or Israel, as a dialectical hybrid of birth and choice, blood and faith. In the Biblical narrative, Israel, from its beginning, is not a single tribe but a cluster of tribes. Birth is important, but it is not everything. A constant thematic refrain challenges the privileges of the first born: Isaac replaces the older Ishmael, Jacob usurps the firstborn Esau, Judah takes prominence over the older Reuben, Menasheh takes second place when Jacob extends his right hand of blessing to the younger Ephraim. This value of the usurpation of primogeniture highlights the notion that while birth is central to the Covenant of Israel, it is not exclusively determinative.

Likewise, at the moment of the Exodus from Egypt, the text exhorts us to remember the Exodus experience in the future by re-enacting every year the memory of having tasted the Paschal Offering, whose blood secured the redemption of the children of Israel (Exodus 12:37-50). That same passage then makes it clear that if there are “strangers” living with us, not born of the Covenant, who also want to taste of the Paschal Offering and remember the Exodus with us, they should be encouraged to do so as long as the males among them are willing to show profound commitment by undergoing the blood of circumcision. That is, joining the Covenant of Israel is extended to those not born as Israelites not as an afterthought in the Torah but at the foundational moment of Jewish Peoplehood, the Exodus from Egypt. This passage even begins with mention that a “great mixing” of people not born Israelites left Egypt together with those genealogically descended from the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The Hebrew Bible goes out of its way continuously to prescribe the just treatment and love of strangers whether or not they choose to join their blood to the People of Israel. We are told to do that because “You were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In fact, in a very telling passage in the Book of Exodus (22:20 – 23:9), the enterprise of creating a just society is framed, at the passage’s beginning and end, by the prescription to not mistreat the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. The just society that Israel is meant to create is the “Anti-Egypt.” A central characteristic of that society is openness to the other.

Egypt, it should be remembered, was not only a brutal society in which Israel suffered, but the most powerful empire of its day. Its sovereignty was not limited to the straits of the Nile. Indeed, Egypt ruled over what would be known as the land of Israel well past what we assume to have been the conquest of the land. In other words, the formulation of the just society of Israel in its land is set not only in contradistinction to a memory called Egypt but in conflict with the Empire against which Israel revolts (see Norman Gottwald, The Politics of Ancient Israel, 2001). Whether it was Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece or Rome, our stories, holidays and commemorations are full of the memory of an ongoing conflict with Empire. When the Book of Deuteronomy teaches us how to go about selecting a king, we are warned to make sure that such a king cannot aggrandize wealth, women and horses to himself (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). He cannot return the people to Egypt. In other words, he cannot make of himself an emperor; Israel is not meant to be an Empire. Rather, as the Book of Isaiah articulates, Israel is meant to be a “Covenantal People; A light of nations” (Isaiah 42:6). The Jewish stand against empire is made in many ways, from the revolts against both Pharaoh and Rome to the spiritual discipline of the Sabbath, which teaches us to recognize both the wholeness of creation and our limitations in the universe.

Biblical Covenantal Openness is demonstrated in a pointed way in the Book of Ruth. Ruth is born of a supposedly hated people, the Moabites, but she is the great-grandmother of King David, who represents the future wholeness of the People of Israel. His genealogical line is at once established and clear, leading back to Judah, at the same time that it includes a progenitor who has chosen to make the fate of Israel her own. There is birth and there is choice. The choice that Ruth makes is one of joining a family and a people. It is clear that the Book of Ruth belongs to a Biblical tradition of Covenantal Openness in tension with that Biblical tradition that casts the Moabites as not only hated but as forbidden to Israelites for marriage.

The Covenantal Openness of the Hebrew Bible also stands in stark contrast to an alternative Biblical tradition that exhorts the Israelites to exterminate non-Israelites whom they encounter upon the conquest of the land. Given archeological evidence, we can surmise that this wiping out of Canaanite peoples not only never happened but represents an anachronistic wish from the Deuteronomic period contradicted by the Biblical obligation to welcome the stranger and to accept the sojourner into the Covenant. Obviously, the Biblical tradition is not univocal; it offers contradictory answers to the question of who the Jewish People is meant to be in relation to others. Again, there are competing visions throughout Jewish history from which we have the freedom to choose.

This is highlighted by the famous Talmudic story in Tractate Shabbat concerning a series of non-Jews who approach both Hillel and Shammai to be converted to Judaism (TB Shabbat 31a). In each case, the non-Jew offers impossible conditions for his conversion. Shammai harshly rejects each applicant. Hillel gently takes each of them in and subsequently shows them, pedagogically, why their conditions do not make sense. Over the generations, we have been able to choose whether to follow the model of Hillel or that of Shammai. Three hundred years after the time of Hillel and Shammai, it had become virtually illegal in the Roman Empire for Jews to convert others to Judaism. It is not surprising that that edict became internalized in Jewish understandings of conversion, and led to later Talmudic statements comparing converts to a boil on the body of Israel. The question for our day is whether to recognize that we no longer live under the province of an Empire hostile to the Jewish people and whether we are ready to return to the open spirit of both Hillel and the Book of Exodus.

It is no accident that the narrative of the People of Israel begins in the Book of Genesis with the story of a family. The Jewish People is an extended family, and it is one which is meant to have an open adoption policy. In our foundational texts, being born into this extended family is of co-equal value with choosing to be a member of this family. Yes, it would be easier to define being Jewish either as a closed line of familial descent or as a system of values and wisdom divorced completely from the notion of birth and family. That being Jewish is both of birth and of choice, of belonging to an extended family and subscribing to a wisdom and spiritual tradition, makes the definition of Jewish Peoplehood complex and essentially of a dialectical nature. The idea of the Jewish People cannot be neatly fit into either/or categories of nation, religion, biology or culture. Because the Covenantal Family of the Jewish People combines birth and choice, its very existence teaches the values of both openness and belonging as well as the value that affirms both the particular and the universal at once. Abraham is told that he will become a great nation for the purpose that all the families of the earth will be blessed. Jewish particularism is meant to realize a universal goal. The universalism of our tradition does not negate the particular.

The idea of the Jewish People is indispensable to Judaism. That is, the values that Judaism teaches are best realized and learned through the medium of living together in the human community of Peoplehood rather than through the abstract intellection of an isolated individual’s personal process. The Covenantal Family that is the Jewish people does not exist for the sake of its own survival but in order to demonstrate the values of Judaism in its example to others and to the world. This is an open family, not a closed one. This is a family with a mission greater than its own existence. Perhaps such an articulation of the idea of the Jewish People can be helpful to those looking for reasons to be excited about the new-found call of Jewish Peoplehood.

Rabbi David Gedzelman is the Executive Vice President of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and is writing a book about the Idea of the Jewish People.