So Long as Jews Keep Discussing Their Purpose as a People, the World Will Be Better Off

January 19, 2021 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

The idea that the Jews have a special role in God’s plan for the universe is one that goes back to the Bible itself, and looms large in the thinking of the major medieval Jewish philosophers. But it is also one that has persisted into the modern era, capturing the imaginations of the theologians of Reform Judaism, of secular Zionists such as Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion, and many others. It is the modern thinkers that are the main concern of Adam Sutcliffe’s recent book, What Are Jews For?, along with the non-Jewish writers and intellectuals who tackled the same question. Allan Arkush writes in his review:

Sutcliffe himself remains somewhat distant from the ideological fray—almost above it. . . . [B]ut he does hope that Jews will continue to discuss the purpose of their own existence, which means, first of all, that they must remain Jews. As long as they do so, they can continue to ruminate about the purpose of their peoplehood in a way that can be of benefit not only to themselves but to the world as a whole. For the ideal of a lofty ethical peoplehood to which some of them give voice is one that can direct everyone “toward the possibility of a future in which we, as part of whatever collectivity we might feel we belong to, might be something more than we are in the present, and part of bringing about a different and better world.”

While Adam Sutcliffe’s intellectual history may alienate some of those intellectuals at whom he here seems to be gently shaking his finger, others—including many who disagree with each other about almost everything else—may nod in agreement with his conclusions. It is refreshing to see a well-informed and thoughtful author survey our current internecine altercations and place them in a broad historical perspective, without attempting to scold his adversaries and win the day. One hopes that Sutcliffe is correct when he asserts, at the very end of his book, that “the Jewish purpose question still spurs us to think beyond our differences, and always to carry on hoping.”

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