Peoplehood is vital concept for Jewish identity, says visiting scholar


The concept of a Jewish peoplehood can have profound implications for the cohesion and continuity of Jewish identity, and is a concept that is at the heart of Reconstructionist Judaism, according to visiting scholar, Rabbi Deborah Waxman.

Rabbi Waxman, a professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia (where she received her rabbinic ordination in 1999), spoke over the weekend to the Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community, and as the keynote speaker at the Third Annual Super Sunday of Jewish Learning held by the St. Louis Rabbinical Association in conjunction with the Central Agency for Jewish Education and the Jewish Community Center. Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community sponsored Waxman’s appearance at the ‘Super Sunday’ event.

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Rabbi Waxman spoke at the Super Sunday event of a telling experiment at Bet Havarim, a Reform Jewish Chavurah in Syracuse, N.Y., where she serves during the High Holidays. Each congregant was asked to select two “emblematic images” that define their own sense of Jewish identity.

While some of the images included religious items: a menorah, Shabbat candles, tefillin; others were secular or cultural: a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank, or an image of a matzo ball soup mix.

“No one chose the same two images,” Waxman said, noting that each person had a very personal story of why they chose their images. The woman who chose the matzo ball soup mix said a large part of her Jewish identity was preparing traditional Jewish foods for her children.

“Whether it was food, Israel, American Jewish life, volunteer service, tzedakah, social justice…all of these are valid entry points” to Jewish identity, Waxman said.

Waxman said the concept of “peoplehood” was of great importance to Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, who found that America offered promise for religious freedom and individual accomplishment, but felt that there was a risk that Jews could lose their sense of Jewish identity in the “Melting Pot” mentality of America.

“Here in America, for the first time in millennia of exile…Jews were not the primary outsiders in mainstream society. Anti-Semitism was not enshrined in founding documents like they had been in Europe,” Waxman said. Although Jews might not be facing “hostile attack,” Kaplan was concerned that the “fragmented landscape” of Judaism could eventually lead to a disappearance of Jewish identity.

Kaplan hoped that peoplehood, which Waxman described as “having a sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” would appeal to Jews without regard to level of religious observance.

“This vision of peoplehood was very radical for its time,” Waxman said, noting that until the 1960s, “expressions of ethnic pride were unthinkable.”

She said that today there are “powerful continuities” with the ideas Kaplan touted.

“In America today, we live in a time of radical individualism, an individualism primarily expressed through unprecedented consumer culture,” she said.

Peoplehood is a reminder that Jews can connect to a broader community and a shared history, she said.

“The concept of peoplehood affirms a profoundly felt intuition and it lays out a set of relational obligations and practices and it helps to reinforce a set of connections to other Jews and to the wider world,” Waxman said.

Reconstructionist Judaism, she said, has embraced that concept by welcoming those who identify themselves as Jews through a variety of means.

“Reconstructionism defines Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people,” she said.

Rabbi Ari Vernon, rabbi for Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community, said the congregation brought Waxman to town to serve as scholar-in-residence. Waxman and Vernon led Shabbat morning services together, and Waxman spoke to the congregation. Vernon said Shir Hadash offered to work with the Rabbinical Association to have Waxman speak to the broader community through the Super Sunday of Jewish Learning event.

Published Feb. 13, 2008