“What Are Jews For?: History, Peoplehood, and Purpose” by Adam Sutcliffe— The Purpose of the Jewish People

Sutcliffe, Adam. “What Are Jews For?: History, Peoplehood, and Purpose”, Princeton University Press, 2020.

The Purpose of the Jewish People

Amos Lassen

In “What Are Jews For?: History, Peoplehood, and Purpose”, Adam Sutcliffe gives us a look at the history of Western thinking since the seventeenth centuryaboutthe purpose of the Jewish people in the past, present, and future.

Questioning the purpose of Jews in the world, Sutcliffe goes to The Bible and shows that it singles out the Jews as God’s “chosen people” a term whose significance has been understood in many different ways over the centuries. He then traces the history of the idea of Jewish purpose from its ancient and medieval foundations to the modern era, showing that it has been central to Western thinking on the meanings of peoplehood for everyone. He examines “the links between Jewish and Christian messianism and the association of Jews with universalist and transformative ideals in modern philosophy, politics, literature, and social thought.”

Throughout history, the Jews have been given a crucial role in both Jewish and Christian conceptions of the end of history and when they will bring to the world a new age of unity and harmony. The messianic idea has, since the seventeenth century, been part of idea of Jewish purpose and has been repeatedly changed in new forms. The political theology of the early modern era and in almost all areas of modern thought—religious, social, economic, nationalist, radical, assimilationist, satirical, and psychoanalytical, Jews have kept a close association with positive transformation for all people. Sutcliffe shows the  importance of the “Jewish Purpose Question” in the ways that Jews and non-Jews alike bring together the collective purpose of particular communities for the larger improvement of humanity.

Looking at questions of exceptionalism, pluralism, and universalism,Sutcliffeexplores the purpose of the Jews. His study is provocative, to say the least and Sutcliffe treats it with sensitivity as he attempts to make clearer the historic understandings and misunderstandings

between the Jewish obligations to preserve their particularity in relation to God, and to live with truth and justice for humanity as a whole. We see how this drives today’s clashing views of Israel as a nation state. This key strand of Jewish thought shapes the question of national identities in our times today.

Jewish history has always been fodder for writers yet we have not had writers question the purpose of the Jewish people. This is a fresh approach to the understanding of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism in Western history, thought, and politics. The questions of if Jews have a special religious, ethical, and historical purpose, and if so, what is it has been skirted until now. The book is

a historical exploration of the lineages of the Jewish purpose question, rather than an attempt to present a fresh answer to it. There have been many answers over the past four thousand years and beyond and it seems that there is a one word answer— Jews are for hope. The idea of Jewish purpose focuses attention beyond the present, and looks to a future that will be in some way better than the present with the hope for the future being essential for any sense of meaning in human life. The Jewish purpose question, makes us look at how a people can and must contribute to making a better world. Today with the Covid 19 pandemic raging, hole for the future has become strained but the resources for looking forward have not changed and are as important as ever.

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