Beyond the

Am

A Different Perspective on
Peoplehood

by DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF

We have internalized the faulty, racist arguments of the peoples whose provincial gods and beliefs we refused to accept — and, in the process, accepted a similarly provincial, race-based and limited view of the Jewish project.

P erhaps the most compelling and dangerous misconception held by Jews today is that the longevity of Judaism is dependent on our ability to cling to a rather specious claim of Peoplehood. For while there is great comfort to be found in the mythological origins of a Jewish People chronicled in the Torah, when they become the foundation for a sense of racial or historical entitlement, they undermine the very premise of Judaism.

To be sure, Jewish myth and history are both rife with proclamations of our Peoplehood. It’s just that these assertions are usually made by our worst enemies, looking for a justification to wipe us out. It was Pharaoh who first used the term “am,” or a people, in the Torah, as a way of identifying the Israelites who threatened to outbreed his loyal soldiers. The first references to a Jewish race, or blood, came during the Inquisition. Many Jews had converted to Catholicism, yet still maintained their foothold in the rising middle class of merchants. So the Inquisitors decreed that the practice of Judaism was no longer the crime; now it was simply having Jewish “blood.” Finally, it was Carl Jung who, interpreted through a Nazi lens, held that Jews carried a “genetic memory” for the sort of abstract thought that undermined any fascistic enterprise.

The irony, of course, is that over centuries of illegitimate persecution, Jews have come to accept the logic of their detractors as their own. We have internalized the faulty, racist arguments of the peoples whose provincial gods and beliefs we refused to accept — and, in the process, accepted a similarly provincial, race-based and limited view of the Jewish project. As a result, we forget that we are an intentional amalgam of peoples, or even that a “People” might possibly be united by choice instead of by a supreme creator. 

Even a cursory understanding of Torah reveals that the shared heritage described in Genesis was a story borrowed from other faith systems and repurposed to serve as a reunion myth for the disparate nomadic tribes rebelling against Egyptian rule. The first hearers of Torah surely understood the inside jokes, as the sons of Jacob were used as caricatured stand-ins for traits that had become associated with each of the tribes.

Judaism — if we can even call it that — was as much a set of principles through which a people could behave ethically as it was a religion in any modern sense of the word. What distinguished this new way of life — what made it an exodus from the death cults of Egypt — was that it was not considered a pre-existing condition of the universe.

Whereas the laws other people followed had always been tied to place and local gods, the Israelite system was to be universal. More than anything, it was the invention of text which made this possible. With the power of the alphabet, it would be people and not only priests who could read the law. More importantly, it would be people who could write the law.

This is the revolution described in Exodus: a group of tribes gathered together to write their own laws in support of life. L’chaim isn’t just a song from Fiddler on the Roof — it is a declaration of independence, and a profound assertion of living agency in the face of formerly inviolable decrees.

As media theorist Walter Ong has pointed out, the transition from oral culture to literate culture is not without its problems. Text is necessarily abstract, disconnected from its writer in a way that the spoken word could never be. But it also allows for a new sort of memory and accountability.

That’s why the covenant was written in the form of a contract. Imagine that: Jews received God through a contractual arrangement. And then we continued to negotiate this relationship, as well as our ethical obligations, over centuries of legal discussions known as the Talmud. It is an open source religion.

This is the prime advantage of the abstract monotheism that text permitted: instead of depending on a particular place or racial makeup, Judaism would be defined by a set of behaviors. We belong through our actions.

This is not to say that Judaism is devoid of particularism. It’s simply that racism, nationalism and particularism are different things, not to be confused with one another, and not at all interdependent. What makes Judaism particular — different than, say, joining the ACLU or doing just works — lies in the motivations for action. Jews find their strength in their shared stories, laws, history and community. We have to remember, though, which of these are the means and which are the ends. The object of the game is a just society, whether or not those of us calling ourselves Jews ever get the credit.

If what makes Jews particular is our fictional history — whether mythic or genetic — then all is lost. We would have no choice but to practice in secret and distance ourselves from the rest of the world, like any other cult, to preserve our uniqueness. As our most fervent philanthropists fear, we would eventually either intermarry or fight ourselves into extinction. (Even the Tanakh demonstrates the need to bring new peoples into the mix, lest we fall victim to the infertility of too much inbreeding.) Luckily, even though ghettos and isolation have certainly dwindled our chromosomal variety, it’s not our genes that define us at all. And while there are doubtlessly those who view the Torah as a literal (if contradictory) history, Judaism has always been open to movements that accept more allegorical understandings of our most sacred narratives.

What first made Judaism unique was the contention that human beings could write the law. Where earlier faiths operated under the presumption of pre-existing moral codes created by a deity and enacted by the deity’s chosen leader, it was now up to human beings to engage with the sacred through a contract. Covenant became a two-sided contractual obligation. (Even a boy “born Jewish” isn’t officially a Jew until he is circumcised.)

Of course, centuries of pressure by more traditional, parochial religions have borne their toll on Judaism. It’s hard for Jews to engage with the world’s many peoples with the clear-headedness of our ancestors — especially since we well understand the price for abandoning superstition and racism. The few times in history we have insisted on maintaining our principles in the face of supreme rulers or fascist despots, we were met with harsh collective sentences. Dictators never like people who don’t acknowledge the reality of their claims to natural sovereignty over a supposed family of people.

The trick, as I see it, will be to utilize a little more skillfully the brief reprieves we enjoy every few centuries. After World War II, for example, it was quite understandable why we’d accept a nation state as the world’s apology for its reluctance to prevent numerous atrocities. But this may have been a moment for us to press our advantage. Instead of accepting the contemporary and limited notion of Peoplehood associated with a nation state, instead of demanding a place like the Irish, the Tibetans or any other regional people, we should have demanded what our persecutors most feared: universal citizenship.

Indeed, we must resist assimilation. Instead of accepting a plot of turf, an official church, and an externally defined classification of Peoplehood, we might better push for a relationship to the world that more accurately reflects what makes Judaism so particularly dangerous to the biased, xenophobic and territorial claims of the people amongst whom we have almost always lived.

Yes, it’s easier to get along with everyone in the short term if we pretend we’re just another people — another house of worship on the block. But to do so is to deny the premise that people can transcend false, mythological distinctions and instead pursue universal justice. If we’re serious about Jewish continuity, it is this thread we must keep alive.


Douglas Rushkoff, Professor of Communications at NYU, was chosen as one of the Forward Fifty Most Influential Jews in 2002. He was the founder of Reboot and the author of Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism.