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Jewish Civilization

Peoplehood is most concretely manifest as the enterprise of the building and on-going development of Jewish civilization.


Jewish Civilization -  Mordechai Kaplan in his book Judaism as a Civilization states that Judaism is: “something far more comprehensive than Jewish religion. It includes that nexus of a history, literature, language, social organizations, folk sanctions, standards of conduct, social and spiritual ideals, esthetics values, which in their totality form a civilization” (p.178). 

The idea of Judaism as a civilization captures the magnitude of Jewish Peoplehood. Each Jew, Jewish organization and community receives the wealth of Jewish civilization and is responsible for engaging, interpreting and sustaining it.  Each also brings their unique local perspective to it. Through reinterpreting Jewish civilization, giving it life, relevance and current meaning Jewish civilization continues growing and flourishing.

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Further reading about Jewish Civilization

JEWISH CIVILIZATION According to Mordecai Kaplan Jewish civilization has evolved gradually over Jewish history as the “outcome of collective life” (p.186). “The process of living together in Palestine molded the various invading Israelithish tribes into the people that in time evolved the civilization which has come to be known as Judaism” (p.187). Later after being dispersed from the homeland “they managed to live in large communities which were kept in constant touch with each other … it made possible the cultural and spiritual interaction of world Jewry… so throughout Jewish history wherever Jews migrated they sought each other out and formed themselves into self-governing communities. In Alexandria, in Rome, in the cities of Moorish Spain, in the Rhine region, in England or in Poland, the Jews were always a ‘State within a State’… The remarkable uniformity in all matters pertaining to Jewish life that prevailed within the various Jewries… made of them a nation in the truer sense than those who lived in one country under their own government” (p.189). Kaplan explains that the Jewish persistence to maintain collective self–determination historically was grounded in the community’s separation from mainstream host societies and a general sense of homelessness. It kept their longing for their own home in Israel as their only viable collective dream: “… because the Jews in all lands wanted to be a nation in their own land, they really had a far stronger bond of unity and cooperation to serve as a basis of a common life and civilization than any people living unmolested on its own native soil. As a result, the Jews managed to maintain enough of a civilization during the many centuries of dispersion to feel that their identity as Jews had grown dependent upon their perpetuating that civilization” (p.190). What is fascinating to note is that Kaplan’s ideas still hold relevance today even with the existence of a sovereign Jewish state. World Jews, while maintaining a strong sense of solidarity and investing in the development of Jewish civilization in Israel, still see the development of Jewish civilization in their own communities throughout the world as the central expression of their collective identity. This point is central to our discussion here. Jewish civilization in its local expression is defining in the open and free 20th and 21st centuries’ context, Jewish collective identity. Perpetuating that civilization provides both the raison d’aitre of the Jewish communal system and its sense of mission. THE CONSTITUENT ELEMENTS OF JEWISH CIVILIZATION Kaplan lists the following elements as the core pillars of Judaism as a civilization: “A land – A language and literature – Mores, laws and folkways – Folk sanctions – Folk Arts – Social structure” (p.186). This Toolkit explores the notion of Land in the Israel theme, discusses language in Hebrew as a Peoplehood practice, and uses ample literature quotes throughout. We would like to focus this discussion on his notions of mores, laws and folkways, folk sanctions and social structure. According to Kaplan “the main content of a civilization consists of folk habits and folk sanctions which have the twofold effect of producing like-mindedness among those who belong to the same people, and a consciousness of difference from other peoples… They therefore include folkways, social etiquette, moral standards, civil and criminal laws, and religious practices” (p.194). By this Kaplan is referring to most of the Jewish behavior that we would recognize today; customs, mitzvoth, laws and more, including the ways that Jewish communities enforce (or at least encourage) these behaviors. Yet, eighty years after the publication of Judaism as a Civilization Jews have definitely loosened both their “like-mindedness” and the “consciousness of difference” from other people. And yet the debate of the appropriate expressions of all these “folk habits” is still central in Jewish life. There is less of an interest in the formal and legal dimensions of Judaism but the interest in the social norms, communal expressions and responsibilities, diversity of religious practices, Jewish holidays’ celebration, Jewish cultural expressions and much more is still at the center of the Jewish conversation. Kaplan’s approach does not only provide an articulation of what a civilization is but also establishes the connection between ideas and beliefs and their expression in the “real” world. Through this framing Kaplan establishes a dialectic relationship between the vision and content of Jewish Peoplehood and its implementation in the world. This means that the ever-evolving Jewish civilization is shaped by the acts and contributions of individual Jews. In other words, individual Jews are actually required to reinterpret Judaism and contribute to the growth of Jewish civilization everywhere and in every generation. SOCIAL STRUCTURE – THE PLATFORM FOR SUSTAINING JEWISH CIVILIZATION What enables, according to Kaplan, the existence of a civilization is its social structure, or to use his term the “social machinery to articulate the general will” (p.205). The Jews, according to Kaplan, “evolved a type of social structure whereby not only the solidarity of each local community was retained but the unity of all Jewries as well” (p. 208). That social structure constituted both the local and global Jewish communities as the platform for expressing Judaism in the world. Kaplan’s discussion of the issue of Jewish mores, laws and folkways emphasizes the civilization’s process of socialization as depending on: “the existence of the social institutions of the family, school, religious organization and communal self-government.” (p. 181). All those are local communities’ institutions. In a sense what Kaplan is telling us is that Jewish communities throughout the world are intentional communities whose “intention” is to sustain and develop Jewish civilization. Jewish communities share the content of the civilization and the drive for sustaining it, but they also each bring to the table their unique local perspective and interpretation, which in turn contributes to and enriches the collective global civilization. This dialectic relationship of expressing and nurturing Jewish civilization on the local level and in turn contributing to its development globally, frames the local community as the central arena for developing Jewish civilization in the modern age. As stated earlier, what is unique about Jewish civilization is that it is at the same time local and global. As locally focused as the Jewish community may be, it is still, by definition, a local expression of the global civilization. This is expressed not just in terms of the common culture and social habits but in the deep sense of shared fate and shared destiny with the entire Jewish people. One may even project that involvement in the local Jewish community is constituted, consciously or not, by the will to be part of the Jewish people and its civilization. In other words the local and global dimensions of Jewish Peoplehood, as perceived through the prism of developing and sustaining Jewish civilization, represent two sides of the same coin. CURRENT CHALLENGES As reviewed in other chapters of this Toolkit the hegemony of the Jewish civilization has been challenged by other civilizations Jews are part of in the open societies of the 20th and 21st centuries. In Israel, for example, many Israelis have replaced commitment to a broader Jewish collective with commitment to a national Israeli collective. In the United States, to use another example, being part of the American people leads some Jews to treat their Judaism as a religion rather than a People, thus missing out on a core component of Jewish life. These modern days’ examples contribute also to the general challenge of sustaining Jewish Peoplehood along the drive to be part of the “universal civilization”, which Jews have contributed to and naturally feel an affinity for. Although the context of modernity implies that Jews can hold multiple collective identities without necessarily challenging their Jewish identity, the risk is that other collective identities may turn the belonging to the Jewish People obsolete or irrelevant. What is being challenged is not only the purpose and meaning of Jewish Peoplehood but simultaneously also the role and need of sustaining and developing the Jewish civilization. The two, as we have shown earlier, go hand in hand. Or to use Kaplan’s terms both the general will of the Jewish people and its mode of expression through the development of a unique civilization, are being challenged. One of Kaplan’s greatest contributions to this conversation is that he emphasized the role of Jewish civilization as the expression of the spirit of Peoplehood. It makes the work of building the local Jewish community and defining its vision and purpose, central to the future of Jewish peoplehood. The future of Judaism greatly depends on its ability to offer a unique, meaningful and inspiring way of life to individual Jews. Historically the Jews answered that challenge collectively and implemented their responses through the network of Jewish communities throughout the world. Those communities became in the process not just the local embodiment of Jewish Peoplehood, but also its source of renewal and regeneration. In many respects they hold the key to the Jewish future. This perspective also emphasizes the potential contribution of every Jew in every community to the development of the Jewish People’s collective enterprise. This realization that the work of building Peoplehood begins at home and that every Jew can contribute to it is very empowering. Jews are not only responsible for each other but are also responsible for the entire Jewish enterprise and civilization. Or in Kaplan words: “Whether the Jewish people is alive, moribund, or dead, depends upon the extent to which individual Jews, not only wish but act upon the wish, to perpetuate Jewish life, Jewish association, and Jewish co-operation for common objectives” (Kaplan, 1959, p.34).

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