photoIn Judaism, “chosenness” is the belief that the Jewish people were singularly chosen to enter into a covenant with God.  The idea of Jews as the chosen people is a fundamental tenet in traditional  Judaism. A tenet so fundamental that in 1945 the Union of Orthodox Rabbis voted to ban the newly published Reconstructionist Sabbath Prayer Book written by Mordecai Kaplan because the prayer book asserted that the Jews are not the chosen people, and the Torah is a human document and not supernaturally inspired. After the vote, the rabbis burned the book and proceeded to excommunicate Kaplan from Judaism.  The fact that the book burning accord shortly after the Allies declared victory over Nazi Europe is not lost on historians

In the Future of the American Jew Kaplan explains that the belief of chosenness was derived from the Torah and the stories around the Patriarchs, their descendants in Egypt, Moses and the Israelites on Mt Sinai and the belief that these stories in the Torah represented factual truth. In the book Kaplan states that “people use to think that the earth was the center of the universe, and their homes were the center of the earth.” The concept of Jews as the chosen people also must fit into this line of thinking, which we must get rid of and is a “thought which we can no longer inhabit.” The stories in the Torah according to Kaplan are considered legends and cannot be considered factual and Jews cannot use them as proof that they are the chosen people. He believed that a modern people cannot continue to believe in a supernatural God that favors one group of people over the other and claims one group superior to the other in a society. One group of people cannot be the “all time elite elect of God” and the idea of any people calling themselves chosen is “guilty of self infatuation.” Kaplan equated chosenness with arrogance and believed that “No people can achieve salvation until all people do. This can happen only when it is understood that all people possess equal access to god. That each peoples experience and expression when directed toward the highest goals are equally valid.”

According to Rebecca Alpert, Kaplan’s argument against chosenness would have not been a controversy if it had remained a theory.  Kaplan walked his talk and put his theory into action by changing prayers such as the Havdalah, Aleinu and the Kiddush, removing words that described chosenness and a supernatural deity.

As a person who came to Judaism as an adult and through the Reconstructionist movement, I had only known that Reconstructionism rejected the concept of chosenness I’m not even sure I understood how central the concept of chosenness was, until I started interacting with non-Reconstructionist Jews and visiting non-Reconstructionist synagogues.

The Reconstructionist of the early part of the 20th century “concluded that “chosenness” unlike other concepts cannot be reconstructed” and that chosenness implies a hierarchy and thus lends itself far too quickly to chauvinism and other anti-democratic behavior.” – Rabbi Deborah Waxman. The concept of chosenness was the central part of Reconstructionist thought that separated it from all other types of Judaism and maybe made it impossible to stay with the Conservative movement and be sort of a left leaning arm of the Conservative movement and thus the Recontructionist College was founded and a fourth movement of Judaism was created.

Jewish Belonging

Who is a Jew, is a basic question about Jewish identity. The question is based on ideas about membership to the Jewish people. Jewish identity has long been a source of questions and concerns for all Jews. How do we explain Jewish identity?

It used to be simple, if one had a Jewish mother then one was Jewish.  Most Jews probably believe that Judaism has always been a matrilineal religion, but this is not true, historically one’s Jewishness was passed down from the father, but the rabbis changed this sometime around the Roman occupation and the second temple period. In other words the rabbis “reconstructed” Jewish identity to fit with the times

Mordecai Kaplan’s pioneering work, Judaism as a Civilization challenged American Jews in the early part of the 20th century to think creatively and courageously about Jewish life.  Kaplan’s central argument was that Jewish civilization has never been static, but has always been dynamic. Judaism, he maintained, has evolved and changed as its practitioners have moved through time and space.

Kaplan felt that since Jews lived in a modern society it would be almost impossible for Jews to adhere to many of the same traditions of the past. American Jews of  Eastern European descent no longer lived in the shtetls of Europe but in a free America, where they could attain the full benefits of citizenship.  And Jews must always regard themselves as members of two civilizations – the Jewish civilization and the civilization of the secular state in which we live.

And just like in the beginning of the 20th century we are redefining what it means to be a Jew. The lines are not as clear as they once were.  High rates of intermarriage  between Jews and non-Jews, patrilineal descent, queer Jews, more Jews of color , adoption, conversion, and status vs identity all have changed the very fabric of what it means to be Jewish today.

As Judaism continues to evolve and we ask more and more: Who is a Jew? What is a Jew? What does a Jew look like? Do our stereotypes limit our openness to and welcoming of a wider array of Jews? How do we navigate an American Jewish population that is less tied to the past? Speaks less Hebrew? Is less connected to the State of Israel? And looks more and more like the rest of America? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they are definitely questions to think about, and it’s time to discuss these issue, so let’s discuss

What is Reconstructionism in two minutes or less?

Reconstructionism is a branch of Judaism born and bread out of the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Reconstructionism grew out of the Conservative movement and based on the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan.  The Reconstructionist Movement prides itself on Inclusivity:
  • In 1984 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College became the first rabbinical college to admit openly gay and lesbian students
  • Reconstructionist Judaism is Egalitarian
  • Recognizes patrilineal descent so that people with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers are fully accepted into the community
  • Reconstructionist communities are characterized by a high degree of democratic decision making
  • non-Jews are welcomed into the community

Some Basic beliefs are

  • Judaism is not just a religion; it is an evolving religious civilization.
  • Reconstructionist Judaism differs from other movements: it sees Jewish culture, religion and tradition having been created by the Jewish people throughout history, rather than given by God at Mt. Sinai; we see our tradition as having grown from the ground up, and not from the (mountain) top down. Richard Hirsh
  • Rejects the idea of any such supernatural being who dispenses reward and punishment
  • and rejects  the concept of God’s ‘chosen people’.
  • Jews must always regard themselves as members of two civilization – the Jewish civilization and the civilization of the secular state in which we live.
  • Judaism and working for social justice are inseparable
  • tikkun olam – which means ‘repairing the world’ through social action – is a way to live out Jewish values

Why Pray?

If you don’t believe in a traditional God why pray? What is the purpose of prayer?

As a kid the whole concept of prayer was foreign to me. This is what I understood: You get dressed for bed at night, then kneel by your bed and thank God for things in your life. I also understood that I could ask God for things and talk to God when I was in trouble. As a child I would often visit churches and I would see people deep in prayer and it seemed to me, that people strongly believed that if they have enough faith  they could ask God for things and if your faith was strong enough God would deliver. But I didn’t get it

So what is the purpose of prayer? Abraham Joshual Heshel  in an interview stated that people misunderstand the purpose of prayer and the primary purpose of prayer, at least in the Jewish tradition is “not to make requests. The primary purpose is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song.” In the Jewish tradition we pray in community with singing. Rabbi Jacob Staub wrote that “for many of us, group singing transports us beyond ourselves. I may be awash in gratitude for a life cycle passage, or for the blossoming of flowers in my yard, but without my minyan (quorum) where would I sing out?”

In Mordecai’s Kaplan’s book The Meaning of God, Kaplan lays out the purpose of praying in community. He explains that whenever we pray in a minyan the Shekinah is with us. God’s presence can be with us in a smaller group and God can even be with us as individuals but the more people that are gathered together to pray, to sing and to chant the more likely we will experience “a manifestation of the Shekinah.”

I have always liked praying in community. There is something very powerful about having a large group of people singing and chanting in rythmn from prayers in the siddur (prayer book). I also cannot help but think of slaves in the United States. Singing and chanting passages from the Torah allowed creative ways to escape slavery, both mentally and physically. I also think about  the civil rights movement, and the singing of spirituals and protest songs. I cannot even imagine what the movement would have been like without the singing. Someone told me the other day that one reason we are so messed up today is because “We ain’t doing enough singing.” This is probably why chanting is so popular right now in Jewish communities. Hebrew is complicated and not everyone understands Hebrew or can read it fluently but if we just take a few lines from prayers and sing them as a group then we can “be transported beyond ourselves,” or as Kaplan says feel God’s presence.

Kaplan explains “to fully appreciate God’s presence, one must actually experience the influence of public worship…Praying in public makes one feel at home…The presence of others participating with us in articulating our common ideals assures us that we are not separate drops of water, but parts of the mighty current of human life.” Kaplan also explains that we are better off and better at surviving life’s challenges with others than we are alone.  Praying in community “Liberates our personality from the confining walls of our individual ego,” in other words we brood, but praying in community breaks us free of this prison, lets in the light and we are able to enjoy life and life becomes more meaningful.

The Meaning of God

I have always been challenged by my own concepts of God. As a rabbinical student I have wanted to understand  not only what God means in a modern Jewish context but what God means to me. Mordecai Kaplan found the concept of a traditional “Supernatural God”  problematic, he did not go so far as a Humanistic approach to Judaism and found the Humanistic approach limiting. He wrote in in his book The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion

 “The fundamental error of humanism consist in assuming that there is only one conception of God, which must remain fixed and static, and that we either accept the traditional view of God as the author of specific laws and customs… or leave God entirely out of our reckoning.”

I have never considered myself an atheist or a humanistic Jew but when my friends would ask me about how I felt about God, my joking but serious response would be “I haven’t gotten to that chapter yet.” I have also met people along the way that believe that  Reconstructionist do not believe in God. While that may be true for some, it is not part of the theology or philosophy of the movement. I can understand the confusion because before I read excerpts from the Meaning of God I wasn’t very sure about what the Reconstructionist Movement had to say on the concept of God, other than the fact that we don’t believe in a supernatural God who dispenses reward and punishment.

As a Jew in the twenty-first century I was still unsure of my own conception of God but Kaplan also wrote that

“Those who possess enthusiasm for living and strive for a better world are believers in God.” This is language that I can use for my own understanding of God. I entered rabbinical school to make the world a better place, without an understanding of how all of it fit into the concept of God.

One more quote that I liked

“When we break through our narrow and prejudiced conception of religion and begin to realize that it is inevitable for the conception of God to reflect one’s mental and ethical development, we will learn to identify as divine that Power in the world to make it what it should be. The name of God will stand for truth about reality, not in terms of a division between natural and supernatural but in terms of normal human experience”