Tribe, Homeland and Diaspora

Rabbi Alon C Ferency
December 30, 2013
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Recently, the Chinese Communist Party’s third plenum of the 18th Central Committee stoked the speculation of China-watchers.  “Will this third plenum turn out to transform China as Deng Xiaoping’s did in 1978?”  Veiled and opaque statements emanating from President Xi Jinping at the session give cause for optimism about the future of China’s economy and security.  How might we learn from China’s experience?

Like the peoples of China, (as well as the peoples of Cameroon, where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer,) the Jews are people of a tribe.  In my observation, a charitable understanding of “tribalism” is essential to understanding Jews.  To illustrate, we might consider the experiences of the peoples of China, the Fulani people of Africa’s Sahel, or the Irish in America.  All are marked by what the Confucian Analects calls “love of the ancients,” whether adherence to atavistic tradition or reverence for sacred story.  Jews, like the Fulani or Han Chinese, share a common set of rituals and practices, language and culture, including food, humor, and the arts.  As well, history and circumstance forge a sense of shared narrative and peoplehood.

At times, this sensibility corresponds to geography and nation; at other times, it transcends them.  Tribes hearken back to a sense of homeland, even when homeland may be leagues away, as Brent Cohen demonstrates by seeking to return to Rabbi Naomi Levi, Nashuva, and “home” for a Bat Mitzvah.  At the same time, diaspora and dispersion create ties of kinship that enhance, transform, and reinforce culture in unpredictable ways.  Han Chinese in Malaysia are spectacularly successful, perhaps due to extended familial bonds that undergird business relationships in otherwise uncertain markets.  Moreover, the experience of Jews in Spain’s Golden Age, pre-modern Poland and contemporary America all attest to the vibrancy of diaspora communities in forging linkages of commerce and culture.  It should be unsurprising that immigrants’ children are tremendously successful.  For example, the students whom I interview for admission to Harvard University are typically immigrants’ children.  On the other hand, far-flung satellite communities are at-risk by their nature, as continually demonstrated by Malaysian government policy, persistent “Gentlemen’s Agreements” in the American South-East, and for that matter, the irrelevance of Judaism in China that Arthur Kroeber addresses.  Withal, there is an impressive dynamism of diaspora that should not be lost on us.

By the same token, the flux of migration transforms the homeland.  Ancient civilizations in China and Israel “are redefining themselves.  They boast track records in academia, business, and culture” while advancing with agricultural innovation and “business and technological exchange.”  The final question that remains is whether tribal diasporas serve as an Or LaGoyim, a light to the nations from their homeland, or merely outposts.

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Rabbi Alon C Ferency pursued Israeli-Palestinian economic integration in the 1990’s at Harvard University. After a bicycle trip from Seattle to Boston, he entered the Peace Corps in Cameroon as a Community Health organizer. Then, he worked in the music industry, before receiving a Master’s Degree in Informal Jewish Education from J.T.S., and rabbinical ordination from the Ziegler School in 2010. Today, Alon is the rabbi of Heska Amuna Synagogue in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, he serves as a board member of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and served on the Community Health Council, Together! Healthy Knox, and the ethics committee of the University of Tennessee Medical Center. He is also a regular contributor to Conservative Judaism quarterly, and an alumnus of Leadership Knoxville and the Tikvah Fellowship. His sermons are available at heskaamuna.org/sermons.html; and, you may follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/EclecticCleric) and Twitter (@EclecticCleric).

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