A Word On Tribalism and Jewish Peoplehood

A word on tribalism and Jewish Peoplehood.
The issue emerges from the exceptionally healthy discussion of my last post. Thank you all for joining in the dialogue, some of it on this blog page, some of it in letters to me elsewhere!
“Tribalism” comes up in the question of what will happen to the Jewish People if we encourage spiritual seekers to experience “The Jewish Way.” “Won’t that dilute Jewish Peoplehood?” people ask. Others echo the hesitance of Jews whose “tribalism” is suspicious of all those potential newcomers.
I care deeply about Jewish Peoplehood. It is central to my understanding of our mission in the world. It is a strength that most other religions lack. But it comes in various forms, one of which is tribal.
I differentiate Peoplehood (a theological category played out on the world stage) from tribalism (a form of primal ethnicity). Peoplehood is positive, outward looking, intent on a universalist theological purpose, and welcoming of others who share that purpose. Tribalism is protective, inward looking, motivated by mere continuity of the People with no larger purpose at all, and suspicious of anyone who is not “of our tribe.”
Some years back, an impressionistic study was made of church members who had converted from Judaism; and of synagogue members who had converted from Christianity. The converts out of Judaism said they had lots of peoplehood, but only the tribal/ethnic variety, with no thoughtful purpose behind it. They missed theology, which, they said, rarely (or never) received deeply serious attention from their rabbis and fellow congregants. Despite their conversion, they still felt (and wanted to feel) part of the Jewish People. They hadn’t converted out of that. Christianity gave them purpose for their Jewish Peoplehood.
Those who converted into Judaism said they missed community. They had their local church community, but loved the idea of something more concrete and wider in scope: a global community dedicated to God’s purposes. The Jews had Peoplehood and joined Christianity to get theological purpose. The Christians already thought theologically; and readily embraced Jewish theological purpose regarding the Jewish People that they were joining. Peoplehood did not suffer by admitting them. On the contrary. It gained a deeper perspective, a theological one, that rabbis generally fail to discuss with their ethnic Jewish members.
Tribalism is cheapened Peoplehood, an approach that is elemental, rooted in my tribe vs yours. We should do away with it. Peoplehood beyond tribalism is profound. It calls us to value the Jewish People as a precious thing with a mission to advance God’s goodness in the world — and to welcome all who share that mission and want to pursue it through The Jewish Way.


7 responses to “A Word On Tribalism and Jewish Peoplehood

  1. Thank you for both of these posts.

  2. Steven J Weinberg

    Rabbi Hoffman! “Tribalism is cheapened Peoplehood, an approach that is elemental, rooted in my tribe vs yours. We should do away with it.”


    I liked the ideas for opening Judaism to others that you expressed in “My Mistake”. But now this? Going to the other extreme.

    Why can’t we continue to have both tribalism and peoplehood as part of our heritage? The call above to do away with tribalism is way too harsh and insensitive. I am shocked.

    • Well, it depends on what you mean why tribalism. I have no objection to Jews enjoying the company of other Jews; nor to the fun of ethnic Jewish delights (I too like Klezmer music, delis, and dancing the hora). I certainly embrace Israel as a Jewish homeland. But none of that is tribalism. Tribalism is what drives people apart. Tribalism balkanized the Balkans; tribalism is Hatfields against the McCoys; tribalism is most of the Arab mideast, one tribe against the other; tribalism is old animosities carried forward; tribalism is the sense that our tribe is somehow just “better” and other tribes are out to get us. I will have none of that, and I suspect you agree.

  3. I am puzzled both by the initial essay and today’s expansion of same. I want to suggest that the nuanced suggestion (from which I dissent) that one can differentiate people hood from tribalism is lost on many Jews. I would suggest most Jews under 40, for whom any form of collectively especially as implies boundaries (inevitable) is routinely labeled (incorrectly) as “racist” , any residual “peoplehood” is de facto “tribalism” which is de facto “racist.”

    Those who found the decision (at RRC) to allow rabbinic students to be intermarried inappropriate were routinely labeled “racists” as are rabbis who decline to perform intermarriages. Rabbi David Ellenson recently reported that his opposition to changing the HUC policy to allow, similarly, rabbinic students to be intermarried, is called “racist” by his own children for holding that position.

    Dr. Hoffman, could you clarify wherein your universal “peoplehood” differs from Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society? As a Jew I appreciate the aesthetic of observing Christian worship, but that symbol system and that content in no way can carry my Jewish spirituality. Are you suggesting because Christianity has Jewish roots Christians can drop in to a synagogue and not only observe but participate? In which case how or why should a synagogue e.g. offer Jewish ritual roles only to Jews? Isn’t that equally tribal?

    Last question: I find these conversations about dropping Jewish particularisms peculiar to North American Liberal Jewry, I have never seen a similar argument made by liberal Israeli rabbis. I suggest this impulse of dropping boundaries and impugning peoplehood by labeling it “tribal” may be a factor of decades of minority consciousness of North American Jews. I’ve yet to meet a Catholic who worries that a Jew will feel “non included” by being refused communion. Yet liberal Jews agonize that a non Jew will find US “racist” if we restrict e.g. aliyot to Jews.

    • Dear Richard,

      What thoughtful comments! Thank you. I feel as if I know you, although it is hard to say for sure, with only a first name and no picture or initials. You have even read one of my books, “Art of Public Prayer.” Thank you for that as well.

      I fear I have been unclear, to you, and, no doubt, to others too – for which I apologize. Let me try again.

      My idea is not as revolutionary as it seems. We already welcome converts – nothing new there; and we welcome visitors who take an interest in us: nothing new there either. What we do not do (and should) is get the message out, affirmatively and proudly. Our systemn is not set up for it. That’s where the “big idea” comes in: we need to reset the system, which is designed, at the moment, to “play to” our regulars, a small percentage of the families who already belong, perhaps 10-15% of any synagogue’s adult members. I do not mean to abandon these regulars (God bless them). But the future of Judaism can look much rosier if we were to teach the regulars that we have a God-given mission: to correct the world’s ills; and that they have as role to play, not just in doing it, but in making our message much more widely known. Clearly, we can change the world much more effectively with double our numbers, especially if we make our message clear also to those who are already in our midst but who rarely give Jewish theological purpose any thought at all.

      Here is how many rabbis and cantors have failed. They get so overworked at synagogue maintenance (all those life cycle events, committees, and so on) that they have little time and give little thought to explicating the deep theological verities on which Judaism depends. Were they to do so, were their boards to give them serious time to craft such weekly messages, they would be able to speak to the existential issues of our time; the search for meaning and spirituality; the purpose of Jewish Peoplehood; God.

      Were they to do that and at the same time craft worship services where the message and ritual appeals to strangers as well as insiders, they would have regular “audiences” (if you will pardon the word) who understand Judaism in all its depth. As you see from my comments, I in no way minimize Peoplehood. I simply want it to come along with its theological purpose, so it is not “just” a tribal throwback, a relic of some ethnic past.

      To your points:

      You are right when you say that the difference between Peoplehood and tribalism is lost on most Jews. But it does not have to be.

      You worry that Jews under 40 will label any collectivity with boundaries “racist.” But welcoming visitors, inviting them in (should they wish to join) and resting Peoplehood on a universalist message of saving humankind, saving the planet, and so forth, would allay their suspicions which would then be unfounded.

      As to Felix Adler’s “ethical culture society,” my proposal is completely otherwise. Yes, I emphasize Judaism’s ethical call, but so did Ahad Ha-am, Mordecai Kaplan. Leo Baeck, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. That does not mean that I minimize the particularistic things that make Judaism Jewish, so to speak: Jewish ritual, celebrations, Shabbat meals, Passover Seders, Purim joy – these are the necessary sacra (as Kaplan identified them) our customs and folkways, without which the ethical message is “mind” without “heart and soul.” I just root these practices in their larger purpose. I don’t want less: I want more: more depth, more openness, more inquiry, more celebration, more Shabbat – but also, more people to investigate it and, perhaps, choose to be part of it.

      I specify Christians, but mean especially unchurched ex-Christians, and others too, the many people who have not found spiritual meaning elsewhere, but who might, in synagogues. I specifically stipulated our own ethics, values, and historical experience that do indeed make us different. We are not just a universal message. We see the world through a Jewish lens formed through history. Visitors are invited to try on our glasses. As an example, people who disagree with some church doctrine or ideal – original sin let us say – may like the balanced Jewish view of human nature. And it works both ways: Jews leave us all the time because they don’t like what we say and believe (or because they don’t even know what that is because we haven’t focused on telling them).

      I cannot go into all the other wonderful issues you raise. Dr. Ellenson’s struggle with admitting HUC applicants who are in relationships with non-Jews, for example; also, what exactly visitors would be allowed to do – an especially difficult decision; and the role of sacred symbols, about which (as you say) I have written. Some other time, maybe.


      • I hope at some point you will write about the ritual and symbolic implications of a universalized message in a Jewish setting. These issues, of Jewish and non-Jewish ritual access and status are not marginal but core.

  4. Addendum: I found it confusing to square Dr Hoffman’s excellent discussion of symbols in his book “The Art of Public Prayer” with the discussion here on opening Jewish spiritual communities to equal access by non Jews.

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