Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jewish Peoplehood?

I have more blessings in my life than I could possibly recount in one sitting. My personal and professional lives are filled with beautiful people and opportunities that consistently push me to learn and grow. In my professional life, I am particularly blessed to be part of the Mandel Fellowship, which is dedicated to developing leaders across the Jewish world. My particular fellowship is designed for rabbinical students seeking to develop a sense of vision as future rabbinic leaders through the lens of Jewish education. The fellowship explores four themes: Education as Growth, Vision, Community and Peoplehood. In order to participate in the fellowship I, along with six of my classmates, took a year off of rabbinical school to receive a Masters in Religious Education. In addition to taking courses in education at HUC, we met together for three seminars in Malibu, Boston, and now Israel. At these seminars we explore the different themes of the fellowship and how they relate to our own experiences, ideas and goals for the future. The Israel seminar serves as a culmination of our work, with a natural focus on the theme of Jewish peoplehood.

Jewish peoplehood is a spanking new concept. Though Jews have been called 'the people of Israel' since the biblical period, the concept of Jewish peoplehood originated as recently as the middle of the 20th century. In many ways, the notion of peoplehood originated out of a feeling that no other concept could accurately describe what it really is that binds Jews to one another. Despite popular opinion in America, Judaism is not a religion in the same way that Christianity is a religion. What I mean by this is that being Christian is fundamentally about belief in a particular faith. It is near impossible to call yourself Christian without some minimal commitment to faith. For many Jews, however, being Jewish has absolutely nothing to do with faith, belief, religious tradition, or God. When we start to define Judaism as only a religion (of course it is a religion!), we fail to acknowledge the multitude of legitimate expressions of Judaism. Before the notion of peoplehood came along, Judaism was described as a race, an ethnicity, a culture, a civilization and a nationality. Some of these notions were more helpful than others, and often illustrative of many individual Jewish experiences. That being said, each of these concepts fails to capture the totality of what it means to be Jewish in the world today.

Jewish peoplehood offers an alternative notion that suggests that Jews across the world (and perhaps across time) are in some way connected. The question becomes: How are Jews connected and what purpose do these connections serve? One of the goals of this seminar is to work toward developing a personal stance to these questions. The challenge and task is great and like everything Jewish, is immensely complex and filled with tension. If you are left wondering what in the world I am talking about, all I can say is that you are not alone, and with the presentation of my personal stance on peoplehood just days away, I hope to find a bit of clarity through my musings.

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