More than eight years ago I published an article titled “The Mitzvot of Peoplehood” where I posed the following question: “I’m a member of the Jewish People. So what should I do when I wake up in the morning?” I’ve spent the years since I posed this question thinking and speaking about it and formulating ideas in response to it. So this might be a good time to write down some of the answers.
In that article I defined Jewish Peoplehood as “the instinctive feeling that one is a member of one Jewish People present around the world.” If the instinct exists, then the Mitzvot are necessary merely to give shape and form to it. However, if the instinct does not exist, the Mitzvot of peoplehood might be necessary to actively nurture that instinct. The Mitzvot of peoplehood, much like the known Mitzvot, then become the “what” and the “how”, the substance and the mechanism, by which one is a member of the Jewish people.
Proposed here are five potential avenues of action to nurture the sense of belonging to a Jewish people globally: the first “Global Minyans” argues for creating as many possible opportunities for encounters for Jews from different countries, speaking different languages and of different background; the second “A Jewish Family Tree” explores the implications of the exciting possibility that we are perhaps no more than a decade away from being able to map the entire Jewish people on one family tree, backed by genetic data; The third “Israel” argues for circulating all Jews through Israel, regardless of where they live permanently; the fourth “Hebrew” promotes the idea that we should establish the teaching and learning of Hebrew as a peoplehood Mitzvah, but find new and better ways of doing so; and finally “recognition” discusses the ways in which we can continue to encourage and recognize new thinking and action on peoplehood.
My personal experience has been that whenever Jews, especially from a wide range of countries, languages and backgrounds, get together physically, magic happens. It is difficult to explain, but for some reason, the mere act of getting together, creates a sense of belonging to the people at large. Such encounters are the equivalent of prayer Minyans – they make the abstract idea of a global Jewish peoplehood real to the individual Jew. These meetings can be for anything and about anything, but to be effective they have to include Jews from several different countries. Global cannot be Just Israel and the US. The encounters must also include a component of discussion and learning about Jewishness, Jewish values, and anything Jewish – the equivalent of prayer. As my favorite definition of “Who is a Jew?” says: “A Jew is someone who gets together with other Jews to discuss ‘who is a Jew?’” The goal should be to make sure that all Jews throughout their lives engage in some kind of “global Minyans”.
A global Jewish Family Genetic Tree
The Jewish people are probably no more than a decade away from being able to map the entire people on one family tree backed by genetic data. Social networking family tree sites are enabling more and more people to connect their family trees to those of others. In parallel, at less than a hundred dollars, genetic mapping services are becoming so affordable, that more and more people are likely to get them. These services will collect data that will allow linking all of humanity with each other and to its ancestry. For the Jewish people, adding that to the remarkable work being done at Yad Vashem, as well Israel’s official records, this means that the vision of an entire Jewish people linked on a single map, is within grasp. If all Jews, (it would be nice if the Ultra-Orthodox would share their trees too), were to perform this Mitzva of peoplehood, the sense of belonging to the Jewish people would not just be one of instinct any more, it would be fact. Individuals would be able to see how they fit in to a global Jewish people, and back in history. Some people might discover Jewish ancestry where they didn’t expect in and others the opposite. It would raise questions, personal and collective, of what it means to belong, but for the first time in history, this question would be grounded in clearly observable facts.
For Israel to be a Mitzva of peoplehood, the issue of permanence should be put aside. Zionism posited that all Jews should live in Israel. That was the Zionist imperative. But with nearly half of the world’s Jews living in Israel, forming the largest and only substantially growing Jewish community, Israel can be a non-permanent Mitzva for all others. If Israel’s is not the first home of all Jews, it should at least be their second. This is not about real-estate, but about having a life-long meaningful relationship with the country and its people. It means regularly visiting Israel, spending extended periods of professional and personal development in the country, learning Hebrew (see next), studying its recent and ancient history, consuming its culture, following its news and defending its existence. Israelis too should spend time outside of Israel familiarizing themselves with Jewish life outside Israel. It’s good that half of the world’s Jews live in Israel, but with modern communications and cheap airfare, it doesn’t have to be the same half all the time.
I used to think that Hebrew is not important for Jewish peoplehood. My assumption was that English is the new Aramaic, the new Yiddish, the new Ladino – the Lingua Franca, the spoken language of the Jewish people. But I have become convinced that there is a special value to learning and knowing Hebrew for all Jews. Hebrew is the foundational Mitzva. It connects Jews to their culture – ancient and modern, to their land, old and new, and to the millions of Jews who speak it. But to succeed, Hebrew teaching has to break out of the tedious and ineffective box of Sunday school classes. Hebrew teaching needs to go the way of French, Spanish and Italian – a total immersion experience connected to the culture and the land. It is more effective to send children to six weeks of Hebrew immersion summer camp in Israel, than to spend a year in Sunday school. Adults who have seen the sights, can come to Israel for two to four week courses in Tel-Aviv or the Eilat or the Sea of Galilee, and enjoy a more meaningful vacation. Hebrew needs to be peoplehood Mitzva, but not of the fun luxurious kind, and not the onerous chore one that it is today.
Finally, since we are still far from having a strong and accepted canon of the Mitzvot of peoplehood, we need to recognize and support those who do and think peoplehood. We should have prizes, grants, fellowships, for thinkers and entrepreneurs who through their words and deeds are helping define the why, how and what of peoplehood. And then, when one day we feel we haves satisfactorily answered the question of the Mitzvot of Peoplehood, we can close the canon book and begin arguing with each other on the necessary level of observance.