While Jews have often been described as “a people of the book” (making the book primary), others have described us simply as “a people” (making peoplehood primary).
In the post-Enlightenment era, where more Jews are secular than religious, peoplehood has taken on a much stronger emphasis. The Holocaust, the murder of 6 million Jews in countries that they considered home, has also contributed to the understanding of Jews as a separate and distinct people.
However, while Jews have been collectively persecuted for millennia due to our status as “others,” in modernity many influential thinkers have been more embracing. Consider how highly some gentiles in modernity have viewed the Jewish people.
Lyman Abbot, a famous theologian and author, wrote:
We gentiles owe our life to Israel. It is Israel who has brought us the message that G-d is One, and that G-d is a just and righteous G-d, and demands righteousness of His children, and demands nothing else. It is Israel that has brought us the message that G-d is our Father. It is Israel who brought us the Divine law, has laid the foundation of liberty. It is Israel who had the first free institution the world ever saw. It is Israel who has brought us our Bible, our prophets, our apostles. When sometimes our own unchristian prejudices flame out against the Jewish people, let us remember that all that we have, all that we owe, under G-d, is due to what Judaism has given us.
It is certain that in certain parts of the world we can see a peculiar people, separated from the other peoples of the world, and this is called the Jewish people…. This people is not only a remarkable antiquity but has also lasted for a singularly long time.… For whereas the peoples of Greece and Italy, of Sparta, Athens, and Rome, have perished so long ago, these still exist, despite the efforts of so many powerful kings who have tried a hundred times to wipe them out… They have always been preserved, however, and their preservation was foretold…. My encounter with this people amazes me (Pensées, 171, 176-77).
The notation that the survival of the Jewish people is purely miraculous is frequent throughout history. Consider the words of Nicholai Berdyaev, a Russian religious and political philosopher:
… remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint .… Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history (The Meaning of History, 86-87).
Miraculous as our ability to persevere in the face of destruction has been, too often survival has become the goal of our religion. This can be considered a form of “idolatry,” where self-preservation takes priority over core values. How we survive takes precedence over the more important question of why should we survive. How can we unite often comes to trump the diversity of our people. These are the inherent dangers of peoplehood, fundamental flaws in a singular definition of Jewishness.
What Makes Us a People?
Many Jews, and gentiles, assume our status as a people to be a given, rooted in our covenant with G-d, socio-political definitions of nationhood, or even philosophical understandings of peoplehood. However, this blind acceptance of our peoplehood often entails a failure to examine what exactly makes us a unique people.
Some suggest peoplehood is based upon being a “family” that one cannot opt out of. Philosopher and author Michael Wyschogrod explains this position in his book, The Body of Faith:
The foundation of Judaism is the family identity of the Jewish people as descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Whatever else is added to this must be seen as growing out of and related to the basic identity of the Jewish people as the seed of Abraham elected by G-d through descent from Abraham…. The house of Israel is therefore not a voluntary association defined by acceptance or rejection of a set of propositions. (57)
Others, however, suggest that we choose, voluntarily, whether to be a part of the Jewish people or not. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes:
As long as the covenant was involuntary, it could be imposed from above in a unitary way…. In the new era, the voluntary covenant is the theological base of a genuine pluralism…[This] is a recognition that all Jews have chosen to make the fundamental Jewish statement at great personal risk and cost (Voluntary Covenant, 22).
Yet others have suggested that in a post-Holocaust era, we our obligated to maintain our commitment to peoplehood in addition to keeping our religious traditions. Consider the arguments of philosopher Emil Fackenheim: “The authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous ‘victory’ by failing to survive as a Jew.” Fackenheim refers to this as the 614th commandment – “the commanding voice of Auschwitz.” He argues that “the authentic Jewish agnostic and the authentic Jewish believer are closer today than any previous time.”
While the root of what makes us a people will certainly be debated in perpetuity, the majority of Jews, and gentiles, have unquestionably accepted our status as a unique people. This peoplehood label has often led to conceptions of oneness and equivalency among world Jewry.
Are We One People?
The conception of Jews as a single, unified people emerged with fiery conviction and ubiquity in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. Jews were considered to be a singular nation in diaspora; it did not matter that we were separated by thousands of miles, oceans, languages, and culture, we were one people. This was also what made the land of Israel so important–the promise of a country where Jews could gather, live, and become a unified people with the same language, culture, religious practices, and identity. However, this idea of oneness seems to be just that, an idea, or more precisely, an aspiration for unity in a time of constitutional turmoil.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in the preface to One People?:
Jewish Unity: The phrase is deceptively simple. It is easier to invoke than to understand, and is beset by irony. The idea that Jews are “one people” has emerged as a, perhaps the, dominant motif of post-Holocaust Jewish reflection. It is a constant presence in the public rhetoric of contemporary Jewry. It evokes passion and conviction, but seldom clarity. Set against the reality it seeks to describe, it is an aspiration, not an achievement; a myth rather than a reality. Not since the first and second centuries CE have Jews been less united. Rarely has it been harder to state what constitutes them as “one people.” That, in itself, should not surprise us, because demands for unity surface only at times of great internal conflict.
Today we may be inclined to perceive ourselves as part of one people due to a shared language, a shared history, a shared tradition, a shared land, shared values, or for other commonalities, but it is not our membership in a peoplehood that unites us. It is the values we cherish that unite us (as am kadosh) not some inexplicable tribal-bonding affiliation. When we prioritize our mere existence—our survival over our values—we depreciate that very existence, we make our survival less significant. I encourage our unity to be based on halakhah, common values of justice, ethical responsibility, truth, and peace, not a singular conception of national peoplehood. We must not only survive as a people but also thrive as a people. To do that, we must redirect our orientation beyond ourselves toward the other, the realm of ideas, and back into the dream.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”