Bronfman Big Idea Series: “The Edah: Embracing a New Definition of Am Yisrael”

AmYisraelChai Graffiti

What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to be a religious Jew? What are the implications of involvement in the Jewish community? How should we go about ensuring Jewish continuity?

This is the fourth post in the Bronfman Big Idea Series.

About This Post

This post outlines a proposal submitted to Charles Bronfman’s Big Idea contest at Brandeis University seeking the next big idea in Jewish communal innovation. It is entitled, “The Edah: Embracing a New Definition of Am Yisrael.”

Its author, Rabbi Morey Schwartz, is the Curriculum Coordinator at Hebrew University’s Florence Melton Adult Mini School and the author of the blog Tuesdays with Morey. He lives in Chasmonaim, Israel where he is a rabbi, a mohel, a husband, a father, and an author.

The Premise of the Proposal

This proposal seeks to address the issue of assimilation in the Jewish world. The author notes that while creative and interesting Jewish programming is attracting some Jews unaffiliated Jews back into the tradition, even more are opting out. Judaism today is a religion of choice and we aren’t doing enough to attract unaffiliated Jews back into the community and help them stay involved.

Rav Morey suggests, “I propose therefore that we take a new approach. Instead of repackaging Jewish life, we should focus our efforts on defining Jewish peoplehood… This constructive new lexicon will engender inclusiveness and respect among Jews who will be able to acknowledge their differences in recognition of the multiple components that go into building and maintaining Jewish life in our times.”

Defining Our Terms: Edah and Bnei Yisrael

The ideas of “edah” and “bnei Yisrael” are key to understanding this proposal. The author uses a verse from the Torah to delineate their meanings.

“Take an accounting of the sum total of the edah of the bnei Yisrael, according to their families, after the house of their fathers…” (Numbers 1:2)

Referencing Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rav Morey explains that “edah designates a sub-group of Jews joined together for a common calling, and held together by the solidarity of that calling: a congregation. However, bnei Yisrael is the whole Jewish nation, within which the independent bearers and guardians of the common mission, the fulfilling of the Torah, form the edah.”

“In other words,” Rav Morey states, “Jews who choose to be serious about Jewish observance, no matter how it is defined, are choosing to be part of the edah. However Jews who don’t find their place within that sub-group are still bona fide members of bnei Yisrael.”

Rav Morey elaborates:

“Those who choose to be committed members of the edah accept upon themselves the role of maintaining the collective memory of the Jewish people. It is the edah of the nation that scrupulously maintains the laws and customs that have preserved the identity of the people for thousands of years.

All Jews are encouraged to be part of the edah, and those who choose to make the commitment are praised and commended for their dedication to this undertaking.

Those members of bnei Yisrael who nonetheless choose not to join the edah will be inclined to maintain great respect for those who do, acknowledging the indispensable role the edah plays in safeguarding the eternal mission of the Jewish people.

At the same time, it behooves members of the edah to consider the importance of bnei Yisrael, who make up the majority of the masses of the Jewish people. Their continued identification with the Jewish people, their support as well as their loyalty, are vital to the ongoing physical existence of the nation.

Bnei Yisrael are made aware that although they have not become members of the edah, they still have much in common with the guardians of the tradition. Members of the edah acknowledge this as well.

All affirm that they are descendants of the same ancestor– Jacob, or Yisrael. We share a common past.

All share a common future. That means that as a nation we are all headed in the same direction, even if we have chosen different paths of getting there.

Both the members of the edah and all other members of bnei Yisrael must come to understand that in any given generation, through the exercise of free choice, descendants of both groups will most certainly choose to migrate to the other group. The fact that this happens so often today is a result of the freedom that accompanies modern life.”

The Proposal by Rabbi Morey Schwartz

The Dilemma

The Jewish world today is terribly divided, stuck in a self-inflicted conundrum.

For years now, Jews on the fringes have been lost to assimilation at alarming rates. The openness of Western society has presented the modern Jew with so many appealing alternatives for camaraderie and substitute identities that it is no surprise that so many Jews have walked away from their ancient heritage.

The 18th and 19th centuries provided fertile ground for creative theological reflection, and Jews dissatisfied with the trappings of Jewish life as it was began to experiment with new ways of “doing Jewish.”

As these new ideologies blossomed into movements, they offered new approaches to Jewish observance, aimed at updating Jewish life, and meeting the people where they were. To this day, Jewish communal institutions– synagogues and community centers– have sought to repackage Judaism in every possible way, to offer more doors through which Jewish could enter Jewish communal life.

With a paradigm of Jewish life that equates institutional membership with connectedness to Jewish identity, Jews have fallen into one of two categories: affiliated or unaffiliated.

Reaching Out to the Unaffiliated: A Whistles and Bells Approach–
In an effort to reach the unaffiliated, Jewish communal institutions have developed all kinds of creative programs, user friendly Chanukkah parties, explanatory Passover seders, or musical Shabbat services, all striving to reach out and draw Jews back into the Jewish community. One institution markets tradition, another social action, and another egalitarianism.

The process of expanding the Jewish market of ritual wares and faith alternatives has served to appeal to different tastes and different priorities. This whistles and bells approach has enjoyed success, and many Jews have been drawn back into Jewish practice across denominational lines, plunking down their dues and joining the affiliated Jewish community. However, the numbers opting out remain larger than the numbers opting in.

In addition, it seems that in our effort to develop alternatives for Jewish observance, we have actually further fractured Jewish peoplehood. Each group, over the years, in an effort to defend the authenticity of its own approach, has felt the need to focus attention on delegitimizing the approaches of the others.

This mud slinging has served to drive a further wedge between the denominations, creating a degree of disenfranchisement with organized Jewish life among those not yet fully initiated, stroking the fires of further unaffiliation.

Findings of the National Jewish Population Survey–
One of the most interesting revelations of the 2000– 2001 National Jewish Population Survey was that American Jewry seems to be moving in two different directions simultaneously. A small group of affiliated American Jews seems to be undergoing a Jewish renaissance, while unaffiliated American Jewry seems to be waning significantly in their interest in the Jewish community.

In particular, 20– 30 year olds are showing very little interest in organized Jewish life. Commenting on the study, Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman remarked, “These young adult Jews see organized Jewry as alien, uniform, coercive, and parochial, both socially and culturally.”

A concrete example of what it does that attracts this generation is the recent explosion of Limmud conferences worldwide. Commenting on a political rift in the British Jewish community that surrounds the annual event, the Jerusalem Post remarked: “they are refusing to engage in it, sidestepping it and approaching Judaism in the way most familiar to them.”

A Step Toward the Solution: Redefining Jewish Peoplehood

Modern life has taught us that the power of autonomy is pretty much unstoppable. Jews today who live their lives immersed in Jewish ritual and Jewish observances do so by choice.

Repackage as we will, efforts to significantly increase Jewish affiliation seems hopeless. No matter how attractive we make the entry way, it is still all too simple to slip out the back door.

I propose, therefore, that we take a new approach. Instead of repackaging Jewish life, we should focus our efforts on redefining Jewish peoplehood.

One of the first steps in this process will be the development of a new blueprint for defining the Jewish people that will be informed by a combination of historical and biblical designations. The new blueprint will enable Jews to find their place within the Jewish people of the post-modern era.

Doing Away with Jewish Labels–
New, positive terminology will replace the commonly used denominational terms of Jewish peoplehood without having to resort to the adoption of terminology that has served only to divide us. We will cease to be Jews who are ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, or Renewal Jews. The terms religious and secular will become meaningless as well.

Albeit there seems to always be a need to define ourselves and each other, a close look at all of the factors that make up Jewish peoplehood will enable us to create new ways of defining ourselves and each other.

For instance, what might we call a young Israeli soldier who feels strongly about the importance of defending the State of Israel, but does not observe Shabbat, kashrut [keep kosher], etc? Rather than calling him a hiloni [secular] soldier, perhaps we will begin to refer to him as a guardian of the Jewish people.

At the same time, Jews who choose to dedicate their lives to work on behalf of the community, perhaps they too will be called guardian Jews.

Rather than measuring them according to their approach to halakhic observance, we will be acknowledging their invaluable contributions to Jewish peoplehood.

The new constructive lexicon will engender inclusiveness and respect among Jews who will be able to acknowledge their differences in recognition of the multiple components that go into building and maintaining Jewish life in our times.

We must change the culture of squeezing Jews into the present paradigms associated with Jewish affiliation and begin to create new, inclusive, constructive, national paradigms that reflect the various requirements of Jewish civilization today.

The fulfillment of our Jewish mission in the 21st century depends on many factors. We need people who dedicate their lives to a wide variety of issues. For instance, we need people who are adopting a diplomatic role bnei Yisrael’s behalf on to navigate our place on the world stage. We need economists, as well as social scientists. We need military experts to guard our physical existence and Jewish scholars to preserve our spiritual calling. Jews are needed in these and many more categories.

Jewish contributions to the Jewish people should not be considered secondary to our commitment to the Jewish tradition.

Jews who become cognizant of these expanded paradigms will begin to see themselves as insiders rather than outsiders, and will better succeed in finding their place within the ranks of Jewish peoplehood.

Author’s Note: Ideas for Further Research

To learn about expanding our definitions for Am Yisrael, the author would like to further research the following questions:

  • How did Jews of differing practices in other eras self-define themselves?
  • What attributes, beyond ritual, were considered indications of strong Jewish identity?
  • What values or priorities should be stressed in recreating an inclusive, appealing definition of Jewishness?
  • What can we learn from successful initiatives already in place in the Jewish wold that we can expand upon and widen?
  • What might we be able to learn from cultural paradigms of other societies, past and present, both Jewish and non-Jewish?

Readers: Your Contribution

So what do you think of these ideas? Are they valuable to you and your community? How would changing the terminology of Judaism and the way we define ourselves change our Jewish thinking? How could these ideas be developed more fully? What are your reactions and thoughts?

We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

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6 Responses to Bronfman Big Idea Series: “The Edah: Embracing a New Definition of Am Yisrael”

  1. […] “The Edah: Embracing a New Definition of Am Yisrael” by Rabbi Morey Schwartz– UPDATED! Read the post here […]

  2. Shai says:

    Thanks for your submission, Rav Morey.

    It seems to me that your presentation’s audience is the orthodox community. There is no real motivation for non-orthodox to take the designations you find in the Torah as relevant, and an proof for this is the ease with which non-orthodox ritual streams have, over time, taken the basis for similar designations and changed them. Patrilineal descent for example – they simply redefined “Who is a Jew” to address a similar problem on an individual status level. You’re redefining “Who are the Jewish People” because the problem is here defined as one of a national status.

    But in the end, it’s questionable whether the change to individual status by the Reform Movement has really achieved its target of increased Jewish and Jewish communal identity. Similarly, I wonder if for the same reasons a redefinition of national identity is enough to draw all Jews into the sense of being in the fold. It may work to some degree in Israel when we think of what you are proposing as a way to be “Israeli”, but can it really work for “Jewishness”, especially when so many of the orthodox, and the shulchan aruch that defines normative behavior for them, will likely feel that their own “community-ness” will be endangered by blurring the lines of status?

    I like the motivation behind the idea, and respect and share the pain you clearly have in what has happened to us as a Nation. I just wonder if the tipping point to achieving the goal sits on a halachic fulcrum as you seem to think, or an hashkafic one.

  3. Anti-Racist Blog says:

    Very good idea.

  4. Shai,

    You have seriously missed the point. But that is to be expected in this kind of forum.

    The idea here is to change the way Jews think about Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish People. This is NOT about changing halachic definitions of Who is a Jew. That has been tried, and it has failed because is is coming form the inner circle outward, rather that from the fringes inward.

    Again, to my point, the designation available at this time relate specifically to Jewish observance – that is, I contend, a modern phenomena which Jews have learned from living among Christians where denominational religious life developed. The phenomena is often referred to as the Protestantization of Judaism – that historical twist is the issue that I suggest must be dealt with.

    Are you are implying that a concept that finds its base in the Torah only speaks to the Orthodox? In the end, if a solution does not connect with Torah, with Jewish tradition, then it will ultimately be ineffective in addressing the big issue here.

    My thought is that we need to rethink Jewish definitions, offer new ways of conceptualizing the many facets of Jewish identity in our time, given the existence of Jewish sovereignty and national dignity….with these new definitions in place, I can envision hundreds of applications where these new definitions will find their way to the Jews on the fringes, and offer them inspiring reasons to maintain their associations with Am Yisrael.

  5. Shai says:

    Perhaps you’re saying I didnt’ ask the right question. I was only sayign how things “seemed” to me after I read your proposal. But, thanks for the clarification, I think I understand now.

    If I may, I’ll state you didnt’ understand my question. What I was asking was whether the issue you are dealing with in your proposal is one that is an issue for all Jews, or primarily orthodox Jews. Who needs to have their minds changed to achieve your result? Do non-orthodox Jews need a solution for including orthodox ones in teh fold? It seems to me that you’re reclaiming an “overlay definition” found in the Torah for allowing non-orthodox and orthodox to find some middle ground where they can respect each other – but sof kol sof, you still aren’t proposing a means for legitimizing the Judaism of non-orthodox Jews who arent’ Jewish according to halacha.

    I was also asking about whether the halachic fulcrum that shapes identity can be so easily substituted by a hashkafic one in a way that can be embraced by all Jews. You have biblical justification and have called R. Hirsch to your defense of your case.

    If you are asserting all Jews need to change their mind about how “Jewish identity” is defined, I was asking whether Jews’ perception of the problem conflates “identity” and “status”. These are different concepts to you, but they are frequently blended by non-orthodox Jews, I think. To identify as a Jew is, in fact, to them to be a Jew. The halachic definition is not as relevant to them as it is to orthodox Jews. I wonder if they’d be insulted by a “sug bet” feeling.

    If, on the other hand, your proposal is one meant for consumption by the Jewry that has guarded the laws of identity, the orthodox, I was asking whether if you succeeded in convincing “orthodox Jews” that your view is the correct one, whether there is reason to think that somehow all Jews would be able to re-embrace each other.

    Halivii it should happen, but there’s a lot of water under teh bridge – I am just wondering out loud if the non-orthodox still care about the orthodox embrace per se, after having been so forcefully delegitimized by orthodoxy.

    I am not doubting the need to reconceptualize definitions – there I agree with you. And I really like the idea of the “Edah” as a value – a way to offer respect to somebody’s chosen identity when halachicly their status is not as they assert. At the end of the day, when deciding who marries whom for example, I wonder if the solution would resolve the problem.

    But, I certainly think it’s a good idea if Jewish people will embrace it.

  6. Miles says:

    This reflects something I’ve been telling the Rabbis at my congregation: “Please stop the emphasis on saying ‘as Reform Jews we….’ I am a Jew First, Reform is only the liturgy I’m currently following.Your emphasis on specifying Reform only places a wedge between us and the rest of the Jewish Community.”

    They didn’t get it. I’m afraid that the laity is way ahead of the leadership on this issue.

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