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.")

Innovators of Ethical Ideals

A second rationale for retaining the idea of chosenness which Kaplan rejected was that Jews were the first people to manifest the essential religious and ethical ideas which have since been adopted as the basis of Western civilization.

Viewed historically, this claim is untenable as an absolute, since the contributions of Greek and Roman civilization, for example, as well as those of the European Enlightenment, were of significance as well. If anything, comparative religious and cultural studies support a superficial commonality with regard to ethical concepts which transcend civilizational lines. Even if, however, one grants that certain crucial moral insights have derived from the experience of the Jewish people, that would not be sufficient ground on which to stake the claim to chosenness.

The Most True Religion

A third argument made in favor of the "chosen people" is that Judaism represents the highest form (i.e., the truest form) of religious belief.

As Kaplan notes, this may constitute a sufficient rationale for an Orthodox believer. The majority of modern Jews, however, accept a developmental model of Jewish religion, and thus cannot claim for it the category of "truth," which presumes a static, rather than a fluid, entity. The fact that a given stage of Jewish religion manifested certain ethical insights does not mean that those insights were always present, nor does it guarantee that they will always be accepted.

While not endorsing a totally relativistic ethical system, the evolutionary conception of Jewish religion indicates that ethical postures are subject to continual refinement and reassessment. It would thus be difficult to isolate one specific stage of Jewish religion and point to it as the highest form of religion; consequently, a convincing argument for chosenness cannot be based on this rationale.

Jewish Mission

The final argument which achieved currency especially, although not exclusively, in Reform circles, is that Jews have a "mission" of spreading ethical monotheism, and that it is for this purpose that they have been chosen. This rationale might preserve the idea of election but runs the risk of creating a subtle but real intolerance for other faiths which, by definition, remain "incomplete." In a curious reversal of historical doctrinal disputation, the "mission theory" seems to imply that there is "no salvation outside the synagogue."

Furthermore, as Kaplan notes, the "mission" of Israel, as defined by modernists, does not correlate with the election of Israel as understood in Jewish tradition. Finally, even those who adhere to this notion are manifestly reluctant to undertake any real missionizing on behalf of Jewish ethical monotheism, although the recent call by a prominent Reform rabbi for "outreach to the unchurched" may represent an attempt to resurrect   the mission theory.

Discomfort With Chosenness

The very fact that such apologetic arguments are put forth indicates discomfort on the part of many modern Jews with the implications of chosenness, as it is traditionally understood.

Classical Reconstructionism rejected the attempt to reinterpret chosenness precisely because, in Kaplan's words, "by no kind of dialectics is it possible to remove the odium of comparison from any reinterpretation of an idea which makes invidious distinctions between one people and another."

Thus, in the prayerbooks of the Reconstructionist movement, references to the doctrine of chosenness were eliminated in favor of alternative formulations which advocated a sense of vocation (as in the phrase substituted in the blessing before reading the Torah, "who hast brought us nigh to thy service…" (asher kervanu la‑avodato [instead of the traditional asher bahar banu mi-kol ha-amim, "who hast chosen us from amongst the nations"]).

It is worth noting that Kaplan might have, on logical and rational grounds alone, declared the entire issue to be moot; a non‑personal God conceived of as a power or process could not "choose" anyone. Yet Kaplan's essential argument was made on moral and pragmatic grounds.

Morally, the assumption of a predetermined, supernaturally bestowed and permanent superiority was not in keeping with humanistic concerns and in fact hindered the attempt to emphasize the common human needs to which every religion responded. Pragmatically, invocation of such phrases as "He hath not made us like the pagans of the world, nor placed us like the heathen tribes of the earth…" [from the Aleinu prayer] was not conducive to the fostering of intergroup goodwill which Reconstructionism maintained should be a goal of all religions.

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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.