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.
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