From the very beginning of Jewish history and memory, the people are central. God makes a covenant with Abraham, in which Abraham, the individual, becomes the founder of a great nation. Later God makes a covenant with the whole people, and the individual Jew becomes part of it by virtue of being a member of that people.
The Torah was given to the Jewish people to live by, as were the great promises regarding the land of Israel. The threat, that if the Israelites did not follow God’s commands, were also articulated in the first, second and third-person-plural. Even the resurrection from the dead, as described in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, is conveyed in language that reflects the group . The Jews will be redeemed as a collective.
The same pattern can be seen in Jewish blessings: “Blessed are you Adonai our God” which opens many prayers, establishes immediately the context of the relationship. God is the Lord of the Jewish People and is my God because I am part of that people. Jews are asked to relate to events in the past, such as the Exodus from Egypt, as if they too were present there all together.
The sense of the collective in defining moments such as the Exodus from Egypt and in the giving of the Torah transcends time and includes every Jew throughout the generations. It is in that spirit that individual Jews ask forgiveness on Yom Kippur for the sins “we committed”.
The framing of Judaism (unlike other religions) is first and foremost as a people. It establishes the people as an entity in its own right. The Jewish people is not simply a collection of individuals. The approach makes the Jewish People as that which carries the religion and develops Jewish civilization. This concept is a core pillar of Judaism.
Sustaining K’lal Yisrael (the collective People of Israel) and continuing its legacy as a “kingdom of priests and holy nation” is a core Jewish value for Jewish people to pursue.
Jewish Peoplehood and Modernity
Although the notion of being a people is embedded deeply in Jewish texts, culture and the ways that Jews have organized their communities over the generations, the historical and conceptual changes that occurred in modern times have severely eroded the foundation and relevance of being part of one people.
The most significant development was the granting of Jews full legal emancipation, starting in the late eighteenth century in France, and continuing in the century following, in the rest of Western Europe. Through this process Jews received civic rights and eventually gained access to full citizenship in their countries. A highly controversial phenomenon at the time, both within and outside the Jewish community, the Emancipation took a toll on Jewish communal autonomy and the sense of global Jewish collective belonging.
This is because it allowed Jews, for the first time, to belong to another national group (the French, or Germans, for example). Many fully embraced this belonging, thus weakening the Jewish ties of belonging. Additionally modern Zionism, which in its utopian version envisioned the return of all Jews to Israel and the re-unification of the Jewish People and the land, offered an alternative collective identity.
In its formative years, it actually called for “Shlilat Hagalut” – the negation of the Diaspora, essentially calling for an end to the connections between Jews in different countries.
Thus, the founding of the State of Israel as the sovereign Jewish State, on one hand, and the thriving communities in open societies around the world on the other, created a new context for Jewish existence, which was primarily based on religion and individualism or nationalism. The results include Jews outside Israel who tend to see their identity as primarily (if not exclusively) religious, individualistic and spiritual while many Jews in Israel define themselves first and foremost through their nationality, as Israeli citizens.
Perhaps the most significant existential change that has occurred is that collective Jewish identity is no longer imposed on Jews by others or by outside circumstances. The decision to be a Jew, live Jewishly and tie one’s destiny to that of the collective have all become the choice of the individual Jew.
The combination of freedom from being coerced into belonging to the Jewish collective together with access to other collective, national belongings has brought a decline to the sense of Jewish Peoplehood.
The dramatic historical events of the 20th century, such as the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, followed by the Six Day War and the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, maintained a strong sense of collective solidarity, despite the trends mentioned above. But since those events have passed, and have not been replaced by similarly powerful substitutes, the last three decades, as research shows, have seen a significant erosion in the notion of K’lal Israel and the connections between Jews around the world.
Peoplehood in Practice
The belief in Peoplehood provides justification and meaning to a whole set of Jewish norms and institutions that comprise the Jewish enterprise as we know it. The Jewish communal enterprise with its diverse manifestations in all corners of the world is a clear expression of the desire to continue, sustain and develop Jewish civilization worldwide.
It is a civilization that both expresses the essence of the Jewish collective (i.e., a socially just community with welfare, education and philanthropic institutions) and helps sustain its existence and spirit.
The place of the people is so central in the Jewish religion, history, culture and ethos, to the point that Jewish life cannot properly be understood without it. Many components of Jewish civilization and core obligations, such as Kol Israel Areivim Zeh La’zeh (All Israel is responsible for one another), receive their justification from the importance of sustaining the people and Jewish civilization.
It is reflected locally in the way Jewish communities organize themselves. Globally, the passion and mobilization for the development of Israel – the State of the Jewish People, cannot really be understood without affirming belief in the Jewish People and thus, in the claim for its own nation State.
The educational message taken from this analysis is to propose a more multifaceted, or “thick” understanding of Jewish identity. While there is no question as to the role religion had and has in shaping the identity of Jews (including those who argue with it), we are committed to thinking about how collective identity makes Jewish identity more robust. Only if we engage actively with both the collective and the individual dimensions of Jewish life will we be equipped to address the challenges of the Jewish future.
 See Genesis, chapter 15, in which God makes a covenant with Abraham, known as the “Covenant of the Pieces” (“Brit Bein HaBetarim”). God promises that Abraham’s offspring will inherit the land of Israel, and will be a great nation, as numerous as the stars or the sand. The focus is not on Abraham the individual, but on the nation who will come after him.
 In Deuteronomy, chapter 19, the Jewish People stand before God and enter into a collective covenant, which specifically states “Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before the Lord our God, and with whoever is not with us today” (Deuteronomy, 19:13-14).
 See Deuteronomy, Parshat Re’eh, chapter 11:26-32.
 See Ezekiel, chapter 27.
 The Passover Haggadah explicitly calls on the participants at the Seder to consider themselves as if they personally escaped from Egypt, as participants in the collective Exodus. See any version of the Haggadah for this statement. Similarly, the Midrash Tanhuma on Parshat Nitzavim emphasizes an understanding that all future members of the Jewish People were present, in spirit, at the revelation at Mount Sinai. The midrash shows this from a close reading of Deuteronomy 19 (see footnote #2).
 The traditional liturgy of the High Holy Days contains the collective recitation of the Jewish People’s sins, known as “the Al Cheyt.” The language of the liturgy is “For the sin that WE sinned…” For the full text, see any traditional High Holy Day prayer book.