Writing at Jewschool, Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek, Rabbi-in-Residence/Director of Jewish Communal Relations at the American Jewish World Service, responds to my column on his boss Ruth Messinger’s’ talk at JTS:
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.
First of all, I never argued that Jews should be concerned “only with the needs of this [Jewish] slice of God’s creation.” I was careful to point out that
Engagement with the wider world and a commitment to social justice is a Jewish (and human) moral imperative, as well as good PR for the Jewish people and a way to engage those for whom particularist Jewish causes seem either narrow or irrelevant. And Messinger is right to be worried that in an era of economic triage, Jewish leaders will retreat from being a “light unto the nations.”
I got the phrase “tribal identity” from Ms. Messinger’s herself, who said:
This is a time when we need to determine what we stand for, who we really are. We must be able to help people of all ages answer the question: “Why be Jewish?” To resonate, the answer must be more than tribal identity.
“More than tribal identity” suggests that some measure of tribal identity is okay.
I accept “tribal” in all its senses. Yes, it is a matter of behavior and religion, but I wouldn’t press that point too strongly because if you demand certain behaviors or beliefs as a measure of Jewish belonging, you end up writing a lot of people out of the enterprise. (Many in the Orthodox community would be happy to excise members of the tribe who don’t follow certain behaviors. Check out the conversion process in Israel, for example.) A certain amount of “blood” identity has its advantages. It forces Jew A to accept Jew B as a Jew beyond each’s ideological and denominational definitions.
But the Jewish definition of “tribe” is not only about having a Jewish mother (let’s set aside the Reform movement’s views on patrilineal descent for a moment). And it’s not only about a commitment to social justice.
- learning a particularist language, sometimes but not always literally;
- sharing a historical and textual narrative and finding one’s place in that story;
- sharing and learning from a particular historical experience/s;
- sharing certain folk behaviors, from foodstuffs and literature to music and humor;
- often but not always sharing a theological worldview and a language of prayer and spiritual connection;
- often but not always sharing a calendrical rhythm for ritual and shared observance;
- often but not always sharing geography–neighborhoods, villages, and for some a country;
- feeling a sense of mutual responsibility to other members of the tribe — not necessarily an exclusive responsibility (Rabbi Spodek suggests I argue for that, but I don’t see where), but perhaps the sort of responsibility a mother feels to her own child ahead of other children, or a sibling feels to a sibling ahead of the rest of humanity.
I get the feeling that Rabbi Spodek accepts this definition of tribe, because he lists a number of up and coming organizations that each promote and draw their energy from one or more of the criteria I list. Hadar, Drisha and Pardes foster “textual fluency;” Elat Chayyim, B’nai Jeshurun, and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality are “facilitating meaningful davening and meditative experiences;” the Six Points Fellowship, JDUB and Storahtelling “are finding renewed power in the arts.”
But having acknowledged the multiple ways in which organizations are expressing a Jewish identity (he doesn’t like the word “tribe.” People? Community? Club?), Rabbi Spodek, quoting Ms. Messinger, reduces all of “Jewish behavior” to this: a calling for us to “work for greater equity, for social justice, and for global citizenship.”
If that is the only Jewish behavior or belief that counts, then what is the worth of all the other organizations he names, those ”thousands of Jews [who] are reengaging and reinvigorating Jewish practice in a variety of exciting and dynamic ways”? Aren’t they hoplelessly tribal, when they could be working for the common humanity? Why study Talmud when you could be reading Michael Harrington, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Jonahtan Kozol?
I wrote that ”tribal identity” is “a prerequisite for the pursuit of global justice” not because I put tribe ahead of humanity, but because, like all those Jews exploring and promoting textual fluency, meaningful davening, and the renewed power of the arts, I think the Jewish impulse to serve humanity is inspired in large part by our particularist language, behaviors, and affinity.
We learn to serve humankind because our tribal practices and beliefs — the counterculture that we create in apposition to the wider culture — model and reinforce that message. It is those who dedicate themselves to promoting and teaching this language, and creating a shared sense of Jewish identity, who put the “Jewish” in American Jewish World Service. Otherwise, it’s just Oxfam with a different donor base.
I hoped to avoid cliche, but Hillel had it right: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
And I always remember what I learned from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. He was once challenged by some Jewish philanthropists who felt Jewish money is better spent on building hospitals than it is on building Jewish schools. “How can you justify building a yeshiva when lives are at stake?” they demanded. Yitz said he told them: “Because what I am teaching the children will help them grow up to build hospitals.”