Culture, Identity, Justice, Religion

Jewish Tribalism or Jewish Religion

In her recent graduation speech at JTS, my boss Ruth Messinger called on us to “work for greater equity, for social justice, and for global citizenship.” For this, the New Jersey Jewish News called her out for being “insufficiently tribal.”
Excuse me?
It’s true, there was a time when tribalism was alive, and American Jews were defined primarily by our enemies and our blood. When, as the NJJN news puts it, “the classic communal concerns of the last century [were] anti-anti-Semitism, pro-Israel activity, and Holocaust remembrance.”
There was a time when tribalism was so alive that major Jewish denominations were reluctant to perform conversions at all, because Judaism resided “in the blood.” (See Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity for a fascinating exploration of this.)
There was a time when the negation of Hitler replaced the worship of God as the theological cornerstone of American Judaism. Thankfully, that time is coming to a close.
American Judaism is stronger now because thousands of Jews are reengaging and reinvigorating Jewish practice in a variety of exciting and dynamic ways. Some, like our friends at Hadar, Drisha and Pardes, are fostering an unprecedented breath and depth of traditional textual fluency; some, like the folks at Elat Chayyim, B’nai Jeshurun, and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality are facilitating meaningful davening and meditative experiences; some are part of minyanim around the country which are building engaged communities in ways that are profoundly shaping peoples’ lives. Some, like the folks at the Six Points Fellowship, JDUB and Storahtelling are finding renewed power in the arts. And thankfully, there are organizations, like AVODAH, American Jewish World Service and Jewish Funds for Justice that are fighting for the human rights of all of God’s creatures, not just those who are Jewish.
The NJJN argues that “tribal identity” is a prerequisite for the pursuit of global justice. This couldn’t be further from the truth – the pursuit of justice is more accurately seen as a prerequisite for Jewish identity. Judaism is a system of practices – some ritual, some interpersonal – and to claim the “tribe” of Judaism, without claiming its practices, is to claim a hollow shell.
The Rambam says (in Issurei Biah 19.17): “Anyone who is brazen or cruel, and hates other people, and does not treat them kindly, is highly suspected of being a Gibeonite, for the characteristics of the holy nation of Israel is that they are humble and kindly.”
In other words, behavior defines identity – not the other way around. There are some, like Korach, who believe that the whole nation of Israel are holy, and it is a legitimate religious stance to be concnered only with the needs of this holy slice of God’s creation. To quote Yeshayahu Lelbowitz, that is nothing more than racist chauvinism.

10 thoughts on “Jewish Tribalism or Jewish Religion

  1. Rabbi Spodek,
    I think you butcher the context of the quotes from NJJN article in a misleading way. The author is not opposed to helping unfortunate people thoughout the world, just that the Jewish aspects of our own lives should not be neglected.
    Your post (and Ms Messinger’s address) raises some interesting questions such as Should Jews cease paying Synagogue dues and attending retreats at Eilat Hayim and instead divert that money to starving children in the Congo? Not quite as much money as the Trillion$ squandered in Iraq, but still a significant amount.

  2. I agree, you definitely were too harsh on the NJJN piece and cut it up to extract an anti-universal message that wasn’t present. The author, Editor Silow-Carroll was clear that he supports the work of AJWS and believes in the centrality of improving the world to Jewish tradition.
    He was just making the cautionary point that that’s not *all* Judaism is — that these Jewish universal concerns developed within a cultural and religious context, and that as Jews we should not forget to learn about, nurture, and live that context.
    And comparing the NJJN news editor to Korach is ridiculous.

  3. The article is ridiculous. Since when is “Jewish continuity” or “Holocaust rememberance” a reason to be Jewish? It turns Judaism into a ludicrous tautology.
    We could differ with Messinger on whether Torah=Avoda=Gemilut Hasadim, or whether the equation should be t<a<gs instead; but “being Jewish” is no reason to be Jewish.
    (Oh, and neither is ISrael. Israel is not Jewish).

  4. As one of the graduates who had the honor of listening to Messinger speak, I squirmed a little in my seat. I was worried – did my desire to work in Jewish informal education mean that I wasn’t looking to do something good in the nonprofit world? I felt guilty for wanting a competitive salary doing something, and felt really guilty while I gorged on a fancy dinner and discussed the speech with family, thinking about the kids who didn’t even get one meal a day.
    Then I remembered that each of the people who graduated that day wanted to do varying things. So while some people were going to be in suit 6 days a week, others would be putting on sneakers and rolling up their sleeves to improve the world outside of the Jewish bubble. Argue about tribalism or being Jewish-community focused all you want, but the JTS graduates that heard Messinger’s message are going out and covering all the bases.

  5. I’m just glad YL was quoted. Then again…. he doesn’t think that most Jews are actually Jews. He defines Jews by behavior, and then observes that many ‘Jews’ don’t actually follow the rules for behaving Jewishly. An interesting take.

  6. Apologies for a late response but:
    “The Rambam says… is highly suspected of being a Gibeonite…”
    “In other words, behavior defines identity – not the other way around.”
    The key word is suspected… there is no defining going on.
    Amit, “being Jewish” is no reason to be Jewish? Does a horse need a reason to be a horse? Please explain your intention.

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