There was some tittering about the name “Tribefest,” the new conference for young Jewish professional types sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America.
Tribefest seeks to motivate Jews to continue Jewish communal funding for specifically Jewish causes.
But why “tribe”?
Until recently, Jews have generally claimed to be adherents of a religion. But the reality is, most Jews don’t believe in most of the myths and narratives that we call Judaism. Additionally, as Jewish power has risen, both in Israel and domestically, it has become increasingly smaller and older groups who argue Jewish identity is primarily based on victimology.
Not that there aren’t those who still try.
One seminar I attended was on “Tikkun Olam,” or “repairing the world.” One of the intentionally provocative questions asked of us was, “Do Jews have a special obligation to help non-Jews.”
There were five categories of answers: strongly agree, agree, not sure, disagree, strongly disagree. We were instructed to go to the sign which best represented our opinion.
I was the only one who felt that I strongly disagreed. When called upon to represent my group, I explained that while we certainly had an obligation to help others, we did not have a “special” obligation, because to have a “special” obligation meant buying into either a “special” Jewish victimology or supremacism, and I reject both.
But while I may have been one of the only people at Tribefest to reject both, I am hardly the only Jew to do so.
As we are seeing more and more, many Jews are rejecting that we are special in the classic religious understanding of covenant. And with the State of Israel’s conflict with her own minority population, it is difficult for many of us to understand being Jewish as solely being driven by an underdog identity.
Additionally, there is increasing evidence that the Jews are historically not just a people who believe in a set of values (as outlined in the Torah according to varied, even contradictory understandings), but rather, are a genetically-related people of distict Middle Eastern stock. Genetic mapping has made this increasingly clear.
As communal control outside the Orthodox community has weakened, the question over who is a Jew has become increasingly complicated. As Amy Beth Oppenheimer noted in her seminar on religious pluralism in Israel (or lack thereof), this debate is not just a Diaspora phenomenon. In Israel, there are conflicting definitions, with the Law of Return accepting the Nuremberg (Nazi) definition of who is a Jew versus the Orthodox definition of who is a Jew.
Domestically, the gravest challenge referenced by the Jewish community is assimilation, and of course, intermarriage. I attended an interesting seminar led by Benjamin Maron of InterfaithFamily. Maron advocates accepting the facts on the ground, but he did seem a bit pollyannaish in terms of assessing the long-term effects of intermarriage on the non-Orthodox Jewish community. And as audience member Steven Bernstein noted, there is a perception that, “This is the breakdown of the tribe itself, not just the culture.”
In many ways, Mayim Bialik was the most overt on the tribal aspects of Jewish community, despite her fervent Orthodoxy. Bialik referenced the “Jew club that exists no matter what you believe or do,” and noted that, “We share DNA. We are all related.”
Despite the jungle motif on the logo, the name Tribefest is not ironic. The federation professionals are not hipster comedians. These are serious not-for-profit professionals that seek to continue raising funds to service the Jewish community. Highlighting the familial aspect of the Jewish people is the best pitch they have for recruiting a younger generation beyond the religiously inclined.
For the vast majority of non-Orthodox Jews, there may not be a convincing theological to prioritize remaining Jewish. There may no longer be a compelling reason based on historical persecution. But taking care of our own because they are our family, well…for that, perhaps, there is good reason to feel we do have a special obligation.