Peoplehood Reconsidered

Rabbi Toba Spitzer dives into the use of metaphors in framing a picture of the Jewish people that is encompassing and defining, drawing on three conceptual metaphors: “covenant,” “narrative” and “tribal.”

Explore the study guide in the Evolve Adult Education beit midrash for this essay.

In thinking about “peoplehood,” it feels important first of all to affirm what Noam Pianko recounts in his work: that the formulation “peoplehood” was, and remains, a concept, not a reality. There has never been unified Jewish leadership, or any person or group who “speaks for the Jews.” There has never been actual felt connection among all the millions of people who identify as Jewish. Not all Jews were Zionists, and certainly are not today. Not all Jews share the same ethnic heritage, and our collective roots in Abraham and Sarah are mythic, not biological.  So as we reconsider “peoplehood,” we are not challenging a reality; rather, we are talking about concepts and what kinds of concepts are helpful or not.

I arrived at my thoughts today by way of my explorations in Jewish theology over the past decade. For many years, I was seeking a “correct” theology—a way of talking about and understanding God that would align with reality as I understood it. It was during that time that I came across process theology and felt that this was what I had been looking for. Answer found! And then one day I stumbled across a book called I Is An Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World (James Geary), and my thinking radically shifted. In brief, the book explores the central role that metaphor plays in human speech and thought, and how we can only approach complex topics—life, love, God—through metaphor. Grounded in cognitive linguistics and bolstered by neuroscience, the argument goes that metaphor is not a literary frill, but a foundational structure of human perception of the world.

After delving a bit deeper into metaphor theory, I realized that trying to discover “the” best way to conceptualize divinity was both a fruitless and impossible task. Instead, I should be interrogating the problematic metaphors constraining our thinking about God, and work to articulate a diverse array of new (or rediscovered) metaphors for the divine. Doing so would open up new ways of not just talking about God, but experiencing the sacred.

I say “metaphors” (plural) because along with the idea that we approach complex concepts through metaphor is the equally important insight that no single metaphor will do. When it comes to giving conceptual shape to our experiences of love, or the sacred, or anything complex and multifaceted, we will out of necessity employ a multiplicity of metaphors, each of which lifts up certain aspects of our experience and obscures others. For example, one common metaphor for “time” in our culture is TIME IS A PRECIOUS RESOURCE. We “waste” time, we “spend” it; we experience it as limited and measurable. Another central metaphor is TIME IS A FLOW, and framed in this way, we experience time as unlimited in either direction, extending back towards the past and on into the future. Neither of these metaphors defines time. Neither is “the truth” about time. Rather, each gives us ways to access our experience of time and ultimately shapes our understanding of it.

In thinking about the notion of Jewish “peoplehood,” I realized something similar when it comes to talking about Jews and Judaism. “Peoplehood” is an attempt to get our arms around what it means to be a Jew. It is a large abstract idea that has meant different things to different people at different times. I am skeptical that it any longer retains much meaning or usefulness. And I am even more skeptical of the project of trying to come up with any one idea that captures what it means to be a Jew.

So why attempt to come up with other concepts at all? Why not just say: “There are lots of kinds of people with a diverse array of experiences who identify as Jewish,” and leave it at that? Because whether we like it or not, there are ideas floating around out there about what it means to be Jewish, and what a Jewish collectivity is or might be. In America especially, I have found that the fallback definition in the non-Jewish world is to think of Judaism as simply a religion and Jews as a “community of faith.” Yet this definition does not accord with the self-understanding of most of the (non-Orthodox) Jews that I know. It therefore causes confusion for those who have a strong Jewish identity, yet do not consider themselves “religious” and would never profess to have any “faith.”

So then, what are we?

The reality of Jewish people—our many backgrounds, beliefs, actions, self-understandings—is inordinately complex.  Just as when we say “love,” we could be talking about a myriad of experiences (the love of a parent and child, of friends, of lovers, of teacher and student, of gourmand and delicious meal), when we talk about Jews and Judaism, we are talking about many things. Just as “love” needs many different metaphors to capture its range and complexity, so, too, do the concepts “Judaism” or “Jewish people.” And here I want to reiterate that any conceptual metaphor will of necessity obscure potential meanings even as it promotes others. “TIME IS A PRECIOUS RESOURCE” and “TIME IS A FLOW” seem to be mutually contradictory, yet they both describe aspects of our experience. Depending on the circumstance, we will find ourselves referring to, or even experiencing, time in a different way. So when it comes to talking about Jews and Judaism, we need to be able to embrace multiple metaphors, even if they stand in contrast to one another.

I’d like to suggest here three concepts or frames that lift up different aspects of Jewish experience:

#1: We are a tribe. Jews and Judaism differ from what we call the other “Abrahamic faiths” because we are rooted not in a professed faith, but in a tribal culture. Like many tribal cultures, we venerate our ancestors. We identify ourselves not just by (or sometimes in spite of) religious beliefs and practices, but by cultural markers like food, seasonal rituals, and the like. Tribal identity is not the same as ethnic identity—non-Native Americans, for example, can become members of a Native tribe, through a process parallel to our conversion process. Unlike the other two “Abrahamic faiths,” we are not interested in spreading our religious message, but in preserving our tribal integrity. This explains the ongoing Jewish concern with boundaries, with regulating who comes into the tribe, and how.

I recently read an article in The Boston Globe about the resurrection of the Wampanoag language, which by the end of the 20th century was almost completely dormant. There are now classes being offered in this language, but only members of the Wampanoag tribe are allowed to take those classes. There is something about tribal identity and tribal culture that encloses, in order to nurture and maintain. Where and how we draw the boundaries of our tribe is, of course, open for discussion and debate, but there is something in the metaphor of “tribe” that speaks to one aspect of Jewish experience.

#2: We participate in a master narrative rooted in the Exodus story. To be a Jew is to be “in the story”; to say, at the Passover seder, “I was a slave in Egypt, and I was liberated from there.” To be in a story is not the same as being in a tribe. A story is open; anyone can locate themselves within it. This is the great inclusive impulse in Judaism: to welcome anyone to leave Egypt with us, cross the sea with us, stand at Sinai, build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), enter the Promised Land. It is a mythic narrative—a psycho-spiritual narrative—that grounds our sense of where we have come from and where we should be going. It is the story, read each week in synagogue, which offers a sense of Jewish connection through time and space, as we journey through the Torah together.

There are other powerful Jewish narratives as well. For Ashkenazi Jews, and some Sephardi Jews, there is the Holocaust and the centuries of European anti-Semitism that preceded it. The stories we tell and hear about those experiences continue to shape how we understand ourselves as a collective, even if we have no direct personal experience of the events underlying the stories. Other Jewish communities have their own narratives that shape their understanding of who they are in the world and how they find meaning as Jews in it.

It’s important, when we’re in the realm of narrative, to acknowledge it as narrative: to understand that we experience a sense of connection across time and space to other Jews because we understand ourselves as being within the same story, regardless of any “actual” connection. In this way, Jews are no different than any other collection of people; every people tells stories about itself, narrates itself into existence. And I think that when it comes to Jews, there have always been multiple narratives, for at least the last 2,000 years. We’ve been in too many places in too many different conditions to imagine that any one story could contain us all beyond that master narrative that we relive each Passover—the foundational narrative that still has power to tell us who we are and who we should be.

#3: Finally, there is the idea of “covenant.” To be a Jew, to be part of the Jewish people, is to be a member of a covenantal community that has at its center certain value commitments and behavioral obligations. Traditionally, covenant meant being in relationship with God, as well as with members of the Jewish community. But today, I believe the idea of covenant can include entirely secular Jews whose ethical commitments are experienced as rooted in Jewish history and tradition. On an experiential level, most Jews who are active in some way as Jews are not engaged in covenantal community with the entire Jewish people, but with a subset with whom we regularly interact and with whom we share values and commitments. Our congregations are covenantal communities; our denominations are covenantal communities. Youth movements and many Jewish organizations can function like covenantal communities.

The reality of covenantal community is quite different than the mythical “unity” that often accompanies notions of Jewish peoplehood. Our sharpest divisions with other groups of Jews tend to occur along covenantal lines because the values and practices that shape my covenantal experience are so radically different than those of an ultra-Orthodox Jew or a Jewish settler on the West Bank. The commitments that define what it means to each of us to be Jewish of necessity limit our ability to be in covenantal relationship with those whose values and commitments we find objectionable. God might be One, but we humans are not.

Each of these three conceptual metaphors lifts up certain aspects of Jewish experience, and obscures other aspects. Some tend toward the inclusive, others toward the exclusive. Some rest more in “behaving” and “believing,” others more in “belonging.” Rather than trying to reclaim or reconstruct “peoplehood,” perhaps our energy would be better spent clarifying the metaphorical constructs that shape our understandings of who we are. Let’s lift up those aspects of each that are positive, that foster positive Jewish identity and promote values and behaviors that we want to see in this world. Let’s see if we can develop a metaphoric lexicon that accurately reflects the breadth and diversity of Jewish realities today.

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