Columbia/Barnard Hillel class – What is Jewish Peoplehood?

by peoplehoodproject

Taught by Rabbi Leavitt and Shana Zionts

Notes by Chaya Koshner


Topic today: Peoplehood

            What are we?  A people?  A nation?  A religion?


The Jews are….?

  • A people
  • Tiny
  • “the ants go marching one by one…”
  • Diverse
  • Intentional
  • Strong
  • Exhausting
  • Opinionated
  • Reliant
  • Ubiquitous
  • Liberal
  • Rich

Poem by Yehuda Amichai:

  • We are not a historical people
    • Non-linear progression
    • Not bound by time, but by experience and tradition, or connection to other Jews…. Common Judaism
      • Common Judaism=doesn’t have to be expressed religiously, it’s just part of your identity
      • Focuses too much on death and torment, reality of Judaism is that we have been shaped by such things, but when we look back at our people, we see the 6 million, we don’t see individuals
        • Not doing happy things
        • Even if you don’t know who they are or what they did, you’re connected, you place stones on their graves
        • Jewish identity can’t be escaped, not optimistic, something you’re stuck with
        • “Settlement of divorce”, interesting idea, what have we done in these diaspora moments?  If we only see G-d once a year, when do we see one another?

To be a Jew….?

  • Is to be involved
  • Is to think
  • Effortless
  • Is to struggle
  • Is to question
  • Is to remember
  • Is to celebrate
  • Is to be
  • It’s the question

Blu Greenberg and Arthur Green

  • Respond to question of what it means to be a Jew

Reactions to them:

  • Green’s notion of what it means to be a Jew is Euro-centric yet talks in terms of what the Jews have to offer
  • Same for Greenberg, she talks in terms of how the Holocaust impacts all of our identities, but not applicable to many Sephardim
  • Green relies on Holocaust as means to defining the way Jews should be in the world, but Greenberg doesn’t rely on the Holocaust as much as Green does, hers is a more all-encompassing definition of what it means to be Jewish, is very beautiful
  • Green seems to indicate that being Jewish is an eternal call to action, Greenberg seems to be more inspirational, emphasizes self-choice (make of it what you will)
  • Feminism, acting ethically towards others, etc. doesn’t define Judaism, it isn’t unique to Jews
  • Greenberg describes being in a covenant with the Jewish people, Green says that being Jewish is testifying to the broader world a certain set of values
  • Green doesn’t really mention Israel…. How does that feature in our Jewish identities? 

Journal entries:  What it means to be a Jew.

  • To be Jewish is effortless (assuming you’re born into it).  Personally, to be part of a community.  To love the Torah.  Struggling with questions.  It means you’re never alone.
  • “It can mean” vs “to be is”… varies for different people… hard to define any one Jewish experience.
  • A Jew is a communal creature, we exist not individually, but as a whole.  We’re connected to our fellow person.  Relationship to G-d is person, but to other people, it’s communal.
  • No matter what you do, and how you screw up, you’re still a Jew
    • Do you think that’s true of someone who doesn’t practice?
    • Yes. 
    • If you want the title of being Jewish, but none of the traditions or practice, what does it mean?
      • The fact that it’s innate is itself inherently meaningful
      • Genetic, but not scientific
      • Judaism as an identification is meaningful
      • Even if you don’t see yourself like that, G-d still sees you in that way
      • To be Jewish is passive, it’s there regardless of your actions
      • Romantic idea
        • To live cyclically a linear history.  To think about what we eat, what we think, what we say.  It gives us a gift each week with each new festival and each life event.  To never stop asking.  To recreate ourselves each week in the dark.  To bask in the light of eternal gratitude. 
        • Focus on the actions that make you Jewish.
        • Self defining how you’re separate from humanity through actions that show you’re Jewish

Reactions to sources

  • Soloveitchik- meaning comes from choice.  If we are totally without choice, in being Judaism, there is no meaning in living our lives Jewishly.
  • We are all Jews by choice, regardless of whether we’ve grown up with it, or not, or converted.  Many problems with Soloveitchik.  Says that what we do day-to-day is meaningless.
  • Wishing there was a way we could truly choose to be Jewish, not just fall into it as a way of rote practice.
  • If you have the choice, there is a struggle to begin with.  And you’ve hit a certain equilibrium, having found comfort in that choice.  But if you’ve never found against what you were raised with, there is to some degree, less freedom.  But you also have a deeper understanding, and are distracted by fewer things, having never been distracted before. 
  • Belittling to religion to say you’re actively choosing to go into it.  The fact that it’s imposed on you makes the experience so much more powerful.  The act of choice gives a recognition to other options and this act of choice equates Judaism with other choices, and that isn’t so optimal. 
  • Meaningful choice for Soloveitchik is making the choice to live in a certain way.
  • For Maimonides, what it means to be Jewish (or at least a part) is to get rid of idolatry.
  • Tanya says that all Jews share common essence in the root of their souls, this is the common unifying factor.
  • More comfortable to relate to notion of common characteristic of the soul than to a common purpose or destiny.
  • Judaism is about movement, about action.  There is a certain sense of a commonality of effecting some change.
  • Judaism as a religious community or a nation?
  • It’s still a nation, but ideally a religious community
  • Image
  • Image