The Tribal Convention

There was some tittering about the name “Tribefest,” the new conference for young Jewish professional types sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America.

The Jewish Federation system distributes a lot of money each year. A lot of money. $3 billion annually. The bulk of the Jewish community structure is funded largely through these Federations.

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.

What do you think?

About The Author

David Kelsey

David was consistently listed as one of the top 100* J-bloggers of 2007. He tweets @thekvetcher. *This claim has not yet been verified.

3 Responses

  1. CounterDavid

    DNA?! And what about converts and their descendants? Are they not true members of the tribe in your eyes because they don’t share your DNA?! What a load of tripe. We’re Jews by privilege of the definition of Jew as given to us by Jewish law and Torah – whether we practice it or not. And if it wasn’t for the “fervent” Orthodox core, we wouldn’t even be able to say we’re assimilated, because who would even know what a Jew is anymore.

  2. Anon

    This is one of the weakest arguments I have ever read. It amazes me that people who espouse the argument that since traditional Jewish belief no longer holds sway for many Jews, our last chance at Jewish connection is supposed familial or tribal ties. How is that a compelling reason to remain Jewish? That doesn’t give Jewish tradition any credit for the many values it offers both Jews and non-Jews, even (and especially) outside of Orthodoxy. Face it: either Judaism matters to the world or it doesn’t. Either it will be used as a force for good, as inspiration for positive change, or it won’t. But the content of Judaism, how we engage with and interpret it for our era, is what will keep Judaism alive. Not tribalism and its cousin xenophobia.

  3. Hershel

    I believe you’re perpetuating misinformation by stating that the Federations are trying to, “motivate Jews to continue Jewish communal funding for specifically Jewish causes.” If you were to investigate what it is that the Federations do, I think you would find that it’s not just the Jews that are benefiting.

    As to the special relationships… Liturgy teaches that we have a special relationship first and foremost to those closest to us, and then a second special relationship with “the strangers in our midst”. I have no problem with harsh critiques of the Jewish community, but I think it lacks journalistic integrity not to check your facts first.


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