Reconstructionist Judaism and the Rejection of Chosen People

According to Reconstructionism's founder, the idea of chosenness divides peoples from each other and should be rejected, not reinterpreted.

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Reprinted with permission from The Reconstructionist (September 1984).

Among the many distinctive ideas of Reconstructionism, the most fundamental is the belief that Judaism is the humanly created and naturally developed product of the Jewish people. Classical Reconstructionism (i.e., the work of Mordecai M. Kaplan and his immediate disciples) sought to reinterpret rigorously the essential elements of Jewish civilization under the rubric "Judaism without supernaturalism."

 

God was no longer to be conceived of as a supernatural being, but as a power or process operative in and through the natural world, made manifest most clearly in human conscience. Torah was no longer to be conceived of as a supernaturally revealed body of law and literature, but as coterminus with the totality of Jewish civilization created by humans and subject to evolution. Finally, the people Israel was no longer to be conceived of as a supernaturally "chosen" people, but as a naturally evolving social group whose unique identity exists solely in relation to its unique culture.

Of the many changes introduced into Jewish thought in the modern period, the Reconstructionist deletion of the endorsement of and reference to the idea of the chosen people has been among the most controversial. Continued resistance to this change indicates a need to reexamine the rationales invoked on its behalf.

It should be noted that other contemporary Jewish ideologies, notably Reform and Conservative Judaism, have evidenced varying degrees of discomfort with the concept of chosenness, and felt a need to offer apologetic arguments for its retention.

In The Future of the American Jew (1948), Mordecai Kaplan indicates the four basic rationales commonly invoked for that purpose.

Genetic Chosenness

The first rationale is that Jews are, by virtue of heredity, superior in the fields of religion and ethics, having what the noted Reform theologian Abraham Geiger once called a "native talent for religion."

The essential fallacy of such an argument is that it presumes that Jewish identity is in some way biological and/or genetic. It thus completely ignores both the multiethnic character of the Jewish people and the significance of conversion. Having struggled to gain acceptance of the concept of peoplehood as the appropriate category of Jewish corporate identity, Reconstructionists clearly would not advocate retaining the concept of chosenness based on a misunderstanding of that category. (Unfortunately, there persists in Jewish life today a vulgar version of the heredity argument which manifests itself in such undertakings as calculating the number of Nobel prize winners who are "Jewish.")

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Rabbi Richard A. Hirsh

Rabbi Richard A. Hirsh is the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the editor of The Reconstructionist.