Don’t Focus on Mitzvot

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October 1, 2006
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Alan Hoffman provides a sophisticated version of the thinking guiding most decision-makers in the Jewish world today. In sociology we call Hoffman’s approach “positivism.” An example of positivist thinking is Hoffman’s reference to “the mitzvot” of Jewish peoplehood. Hoffman argues:

Only when we grapple with the prescriptive aspects of Jewish peoplehood — what are the ‘mitzvot’ of Jewish peoplehood? — will we give this notion both body and weight.

Hoffman conceptualizes Jewish peoplehood as a belief system. There is an expectation that people can move between the peoplehood belief system and the mitzvot of everyday life in a clean way, like Haredim aspire to do with religion. The positivist approach assumes that concepts such as “religion” or “Zionism” can be elaborated as belief systems and serve as guides for behavior in everyday life.

Zionism, a struggle for national ideological renewal for the Jewish people in modern times, had enormous energy and power because it was grounded in the connection to a particular set of concrete outcomes and to a land. Peoplehood, rather than becoming a powerful, overarching, umbrella concept for Jewish life, could become the poor stepchild for those who are not religiously or nationally engaged.

Here Hoffman portrays Zionism as a powerful belief system, which the concept of Peoplehood, if it is to have any value, must emulate. After philosophers and theologians detail the belief system, then educators, politicians and institution builders can take over and strengthen Jewish identity. The role of the educator is to get people to believe in the belief system. The role of Jewish institutions, then, is to market these ideologies through educational curricula, spiritual experience, Jewish tourism, etc. Hoffman asks if the same can be done with “peoplehood.”

Rather than wasting time on defining the ideology of Jewish peoplehood, and investing precious resources in the marketing effort, why don’t we look at how peoplehood is actually experienced. As people go about their daily lives they mix and match their “identities” in a fluid and ever-changing way; pulling as needed from various ideologies and rarely over-committing to anyone of them.

While the tendency to mix and match identities has always existed, it is intensifying with time. Younger Jews are less likely than their parents to sustain long term commitments to particular religious or other ideological institutions. In order to respond to the next generation, our challenge is not to promote ideology, but rather to encourage sustainable Jewish lifestyles that accept and even celebrate the ability of individuals to mix and match identities.

In order to promote the connection between the individual Jew and the Jewish people, we need to understand why it is that some Jews are drawn into a life-style that involves multiple contacts with other Jews in many different places. The challenge is not to teach ideology, but rather to encourage Jews to spend time with other Jews, doing things that they enjoy. Research shows that when a person lives a rich Jewish life, he or she will feel part of the Jewish people. The more contacts a person has with other Jews in everyday life, the more likely he or she is to donate to Jewish causes, travel to Israel and raise kids who will remain Jewish. There is no need to define and market peoplehood and expect Jews to carry out a certain set of mitzvot. Rather, we simply need to enable people to live rich Jewish lives. The lifestyle might be secular, humanist, religious, socialist, environmentalist, feminist, Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, or most likely a mix of several of them. What matters is that a person participates in Jewish life beyond the occasional event in a particular institution and searches out the company of other Jews. When that happens, we have Jewish peoplehood.

The common challenge is to make the experience of gaining Jewish knowledge and skills — gained in a particular educational, cultural, or religious setting — relevant to life after the program or event and when he or she leaves a particular institution. Provide the motivation to interact with other Jews on a regular basis in the community center, the synagogue, at home, on the street, in the kosher restaurant, on a trip to Israel etc., and most everything else just might fall into place.

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Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, a sociologist specializing in Israel-Diaspora relations and the sociology of Jewish peoplehood is the founder and CEO of Research Success, a Jerusalem based company specializing in research, evaluation and data management services for Jewish organizations. Dr. Kopelowitz's research and writing on Jewish peoplehood is available on his company's website at http://www.researchsuccess.com.

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