From Egypt to Sinai: Becoming a People

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We recently had the honor of hosting the opening Shabbat service for the Shabbaton ahead of the "Wrestling With Jewish Peoplehood" at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which examined the question of Jewish identity in light of shifting demographics that blur the boundaries between who is and who is not Jewish.

The conference and most of the speakers both assumed and built their observations of premises that Mordecai Kaplan began offering in the 1920s through his death at 102 years of age in 1983. One of his core formulations, which we studied recently at our B’nai Mitzvah family program, was that Judaism is not only a religion, but the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish People.

Mel Scult, a preeminent Kaplan scholar, discussed the concept of peoplehood, which was central to Kaplan's analysis of Judaism. Mel wrote, in a summary:

“The Kaplanian solution is a balance between peoplehood, Jewish solidarity, and sheleymut [wholeness, inner peace, and fulfillment]. Peoplehood and personhood. If we go too much to one side or the other it will mean disaster. Too much in one direction and peoplehood means chauvinism and tribalism. Too much in another direction and individualism means narcissism and self-indulgence."

Yet, we need more than replications of Reconstructionism's past formulations. It is through innovation that we stay true to Kaplan's drive for authenticity and for a contemporary, relevant Judaism rooted in tradition and peoplehood. By studying Kaplan's thought on the reconstruction of the Jewish people, as well as other past and present Reconstructionist perspectives, we can keep our innovation grounded in the principles that have helped us evolve and grow to this point. Using the term "Reconstructionist" to support a personal preference without study, values clarification and willingness to see the needs of the community as on a par with our individual needs is not the democracy Kaplan had in mind.

For all of the diversity of personality and practice within the Reconstructionist movement’s 100-plus affiliates, Mordecai Kaplan's core ideas of religious naturalism, egalitarianism, democratic decision-making, and an empowered rabbinate and membership have produced dynamic, creative communities. These communities share many important characteristics: gender equality, shared leadership, a welcoming atmosphere, lifelong educational practices, liturgical and ritual creativity, a serious embrace of tradition, a commitment to tikkun olam and mutual support, and a conscious search for meaningful, sustainable lives as Jews and as human beings on the planet.

Kaplan spoke of God as the Process that makes for the fulfillment of our human potential. When we enter into discussion of an important issue in our community, we are entering The Process — we are on sacred ground. Godliness can manifest through the approach and content of our decision-making. This Process makes for “salvation,” in Kaplan’s terms, as we move toward an agreed-upon outcome that ideally brings us and our communities into greater self-realization. We are, in short, striving for a Process that contains Godly values and yields an outcome that fulfills the mission of our community and the spiritual growth of the participants.

In the world of 21st century Reconstructionism, “truth” is certainly in flux. For example, as the new Exploring Judaism suggests, we are more questioning of the authority of the sciences than Kaplan was, even as we contend with staggering new scientific and technological advances. We are more questioning than Kaplan of the values of American society, and we feel ourselves being shaped by a multiplicity of identities and civilizations beyond the “living in two civilizations” credo. In light of the Holocaust and the never-ending eruption of brutal wars around the world, we question more vigorously than the human capability of achieving peace and “salvation” through politics, education and technology.

The hunger for meaning and purpose in our increasingly globalized world and NASA enhanced universe has moved us beyond the discussion in Kaplan’s time about theism and atheism. We know gravitate towards discussions about how to live more Godly and religiously authentic lives in a culture that champions individualism and personal happiness over communal commitment and peoplehood.

Our embrace of egalitarianism since the founding of our movement has meant not only inclusion of women’s voices and feminist concerns, but a need for Jewish men to find a meaningful role in contemporary congregations, and a striving to support gay, bi-sexual, lesbian, trans-gendered Jews, interfaith/intermarried and inter-racial families. We also include those not Jews connected to Jewish communities, and Jews of multicultural heritage, among other groups. Even the nature of emerging paradigms for Jewish spiritual communities in the 21st century is unfolding as we wrestle with our current realities.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a modern Orthodox rabbi and leading light of a pluralistic contemporary Judaism asked on a plenary panel about Jewish peoplehood today during the conference stated, “What is the overarching value and meaning and purpose that connect people- beyond the traditional ideas of being compelled by Divine covenant or cultural commitment.

Rabbi Shaul Magid’s response included his observations about the generational passing currently underway. He stated that we must “live deeply embedded in one's own experience knowing you cannot fully transfer your experience to the next generation. Millennial experience is very different and needs to be responded to differently- sensitivity to the nuances of changes and not assuming nostalgia or things are getting worse are compelling to next generations.”

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities of which Mishkan Shalom is a member, offered that the Reconstructionist project of broadening inclusion and democratic egalitarian practice into Jewish life is one of the biggest intentions and implications for the future of the Jewish people. Jewish Peoplehood is not an end in itself rather a frame for higher values and action and being in the world.”

Rabbi Greenberg concluded, “Can you determine an affirmative distinctive inspiring Judaism that is not based in triumphalism- and if we are headed to become a World oriented religion then how do you affirm this? Let's not be too protective of the past or only focused on the present let's get back into the scrum together for the future's sake.”

Here’s to a future we are building together. Wrestling with Jewish peoplehood is in our hands, not someone else’s project. Informed, not determined by our heritage and tradition, we will forge the Judaism the upcoming generations inherit in the cauldron of today’s issues and needs. I welcome engaging with you in any of these thoughts and more. Let me know what you think!

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