Commentary Magazine

The Limits of “People-Centered” Judaism:
The Course of the American Synagogue

In recent decades the concept of Jewish peoplehood has not only dominated Jewish secular and nationalist movements, but has taken almost as important a place in the institutional Judaism of our day. So much so, that many have seen modern Judaism as “people-centered.” Jakob J. Petuchowski here describes how this came about, and indicates why the accent is likely to shift again in the near future.




Modern writers on Judaism are fond of quoting the saying, “God, the Torah, and Israel are one”—apparently in the conviction that it is an ancient Jewish teaching. The fact that the saying goes back to nothing more ancient than Israel Ba’al Shem Tov’s paraphrase of a passage in the Zohar, and that in its context it means no more than that the individual Jew, by studying the Torah, can achieve communion with God (see “God, the Torah, and Israel,” Cedars of Lebanon, COMMENTARY, January 1958), has not deterred people from using it as a slogan in modern programmatic statements on Judaism and Jewish life. Thus it has been argued that the three constituent elements—God, the Torah, and Israel—are of equal value. If, moreover, “Torah” is understood as Jewish culture and “Israel” as modern Jewish nationalism, then it would follow that the non-religious Zionist Jew still upholds two-thirds of the totality of Judaism, the “Torah” and “Israel”—while the anti-Zionist Jew, who claims that Judaism is a matter of religion and nothing but religion, remains less of a Jew by one-third. Clearly, the formula serves the modern secularist as a psychological bridge to help him overcome the gulf separating him from the God- and Torah-centered heritage of his ancestors. It is therefore not sruprising that the saying is invoked more often by those who have departed from the traditional belief in God, and who understand Torah in terms of culture and folkways, than by those who take their “Jewishness” for granted just because of their theological commitments and their pietistic observances.

The secular State of Israel on the one hand, and the American citizen of Jewish faith on the other, are equally unprecedented in the history and tradition of pre-Emancipation Judaism. The Judaism of those times was both a theocentric view of life, and a Torah-centered way of life; that view of life was upheld and that way of life was practised by a distinctive group which often enjoyed a considerable amount of autonomy. It is therefore quite possible for both the non-religious nationalist and the anti-Zionist religionist to claim that they represent the main tendency of past Jewish development—though neither, if he is honest, would conceal the fact that he is taking a selective view of that development.

In fact, however, the early teachers of Judaism did not glibly subscribe to some formula that asserted the equal value of “religion” and “peoplehood.” On the contrary, they actually debated on occasion which of the two was more important. The problem was put as follows, in the language of those days: Does the Torah exist for the sake of Israel, or does Israel exist for the sake of the Torah? Both views found their protagonists.

In another formulation of the problem, the ancient rabbis acknowledged three types of Prophets. There was the Prophet concerned only with the claims of God. Elijah was such a prophet: he described himself as having been “exceedingly zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts,” and in his great zeal he found himself playing the role of an accuser of Israel before God. Then there was the Prophet who was zealous only for Israel’s glory. Jonah was this kind of prophet: out of a sense of Israelite patriotism he was moved to ignore God’s own command. The third type is represented by Jeremiah, who was equally zealous for both God and Israel. Recognizing the justice of God’s punishment meted out to the sinful people, he yet numbered himself among the sinners and remonstrated with God about the delay of the divine forgiveness.

This early midrash (Mekilta Bo, ed. Friedmann, p. 2a) leaves us in no doubt that the type generally preferred by the early rabbis was that of Jeremiah—in this instance, as in so many others, the rabbis evaded an either/or choice by saying “both!”

Today, the modern American Jew is unable to echo this “both” with much conviction, even though he may be affiliated with institutional Jewish religion. The question frequently encountered in Jewish jokes, “Is it good for the Jews?” is no longer asked only of such things as the theory of relativity, or the breaking of the sound barrier—it is now being asked of Judaism itself.



Modern American Judaism, like American religion in general, no longer operates with the autonomous demands of religion, with “Thus saith the Lord.” Instead, American religion—Judaism included—is offered as a commodity which its purveyors seek to make appealing to the customer. Religion is good for you. It helps you to overcome psychological difficulties. It prevents juvenile delinquency. It is a bulwark against Communism. The family that prays together stays together. In short, you miss out on much of the fun of life if you don’t affiliate with the church of your choice.

Man, in other words, is not so much a servant of God, as religion is a commodity of service to man. That a good case can be made out for this position goes without saying. Nineteenth-century liberalism, the Social Gospel of the earlier decades of this century, and the pervasive secularism in American thought have all had something to do with shaping this conception of religion. But by and large, it seems more indebted to the widespread, unreflective pragmatism so characteristic of much of American life at its ordinary levels, than to the conscious, thoughtful acceptance of a particular conception of religion.

The result, in any case, is the same: man accepts religion because religion serves his needs. The highest court of appeal is man himself. (This description, let me say in passing, is not intended as the last word on American religion. At the same time that religion has this vast, popular, purely pragmatic appeal, leading theologians of the country are rediscovering and reformulating such theocentric concepts as Revelation, Judgment, and the Word. It takes time, however, for the concerns of the theologians to reach the pulpit and the pew.)

Judaism is not only good for the individual Jew, according to the modern American view, it is good also for the Jews as a group. Its beliefs unite the Jewish group more closely; its practices have “survival” value. Thus in addition to all the benefits Judaism is said to bestow upon the individual Jew, it is also indispensable to the Jewish people—if it wishes to survive as such. And more often than not, the “survival of the Jewish people” (with all the ambiguities inherent in the two nouns and in the adjective) is taken as axiomatic, something that needs no further justification.

In Dr. Mordecai M. Kaplan’s “Reconstructionism,” these things are frankly stated, and incorporated in the structure of his system. But the “survival” rationale has become part of other modern formulations of Judaism as well. It is given a respectable place in the program of Conservative Judaism; and even Orthodox spokesmen have been known to justify ritual observances in terms of “group survival,” thus bypassing vexing questions about the nature and content of Divine Revelation.

But perhaps the most eloquent illustration of how the stress on Jewish “peoplehood” has come to the fore in modern Judaism, and how “survival value” has taken the place of earlier justifications for religious observance, can be found in certain significant changes which the Reform movement has undergone within the last two or three decades. Reform Judaism and Zionism are no longer, as they were at one time, antithetical concepts and movements. Reform has enlarged the accepted categories of “religious pageantry” and “symbolism” to include “folkways” and Israeli dances. The same rabbinical body that still listens seriously to suggestions for the abolition of the last days of Passover and Succoth, also numbers in its ranks those who would sponsor the observance of Israel Arbor Day and Israel Independence Day as significant festivals for the American Jew. The movement which long ago declared that the traditional dietary laws were of no further religious significance, now provides its membership with latke recipes on Chanukah and hamantashen recipes on Purim. And in its Guiding Principles, published in 1957, it defines Judaism as “the historical religious experience of the Jewish people,” and as “the soul of which Israel is the body.” Reform even recognizes, if somewhat grudgingly, “in the group-loyalty of Jews who have become estranged from our religious tradition a bond which still unites them with us.”



Recent events in Jewish history undoubtedly had their share in bringing about this change of attitude in Reform Judaism, as did the influx into the ranks of Reform of Jews from East European backgrounds. Yet there is more to it than this. It is quite possible that the stress currently placed on Jewish “peoplehood” is necessary in order to maintain the very structure of Reform Judaism itself. For Reform at its very inception contained a number of unresolved paradoxes which threatened to bring about the dissolution of the whole system.

With a thoroughgoing Teutonic logic—well described in Nathan Glazer’s recent book, American Judaism—Reform, in its endeavor to be “rational,” proceeded to banish every element of the “irrational” from Judaism. Even the idea of the Deity retained precious little of the “numinous.” But the moment you make your commitment to God dependent upon the outcome of your reasoning, there is at least a tacit admission that it is possible for your reasoning to take a different course and lead you to an entirely different destination. If you insist that everything in religion is meant to serve ethical needs, it will not be long before upholders of an ethical way of life start claiming that they can have their ethics without the religion. Felix Adler with his Ethical Culture Movement is a case in point.

If you maintain that, though the Jews have been entrusted with a “mission,” the emphasis ought to be on what all men have in common rather than on the inherited “particularisms,” the time will come when Reform rabbis like Schindler and Fleischer in Boston discover that they can serve humanity better without the “mission” and without Judaism. If you deny the relevance of traditional halachah (the life-regimen of Torah law) and make religious observance dependent on the taste of the individual, the very factors which made Israel of old a religious community rather than a secular nation will have been cast aside.

If you sermonize at length on how the ancient Prophets fulminated against Temple worship in Jerusalem and in Beth-El, one day your congregation will begin to wonder how important Temple worship in New York or in Cincinnati can be in the sight of God. And why have religious services at all, if God is best worshipped in the heart of man and served by the moral deed?

All of these paradoxes might sooner or later have brought about the internal collapse of Reform Judaism as an institutional religion. But in the nick of time Reform Judaism discovered Jewish “peoplehood.” After Revelation and halachah had fallen victim to the grinding mills of Reform dialectics, “peoplehood” came along to hold the Reform movement together.

Here, then, is the biggest paradox of them all. Reform Judaism, which began by stressing the religious aspect of Judaism to the exclusion of everything else, has been led by the logic of its own liberalism to such a degree of anarchy in belief and practice that its own institutional survival is now dependent upon the rediscovery of the “peoplehood” of Israel! Reform rabbis who cannot agree among themselves whether God is a Person or not, who hold the most diverse views on the efficacy of prayer, and who adhere with ever fainter heart to the “classical” Reform doctrine of the “Mission of Israel,” with its corollary of “Israel as the Priest People of God”—these same Reform rabbis can at least agree on this, that they are serving the Jewish People!

This service takes the form of ministering to the psychological well-being of the individual synagogue member (which thus brings Reform into the pattern of American religion in general), and helping to assure the survival of the Jewish people.



The paradox is heightened even more when we regard that minority in the ranks of Reform which rejects out of hand the contemporary emphasis on Jewish “peoplehood.” At last year’s annual convention of the American Council for Judaism, Henry Hurwitz, the editor of the Menorah Journal, was featured as one of the main speakers. The burden of Hurwitz’s address, to which the official publication of the American Council seemed to take no exception, concerned the need for an even more pronounced universalism, and for a frank humanist approach to the traditional teachings of Judaism. This theme was elaborated at greater length in one of Hurwitz’s own editorials in the Menorah Journal, Speaking of the various “spheres” which are to be rejected, such as the nationalist sphere and the folkist sphere, Hurwitz also mentions the theological sphere as the one to be superseded by a new humanist re-interpretation of Judaism.

Should the American Council for Judaism adopt such a program, it would involve itself in a profound self-contradiction. For if the religious content of Judaism is the only justification for Jewish existence, and if even an innocent reference to the “Jewish people” in an occasional Sunday School textbook is deemed objectionable—if such is the case, and if a group of Jews then goes on to adopt a humanist instead of a theological program, it proclaims to the world that its “Jewishness” is due to the ethnic origin of its members rather than to any theological convictions championed by Judaism as a religion. True humanism, after all, has no need of, indeed rejects, such restrictive qualifications as “Jewish”; the continued existence of the American Council for Judaism, if it were to preach such a humanism, would turn out to be but a mere attenuated version of Jewish “folkism.”

From all that has been said thus far, it would seem to follow that the only Jew who could afford to ignore the current emphasis on “peoplehood” would be the convinced and consistent Orthodox Jew, who takes his Judaism as something revealed “from above” rather than evolved in the historical life-situation of a people. (The current debate between Mr. Ben Gurion and the Orthodox Rabbinate on the question of “who is a Jew” may not be unrelated to these considerations.) All other manifestations of modern Judaism, insofar as they depart from this central Orthodox dogma, are forced sooner or later to make room in their systems for an emphasis on “peoplehood,” and for a faith that is, at least to some extent, “people-centered.”

This analysis need not necessarily lend support to the Jewish nationalist who has all along maintained that the Jewish religion was merely an instrument for holding the Jewish nation together in its exile, until, with the Return to the Homeland, the religious institutions of Judaism will have lost their practical value. In the first place, “peoplehood” is a rather vague concept, and there is no a priori need to identify it with the concept of “nationhood” which is basic to the classical Zionist idea. But even if we grant the claim, which will be very hard to refute, that the Jewish religion has been instrumental in preserving the Jewish people, it by no means follows that preservation of the “people” must perforce be the highest aim which it has been Judaism’s destiny to serve. On the contrary, the argument can be turned right around. Once we say that no religion can be realized in a vacuum; that Judaism, in order to take shape and maintain itself, needed (to borrow Professor Samuel S. Cohon’s apt classifications) not only a creed, a cult, and a code of conduct, but also a community, it follows that, for the survival of Judaism, the survival of the Jewish people becomes a conditio sine qua non. In this view, the nationalist who sees mere Jewish survival as an end in itself is simply afflicted with spiritual short-sightedness. The religious Jew, on the other hand, who sees in Judaism itself the rationale for Jewish survival, can give the concrete reality of “peoplehood” its due, and still regard it as but a means to a higher end.

Seen in this larger perspective, there may be some permanent value in the contemporary emphasis on “people-centered” Judaism. This value may prove able to survive the inevitable weakening of the American Jew’s intense emotional identification with what is going on in the State of Israel.



As I remarked some time ago in these pages,1 after all the definitions have been argued and re-argued, it remains the case that “the Jewish community is . . . what Jewish peoplehood has come to mean for the vast majority of American Jews, whether they realize it or not.” And Will Herberg has shown that this Jewish community is increasingly being viewed (both from without and from within) as the Jewish counterpart to the Protestant and Catholic varieties of American religion. If this is so, it will become more and more difficult to maintain American Jewish life on the basis of a secular emphasis on Jewish “peoplehood.” If Judaism does not primarily signify the Jewish religion, American Jews will be hard put to it to evade the alternative posed some years ago by Arthur Koestler: If you are a national Jew, your place is in the State of Israel. If you are not; if, in other words, you want to stay here, then you have no right to impose the burden of Jewishness on your children. In that case you should assimilate consciously and completely. Obviously Koestler did not reckon with a religious Judaism as a live option. Those, however, who have not written off religious Judaism as a dead loss recognize in it a tertium quid to be opposed to Koestler’s alternatives.

We may discount in this context the attempt to preserve the Jews as a distinctive “cultural” group. What passes for “Jewish culture” usually turns out, on closer inspection, to be nothing more than the particular culture of East European Jews. But this culture was not shared by their brethren west of the Oder river, nor would Yemenite or North African Jews feel at home in it. After all, it was the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl himself, who wrote in The Jewish State: “It is only by the faith of our fathers that we recognize our historic community, for we have long since indelibly absorbed the languages of the various nations.”

The very “people-centeredness” which has been characteristic of recent Jewish thought in America forces us, in the final analysis, to look for the people’s raison d’être in the religious values of the Jewish heritage. Even the Jewish secularist in suburbia has been reduced to registering his children at the synagogue Sunday School, in order to maintain his identification with the Jewish community. This in itself may be of little significance. On the other hand, it may be only a matter of time until the wheel turns full circle. And then we shall be back at a God-and Torah-centered interpretation of Jewish life in the Diaspora—however “modified” it may turn out to be in terms of present-day Orthodoxy.

Again, what is happening in American religion in general provides an apt parallel to developments in the American Jewish community. The trend in American Christianity over the last half century or so was also away from the traditional dogmatic formulations toward more rationalistic and humanistic concerns. Theological hair-splitting gave way to psychological concern and pastoral counselling. But a movement in the opposite direction is already in evidence. The very concern with the psychological needs of the individual church member led to a rediscovery of the traditional Christian doctrines of sin and atonement, and of the limitations of secular utopianism. It is no longer considered old-fashioned in Christian circles to be interested in the problem of “Christ and Culture,” or in the dichotomy between “the Word of God and the Word of Man.” No one, however, wishes or expects that the resurgence of these more pronounced theological trends in American Protestantism will result in a lack of interest in “people,” and in a neglect of the counselling role on the part of the ministry. These things have come to stay, even if the major emphasis of religion is in the process of shifting.

No doubt we can expect much the same thing to happen with “people-centered” Judaism. The nationalist overtone may be expected to disappear sooner or later. The frequent disagreements between Ben Gurion and the American Zionists over the question of whether America is “exile” or not, and on the need for large-scale immigration of Jews to Israel from the United States; the feverish search for a rationale to prop up the whole Zionist apparatus, and the constant process of “re-defining” the aims and objects of Zionism for American Jewish consumption—all this may be taken as evidence that the heyday of Jewish nationalism in the United States is past, that the State of Israel and the American Jewish community will ultimately have to go their separate ways. When they do, Jews who reject Koestler’s alternatives will do so precisely because they see a supreme value in religious Judaism. But it will not be possible ever again to ignore the community aspect of Judaism, now that it has come to the fore.

Judaism, after all, is not something thin and abstract which can exist apart from the concrete and mundane existence of the Jews. An old midrash put this idea in a daring way: “Before the time of Abraham, God was, as it were, King of the Heavens only. But when Abraham came, he proclaimed God’s kingship over earth and heaven alike.” (Sifré to Deuteronomy, paragraph 313, ed. Friedmann p. 134b). And yet Abraham was only the beginning.



One of the major differences between Judaism and Christianity, which James Parkes has written about so perceptively, is just this: that, while Christianity addresses itself to the “saved” individual, the Sinaitic Law is addressed to the community. The community is that “kingdom of priests and holy people” (Ex. 19:6) in which alone Judaism can be lived and realized. To take some down-to-earth examples: Judaism values public worship above the prayer of the individual, and public worship requires a minyan (quorum) of ten. Learning, often described as equal in value to all the other commandments, is understood in Judaism as a group activity. Such rites de passage as circumcision, marriage, and burial, though related to the status of the individual, become valid only in the presence of a minyan. Needless to say, implementation of the Torah’s social legislation is scarcely compatible with a hermit’s existence.

Just how important the “community” has been to Judaism may be seen from the following paragraph of the Code of Maimonides: “He who withdraws from the ways of the community, even though he does not commit any transgressions, but merely separates himself from the congregation of Israel, and performs the commandments not in their midst, and does not enter into their sorrow nor fast on their fast-days . . . such a one has no share in the Hereafter” (Hilkhoth Teshubhah 3:11). Yet Maimonides wrote his Code, as Solomon Zeitlin has shown, with a view to having it accepted as the constitution of the Messianic State, for the time, that is to say, when the City of God and the City of Men would be co-extensive. And although the particular paragraph we have quoted was meant to refer to Maimonides’ own time, too, the modern reader is struck by the fact that Maimonides could still take the regimen of commandments (mitzvot) so much for granted as to credit the “marginal” deficient Jew of his day with the performance of the mitzvot in the privacy of his own home. In the time of Maimonides, and for centuries thereafter, the universal acceptance of Jewish Law, even more than the identity of shared beliefs, and certainly more than any “organizational” aspects of Jewish life, made the Jews in all corners of their dispersion members of a “holy community.”

None of this applies to modern Jewish life. In the West, the absolute rule of Jewish Law began to break down with the Emancipation. The Reformers may welcome this. The Conservatives, by compromising, may attempt to stem the tide. The Orthodox may wish to exempt their own constituents from this fact; but even they have tacitly given up a full fourth of the standard code of the Shulchan Aruch: namely, that part of it which deals with civil law. The Reformers began by shifting the emphasis from the practical observance of mitzvot to the theological convictions of the individual. It was, in its time, a very necessary shift. The milieu which had hitherto served as a guarantor for the continuity of Judaism was breaking up, and the Jewish individual had to equip himself to step forth into the wider world and yet remain a Jew. But the result of this, as we have already seen, if not at first then at least in the present century, has been such a complete anarchy that until the present day the Reformers have been unable to establish a theological foundation for such observances as they do continue to recommend and practise.

Of “community,” on the other hand, at least in its external aspects, there has been no lack. Quite apart from the kehillah-type of organization, which was customary in Europe, and which the Reconstructionists are trying to revive on American soil, the most striking aspect even of present-day American Jewish life is the multiplicity of its communal organization. If anything, American Judaism is over-organized. But whereas in the past the essential communal unit was the local minyan, the active local congregation, American Jewry has projected its “community” onto the national scale. It takes a great deal of stretching of terms to recognize in the national organizations of American Judaism, in its religious “denominations” as well as in its charities, the “holy community” in which Judaism was traditionally lived and realized.



In spite of all this organization, what real Judaism there remains is the Judaism of committed individuals, “one of a city, and two of a family” (Jer. 3:14). This Jewish commitment is something which our “denominations” cannot dictate, and which Madison Avenue methods cannot promote. But just because it is, today, something so individual and so personal, it lacks just that “community” aspect which a full Judaism requires for its realization. And yet, paradoxically enough, those few committed individuals, in their aggregate, are the “holy community” as far as the American Jewish scene is concerned—they, and not the five and a half million who figure in the statistics.

It may not be very realistic to hope for the time when the few and the many shall become identical. But after all, it has happened before. The Pharisees of old, gathered in their exclusive “brotherhoods” (habhuroth), apparently believed that the high degree of pietistic observance which they cultivated was beyond the reach of the ordinary Israelite. In time, however, “Pharisaic Judaism” became the religion of the people as a whole.2 This kind of development, however, must lead from the individual to the group, and not vice versa. Mordecai Kaplan therefore seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse when he puts his faith in a “covenant for world Jewry,” to be re-enacted by the representatives of world Jewry as the starting-point for the reconstitution of modern Jewish life. Surely the individual commitment should come first—before we dare think in national, let alone international, terms.



The need of the hour is definitely for more, many more, committed Jewish individuals. And what will they be like? I foresee men and women who have begun to question the meaning of their Jewish origin, who are groping to find their way back to the “God of the fathers,” who are able and willing to see, beneath the legendary layers deposited by millennia of piety, the reality of God’s Covenant with Israel, and the obligation which rests upon every individual Jew to strain his ear for the Word of God addressed to him personally.

They will not all share the same beliefs, nor will they necessarily accept for themselves as personal obligations the same provisions of the old Law. But they will be united in their earnestness and in their search. They will accept a personal confrontation with the totality of the Jewish heritage as their task, one which no single individual can any longer accomplish by himself. They will not necessarily be guided by what previous generations have accepted or rejected; rather they will regard themselves as standing at Sinai anew—at that Sinai where, according to the ancient Sages, everybody understood the Word of God according to his own ability. In short, they will be the kind of people who engage in that “New Learning” about which Franz Rosenzweig spoke, and who seek to find their way from the periphery back to the center of Judaism.

The very nature of their endeavor will force them to work together, to congregate in study circles—and who knows but that they who have come to study may stay to pray and to practise? They will be the ones who will set the tone for the contemporary understanding of that most elusive term, “Judaism.” And, whether conscious of it at the beginning of their enterprise or not, they will soon learn that Judaism can be lived only in the “community,” that the “Covenant” presupposes the “Covenant People”—though nothing may be further from their minds, as they embark on their search, than the thought that they are the “holy community.”

It is too early to say whether they will be more than this, whether they will in fact prove to be the nucleus around which the whole of American Jewry may yet group itself. The late Milton Steinberg, in A Believing Jew, spoke of the right not to be a Jew,” which is “one of the privileges which have come to us as persons born in our age.” If anti-Semitism continues to decline and external circumstances facilitate the process of assimilation, it can be anticipated that many of today’s “marginal” Jews will avail themselves of this “right.” Sub specie aeternitatis, this may entail no real loss to Judaism, which has never measured its strength in numbers. It is also likely, indeed it would almost seem to be a postulate, that the perspective of Jewish life will have to revert from the “coast-to-coast” range—let alone the orientation to the State of Israel—back to the level of the local congregation, in which the individual Jew has his real being.

But the fact remains that, though we have to begin with the individual, the very commitment to a religious Judaism will be seen to imply the “community” aspect, the living in, and the preservation of, the “holy community.” Such may well be the lasting contribution of that phase of modern American Judaism which we have described as “people-centered.”




1 “Jewish Mission to the Nations,” October 1955.

2 See my article, “The Pharisaic Tradition Today,” February 1956.

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