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.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Richard A. Hirsh

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