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Jewish Communal Responsibility: An Endangered Jewish Value?

Remarks by Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna on the occasion of the investiture of Dr. Hal M. Lewis as the eighth president of Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.

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CHICAGO, February 7, 2010—It is a great honor for me to be here with you this afternoon. I have had the privilege of knowing your President since both of us were in Cincinnati in the 1980s. President Hal Lewis has literally written the book – in fact, two books – on Jewish leadership. You are deeply fortunate—indeed, I would say that the whole American Jewish community is deeply fortunate—that Spertus has attracted a leader of such proven quality to carry it forward into the next stage of its history.

I am not myself a graduate of Spertus, but I was deeply shaped by faculty and students of this institution. Our Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis was founded by two European scholars who learned about America and American students by teaching here first. The great Simon Rawidowicz, a thinker far ahead of his time, taught here from 1948 until he came to Brandeis.

Similarly, the incomparable Nahum Glatzer, who succeeded Martin Buber in Frankfurt, came as a refugee and found a home teaching here at what was then the College of Jewish Studies.

Another Brandeis luminary, my esteemed teacher, Prof. Marshall Sklare, the founding father of Jewish sociology, was a proud graduate of this institution.  He often spoke about his time here as a student, and in his very last publication he paid tribute to all that he had learned here during the formative period of his life.

What is interesting about Rawidowicz and Glatzer and Sklare is that all three, though they differed politically and religiously and in terms of their backgrounds and specialties—all alike felt deep ties to klal yisrael, the Jewish people as a whole. They taught a wide range of Jews and they influenced a wide range of Jews. They approached the study of Jews and Judaism from the widest possible perspective.

“Klal yisrael—the audacious idea that all Jews are interrelated and interdependent—is to my mind one of Judaism’s most distinctive and appealing features. Judaism is not a universalistic faith in the Christian sense; it has instead an ethnic, or tribal, or, to use a term that we are probably more comfortable with, a “familial” component to it. When a Jew is injured in an earthquake in Haiti, or attacked on the streets of London or Paris, or hit by rocket fire in Sderot, or persecuted in Yemen or Ethiopia, we Jews here in Chicago feel the pain. We do so, because we see those suffering Jews, whom we do not personally know and whom we likely have never met, as part of our collective “mishpoche” [family]. They are our extended family. The value of klal yisrael underpins the very fabric of Jewish peoplehood.

The word peoplehood, to be sure, is very recent. It first appeared in the 20th century and only came into common usage among Jews in the wake of Nazism and the scientific discrediting of racial theory. (At that time, we stopped talking about the Jewish race and started to talk about the Jewish people.)  But if the word “peoplehood” is new, the idea that Jews form a separate nation or people (the Hebrew word is “am”)—that idea is as old as the Bible itself. In fact, looking at some of the characteristics that the Bible associates with the Jewish people, I was struck by how relevant two of them are to Spertus’ new president.

In the Book of Exodus (33:3) Jews are described as a “stiff-necked people (am k’shei oref).” I am willing to predict that during the course of his tenure, President Lewis will discover that lots of Jews have not changed; they are still stiff-necked. Frustrating as that always is to a change-oriented leader, it is worth recalling that being stiff necked has often helped Jews around the world to survive. If instead of being stiff-necked they had been weak-kneed, we might not be here. 

More to the point, in the Book of Deuteronomy (4:6) Moses sets a goal, actually a very high goal, for the people of Israel to achieve. Through study and observance, he promises, they may become a “wise and discerning people” (am chacham venavon). That is really what this institution, and all Jewish institutions of higher learning, are about: promoting wisdom and discernment. The original charter of the College of Jewish Studies made this abundantly clear. It described the purpose of the institution in terms of “education”—understood very broadly—as being on “any subject relating to Jews and Judaism.” 

From the beginning, nothing Jewish has been alien to Spertus: many of its faculty, like Rawidowicz and Glatzer, were scholars of vast and wide-ranging erudition. Their goal and the institute’s goal to this day, it seems to me, is parallel to that set forth by Moses in the wilderness: to help transform each generation of Jews into an am chacham venavon, a wise and discerning people.

Today, though, the challenge of accomplishing this audacious goal is fraught with grave obstacles. I do not just refer to financial obstacles—those are well known and have plagued Jewish educational institutions for as long as they have existed. (Even the heads of the great academies of Sura and Pumbeditha in ancient Babylonia had to raise money to keep them afloat.) The graver challenge is that Jewish peoplehood itself—the whole concept of klal yisrael, the idea that all Jews are family, the obligations of mutual responsibility connected with being a member of the Jewish people—all these have fallen into steep decline, especially among young Jews. Indeed, klal yisrael has become nothing less than an endangered Jewish value.

Recently, a young Jewish intellectual named Joey Kurtzman, in a fascinating published debate with Prof. Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, stated straight out: “I don’t regard the Jewish people as my family.” He is not alone. In the privacy of anonymous surveys, a great many Jews agree with that very same sentiment.

A survey in 1998 found that only a bare majority of American Jews still warmed to the concept of Jewish peoplehood. Just 52 percent—half—agreed with the statement “I look at the entire Jewish community as my extended family.” Less than half, 47%, felt that “I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world.” Intermarried Jews, who often have the most trouble understanding what klal yisrael is all about, are the most likely of all to disagree with these statements, six times more likely than in-married ones. As for young Jews, a recent survey of Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today (2006) discloses that only 29 percent of respondents ages 25-34 stated that they have a “sense of belonging to the Jewish people” and only 25% (a mere quarter) “feel that they have a special relationship with and responsibility for other Jews.” [p.32] In short, Judaism, for many American Jews today, means religion or a vaguely-felt sense of heritage, not a sense of peoplehood or a feeling of mutual obligation towards all Jews everywhere.

It is easy to point to reasons why klal yisrael has, in our day, become an endangered Jewish value: It is, after all, a value without analogue in American society at large. Moreover, ethnic feelings of all kinds have declined in the United States. Many Americans have become persuaded that national and religious identities, far from being primordial, are instead constructed and “invented”—they view them as volitional and contingent, not deep-rooted and permanent. In addition, too many Jews and Jewish institutions have failed to express and to model the values of klal yisrael in their rhetoric and in their actions. Instead of displaying love for their fellow Jews, they do the opposite.

Nevertheless, my message this afternoon is that klal yisrael is a value worth preserving, and that Spertus and other Hebrew colleges across our country have a great role to play in this much-needed preservation effort.

The radical notion that “all Jews are responsible for one another,” whether they know them or not, like them or not, or agree with them or not, simply because all Jews are family has been centrally important in Jewish history, and is in many ways responsible for Jewish survival under adversity. (As I mentioned, being stiff-necked helped too). To this day, millions of Jews are alive because other Jews reached out to save them during times of persecution. In our own lifetimes, the successful movements to save Soviet Jews and Ethiopian Jews relied on this deeply felt feeling of mutual responsibility. It has saved more lives than any other Jewish value I can think of.  Indeed, this sense of shared peoplehood, far from being outmoded, seems to me to be a cutting-edge idea, one that others might want to learn from our Jewish example. The world we live in would be infinitely better off if klal yisrael-type feelings, feelings of kinship and mutual responsibility, became pervasive among all peoples and all faiths here in America and around the world. The more we care about one another, the better our world will be.

How can Spertus help? First of all, simply by committing itself to the value of klal yisrael we make a very important statement. A great many Jewish institutions today are denominational or political; they reach out only to those Jews who share their particular outlook. Spertus has always been open to a wide range of Jews as well as to people of all faiths interested in Jews and Judaism. “Any subject relating to Jews and Judaism,” we have seen, forms part of its core mission. 

Second, Spertus serves as an educational and cultural oasis here on Michigan Avenue, bringing together Jews of every sort who seek wisdom and discernment. We Jews may no longer easily be able to pray together (for that we need lots of different kinds of synagogues), but we certainly can still study together. Education and culture—all of the different components of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies—define what it is that distinguishes us as a people. The more that we know about the totality of subjects “relating to Jews and Judaism,” the more likely we are to appreciate Jewish peoplehood in all of its manifold dimensions.

Finally, Spertus can promote pride in being part of klal yisrael. Secular colleges and universities, even their Jewish Studies departments, are committed to objectivity. In our classrooms, academics like me are supposed to be ¬dispassionate. By contrast, Jewish institutions, it seems to me, can and should be exuberantly passionate.

We need a place where Jews of all kinds can feel passionate about our values, our texts, our history, our culture and our homeland. We need a place where Jews can express and deepen our passion for Jewish civilization and for our fellow Jews. We need a place where the values of klal yisrael may be openly articulated and passionately celebrated day in and day out.

That place, here in Chicago, is Spertus Institute. 

I congratulate Dr. Hal Lewis upon his becoming the 8th President of Spertus, and feel confident that in the years to come, under his visionary leadership, this institution will make great contributions to Judaism, Jewish life, and to the revitalization of Klal yisrael.

Congratulations, and thank you very much.

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