Race, Nation or People?

Last night’s Annual Meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey was a wonderful event.  Lifelong Oheb Shalom member Arthur Schechner received the first-ever President’s Bamberger Award for his wonderful accomplishments as a communal leader.  Leslie Rosenthal, longtime member and past president of Oheb Shalom, was deservedly honored on the conclusion of her 3-year term as Federation President.  The room was packed for these testimonials, as well as for the other meeting agenda items, including a report from Leslie and Federation CEO Dov Ben Shimon on this year’s Federation achievements on behalf of our community, our Israeli partners and Jewish communities around the world.

Each year, the Federation Annual Meeting is enriched with a presentation by a notable Jewish leader or scholar.  This year’s speaker was Avraham Infeld, President Emeritus of Hillel International and Consultant on Tikun Olam to the Reut Institute in Israel.  I had the privilege of sitting next to Dr. Infeld during the meeting, so I asked him what he intended to speak about.  He thought for a moment, then answered: “the Jewish people!”  At first, I thought his answer was tongue-in-cheek, as if he had said that he would speak about Judaism.  After hearing his remarks, passionately delivered, I see that he meant what he said.  In his speech he referred to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, read aloud by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948, which declares the establishment of “a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”  Infeld noted the peculiarity of the term “Jewish state.”  What does the phrase mean?  Can a state be Jewish?  Does it keep Shabbat?  Does it keep kosher?  Of course not, he confirmed.  Infeld went on to say that the key to understanding the notion of a “Jewish” state is to see being Jewish not solely as a matter of religious affiliation but as belonging to a people.

Religion can be divisive rather than unifying, and the Jewish religion is no exception.  We see animosity and conflict all around us caused by the way some understand and practice the Jewish religion.  Some Orthodox Jews reject outright those who are not Orthodox.  This is especially true in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox Jews with political power deny legitimacy and support to the Masorti and Reform Movements that are established there.

But peoplehood is an all-encompassing enterprise.  It is a wide umbrella that can include all those who are connected to the Jewish people.  Peoplehood offers not only religious life but cultural, intellectual and communal experiences.  This is an important framework for understanding the State of Israel, which is a state not only for people who want to practice the Jewish religion but for those who want to express their affiliation with the Jewish people through cultural and communal ways as well.  In this way, Israel is a “Jewish State.”  It is the land in which the Jewish people were born.  As the first line of Israel’s Declaration of Independence says, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

We can only hope that those Jews who believe that they possess the truth about what it means to be a Jew and how a Jew should live and behave, that those who believe they can and should use political power to coerce their fellow Jews into practicing the Jewish religion as they believe it should be practiced, should come to understand that throughout our history our source of strength has been the unifying notion of Jewish peoplehood.

In seeking to define Judaism, it’s not uncommon to ask this question:  Are Jews a religion, a nation, or a race?  It can be argued that even if we do not now share common racial traits, Jews once did.  Hitler certainly saw Jews as a race that had to be exterminated.  We are certainly a religion, as there are norms of religious practice that define Jewish life, even if they are interpreted and lived differently by Jews around the world.  And we are certainly a nation, as a connection to the land of Israel is fundamental to what it means to be a Jew.

But perhaps the best definition of what it means to be a Jew is that we all belong to a people, one that shares a common history and a destiny.  Our strength and our future lie in the simple adage that says “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Ba-zeh…All members of the people of Israel are responsible for one another.”  Perhaps that simple phrase is the most profoundly important of all Jewish teachings.

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