Tribal vs. covenantal Judaism

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by Phil Jacobs
Executive Editor

“Street Torah.”


Rabbi Sidney Schwarz taught numerous Jewish high school students a different way of experiencing Judaism.

The lesson was part of Panim: The Jewish Institute for Leadership and Values founded by Schwarz in 1988.

For many of the teens, arriving from all over the nation, it was when they took peanut butter sandwiches out to homeless people on D.C.’s streets, some in the shadow of the White House or the Capitol Building.

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Students who had hardly any desire to connect with our ancestral biblical heritage saw themselves as “practicing” Judaism with each peanut butter sandwich they handed out.

Schwarz maybe didn’t know it at the time, but he was building then a basis for discussion that forms the very core of his latest book, Jewish Megatrends, Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.


Schwarz, the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom, the Reconstructionist shul in Bethesda, writes about two camps of Jews. There are the “tribal Jews,” who see their Jewish identity in political and ethnic terms. Tribal Jews are concerned about the threats to Jewish survival. They have a strong connection to Israel, because they see it as the most “public manifestation and validation of the Jewish peoples’ existence in the world.”

Schwarz, then defines “covenantal Jews. They affiliate less with institutional Judaism and feel an affinity to their faith because of its ethics and value system that seeks justice, compassion, human dignity and the protection of the vulnerable.” Schwarz offers four platforms he sees as connecting points for tribal and covenantal Jews. They include wisdom, social justice, community and living lives of sacred purpose.

He then invites 13 Jewish leaders from different organizations to write in response.

Schwarz asks: “Can we transmit a tribal Jewish story in a way that the next generation of American Jews can hear it?”

Wayne Firestone, president and CEO of Hillel The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, writes on myths about the younger generations in the book. One of those myths was the “younger generation doesn’t care about Jewish life.”

Firestone believes that the younger generation indeed cares deeply about Jewish life, but in different ways. “They are not yearning to fit in,” he writes. “Rather, they are actively seeking to carve out safe spaces to be different. They want to find their authentic voices and Jewish identity is often one piece of that.”

Not all 13 contributors agree with Schwarz. Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, sees Schwarz’s differentiation of “covenantal” and “tribal” Jews as “inaccurate.” Shrage writes that he sees younger Jewish generations as complex, defying any easy categorization.

“They are universal and particular, tribal and covenantal,” he wrote.

Still, the book suggests that covenantal Jews do not respond emotionally to appeals based on the Holocaust or the state of Israel. And while they are aware of historical anti-Semitism, covenantals don’t share in the persecution phobias of earlier Jewish generations.

Rabbi Sid leaves us with the question, “Can we transmit a tribal Jewish story in a way that the next generation of American Jews can hear it?” Or as Dr. Jonathan S. Woocher, the chief ideas officer of JESNA wrote, the key question was how can Jews fit into 20th century America? “In the 21st century, the question is how can we live more meaningful lives?” Schwarz’s book is an important read because it is a platform for teaching, dialogue and debate.

It’s a road, it’s a path. Or as Panim taught, it’s “Street Torah.”

Schwarz says he sees the beginnings of a Jewish renewal on the community’s extreme margins.

“There is a cross-fertilization between established institutions of American Jewish community and the robust innovation sector of American Jewish life,” he said, “if each side recognized the value of the other and committed to a program of collaboration, I believe we would be on the verge of a renaissance of American Jewish life.

“On the margins of the community, there are stirrings of a Jewish revival,” he added. “And if it’s properly nurtured, it has the potential to grow into a great renaissance of American Jewish life.”

Schwarz asks what would it take to get younger American Jews to have a strong enough affinity with their Jewish identity that the Jewish community will continue to be vibrant and relevant to our children and to our grandchildren.

In his experiences, Schwarz said there is a large part of the Jewish community found outside of the orbit of synagogues. There are, he continued, many venues where Jews can be actively engaged and yet never step foot in a synagogue.

“The Jewish community has all the signs that it is lacking confidence in recognizing what’s new and to embrace it. Frankly what is at stake is how to capture the next generation of Jews. There’s a need to take them from the margins and put them in the mainstream.”

Schwarz said that there are those who encourage him to take Jewish Megatrends and use it as a course in Jewish communal leadership.

This is especially the case since he said he feels that the American Jewish community’s best days are still ahead.

“We must create institutions that integrate the tribal with the covenantal. We will need synagogues to see that do-it-yourself Judaism is not a threat to their existence, but as a way to empower Jews to make the congregation ever more exciting and vibrant.”

(Jewish Megatrends Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future is published by Jewish Lights Publishing of Woodstock, Vt. www.jewishlights.com.)

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