Although often defined as such, we are not a religion. If we were a religion, then one who does not believe in God or does not keep Shabbat or kosher or fast on Yom Kippur would not be Jewish.
We are also not a race. If we were, one would not be able to convert to Judaism. We are also not a culture. If we were a culture, then someone who does not eat bagels, have an incredible witty sense of humor, read Philip Roth, engage in intellectual pursuits or conform to any of the Jewish cultural stereotypes would not be a member of the tribe.
What we are is a people; we are a family with a peculiar belief and a peculiar history.
Some are family members by birth, some by choice, but even those who do not share in the beliefs or the history, all share one destiny.
It has been pointed out that nowhere in our sources do we ever refer to ourselves as Dat Yisrael, the religion of Israel. Nor do we speak of ourselves as Emunat Yisrael, the faith of Israel. What we have always done is call ourselves the Children of Israel, People of Israel, Congregation of Israel, House of Israel, Gathering of Israel and finally the Hebrew term Klal Yisrael, which refers to the entirety of Israel. We are a people connected despite separations of geography and centuries. It was only because we were united as a people before we stood at Sinai that we were able to experience the theophany at the Mount.
It is with this in mind that I am always saddened by our haredi brothers and sisters who, while taking the religious aspects of Judaism very seriously, seem to have abdicated the idea of Jewish peoplehood.
In the latest conflict here in Israel in regard to the conscription of yeshiva students, the haredi press has made the point time and again that the ultra-Orthodox don’t want to impose their religion and way of life on others, and it is unfair to impose upon them: “The haredim just want to be left alone.” What they fail to realize is that the desire to “just be left alone” is antithetical to Judaism. Judaism is not dependent upon the observance of mitzvot alone, but upon a sense of peoplehood.
As we now count the days of the Omer towards Shavuot, we remember the words of Ruth, whose story we read on the festival. Ruth’s conversion to the Jewish people took place when she said, “Where you go, I will go; where you sleep, I will sleep; your people will be my people; and your God will be my God!” (Ruth 1:16) Notice the order Ruth uses. First comes, “Where you go, I will go.” With these words, she accepts Jewish fate. “Where you sleep, I will sleep” is an acceptance of Jewish destiny. “Your people will be my people” is her complete transformation of her new identity as a Jew. Only after her acceptance of Jewish peoplehood can Ruth then say “Your God will be my God.” In other words, peoplehood comes before theology and belief.
Michael Wyschogrod writes that Judaism is not some universal Platonic truth that can be separated from the Jewish people. The mitzvot themselves are depended upon the Jewish historical experience. We observe Shabbat to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and that God took us out. We celebrate Succot because the Children of Israel dwelt in booths in the desert. Every holiday and observance is tied to our historical experience. Even Rosh Hashana, the most universal of all the festivals, is tied to a historical experience in the life of the Jewish people. One cannot imagine the Jewish religion without the Jewish people, just as one cannot imagine the Jewish people without the Jewish religion.
What members of the haredi world have been doing by retreating into their own enclaves is dissociate themselves from Jews who act and believe differently from them. They have sinned by confining God and Judaism into the small space of religion, and not let it manifest into every single aspect of their lives.
This includes statecraft and the military. They are making the statement that the klal, the general population of the Jewish people, does not interest them – only those who share their beliefs and worldview.
While they may have abandoned us, we shall not abandon them. It is because we have an – unrequited – sense of Jewish peoplehood that we will not ignore them, and continue to try our best to accommodate them and their beliefs. We will continue to respect them, and extend again and again our invitation to join us in building our state and making it prosper.
■ The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in many posthigh- school yeshivot and seminaries.