Several years ago, I was leading services at my congregation in the month of February and we dedicated the shabbat to Black History Month. In addition to my dvar torah, which was on the theme of “Racism in America”, we sponsored an afternoon of learning that featured a panel of three people of color, breakout discussion groups and then, a final, plenary session to assess the themes that emerged in the course of the day. Following the practice that has become standard in progressive circles for some time, the Jews and non-Jews of color who were with us were in one breakout group. The rest of the White participants were distributed into several other, all-White breakout groups. I expected some resistance to the way we divided the group and, in fact, it became a topic of conversation in our closing session.
This article appeared in the Times of Israel on February 11, 2021.
The explosion of interest in understanding the roots of systemic racism in America since the killing of George Floyd has brought to the fore a shelfful of books, including Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, that explain why we separated the attendees for their breakout conversations. We now better understand that rooting out racism in America requires every ethnic and religious community to look at its own cultural heritage and come to grips with the implicit bias that it might contain.
This work is hard and it generates much resistance, even anger, from White people, many of whom, consider themselves the “good guys” on issues of race in America. I have both participated in and facilitated dozens of discussions on racism over the past few years and the mere mention of White privilege or White supremacy gets the White people in the room very worked up. Most Black activists have lost patience with spending time in these spaces. Their view is that unless and until White people are prepared to come to grips with how much the language, customs and practices of American society privileges White people and marginalizes (if not worse) people of color, it will be impossible to make any progress on eradicating racism in this country. It took me a while to get “woke” to this truth but once you see it, it becomes inescapable.
I brought this newfound consciousness to the Torah reading this past shabbat, which included Ex 19:5-6, the source for the concept of Jews as “the chosen people”: “If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine. You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” I am well aware of how it is possible to spin this passage in ways that soften it. Jews are the “choosing people”; Jews take it upon themselves to bring ethical monotheism to the world; Jews need to live in accordance with a higher standard of morality.
But that is not what the Biblical text says. It says that God selected the Jews to be his special people, choosing them from all the other people in the world. And I also know how many Jews seize upon the idea of Jews as the chosen people to support their belief that Jews are smarter, better and more deserving than gentiles.
I was raised in a traditionally observant Jewish home. Daily, I recited the morning blessing, thanking God for “not making me a gentile” (shelo asani goy). I also have a memory, seared into my mind, of my 5th grade Talmud teacher at yeshiva screaming at the Black custodian who brought in a tray of wine for kiddush on Friday afternoon, yelling at him for making the wine traife (unkosher) because it was touched by a gentile. I am hardly the first person to note how often Jews behave in cruel and insensitive ways in the service to upholding some Jewish law. My Talmud teacher was correct that there is an halachic prohibition against a gentile touching kosher wine, but his behavior was one of many experiences that I had which made me believe that there had to be a better way to be Jewish.
Perhaps this explains why I was drawn early in my life to the thought of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan’s teachings about Judaism as an evolving, religious civilization; on the need for Judaism to be centered on social justice; and a God who was a source for how Jews could realize their highest human potential, both ethically and spiritually, spoke to me. Even though the movement Kaplan spawned remains small, many of his ideas became central to the teaching of both Reform and Conservative Judaism.
Except when it came to his teaching about the chosen people. Kaplan rejected the idea outright for three reasons. His theology could not support the idea of a personal God who chose one people above all other peoples on earth. He saw how the idea of choseness was taken by both Christians and Muslims to argue that each, in turn, “replaced” the Jews as God’s chosen people. And he understood that such a replacement theology by other faith traditions would forever be a source that generated hatred, rejection and, if necessary, annihilation of the Jews. Yet, in a major study on “Reconstructionism and American Jewish Life” by Charles Liebman, published as the lead article in the 1970 American Jewish Yearbook, Liebman found that even as most Jews agreed with many of Kaplan’s ideas, they were not prepared to abandon the idea of Jews as the chosen people.
We are becoming increasingly aware of how deeply tribal our world is. Throughout history, political leaders learned that one path to power was by promoting one group over other groups, who got portrayed as “dangerous” and a “threat to national survival”. Donald Trump used this strategy to win the U.S. Presidency and recruit a stridently loyal following. The hatred and divisiveness left in the wake of his Presidency has challenged the very basis of this country’s democratic fabric.
Even before the start of World War II, Mordecai Kaplan warned that ethnocentrism was what prevented religion from being a force for good in the world. It is not hard to cite how many people were slaughtered through the centuries in “the name of God” by fervent believers of all faiths. Kaplan believed that rejecting the chosen people idea would be one way to send a signal that some teachings of religion could be pernicious. Perhaps, he believed, other religions and cultures might also root out their own triumphalism that plants the seed for intolerance in the world.
Just as the feminist movement raised our consciousness about how male-centric language needed to be modified if we were to make society more equitable to women, so too, anti-racist activists have made us more conscious of how language reinforces implicit prejudice in people. In the mid-20th century, Mordecai Kaplan and his colleagues edited out ethnocentric passages in the Jewish prayer book. The blessing recited by Jews when they have an aliyah to the Torah, reads: “God…who has chosen us from among all the nations” (asher bachar banu mikol ha-amim). The Reconstructionist prayer book substituted: “God…who has brought us closer to serving the One” (asher karvanu l’avodato). In so doing, the prayer conveyed, not “privilege” but “vocation”. What is required of Jews who want to follow the Torah?
In a similar spirit, the first Reconstructionist Passover Haggadah, published around the same time, eliminated the passage that read: “God…pour out your wrath on the gentiles (shfoch hamatcha al hagoyim). For these heresies, Kaplan’s prayer books were burned at a public ceremony sponsored by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada at the Hotel McAlpin in Manhattan in June 1945 and Kaplan himself was “excommunicated”.
Behind Kaplan’s liturgical changes was his deeply held belief that all religions were equally valid paths to Truth and righteous living. He saw how values central to Judaism, such as compassion, concern for the poor and vulnerable, care for creation and charity were shared by many faith traditions. What differentiated religions was the particular customs, ceremonies and liturgy used to clothe those universal principles. It is interesting that some 60 years after the public burning of Kaplan’s prayer book, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks published The Dignity of Difference (2002) which echoed many of Kaplan’s ideas about religious pluralism. Serving at the time as the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Sacks was heavily criticized by right-wing Orthodox rabbis in the community and he was forced to re-write certain “offending passages” and re-issue his book in order to remain in good standing, given his highly political position.
Many Jews today want to help rid our society of systemic racism and serve as good allies to communities of color. But in addition to the required “homework” that we have to do as White Americans to root out the many ways that White privilege reinforces the marginalization of people of color in all sectors of society, we also have homework to do as American Jews. The chosen people idea may strike us as benign and a source of ethnic pride. Yet if we understand the extent to which ethnocentrism perpetuates a belief in a hierarchy of human worth (Jewish superiority), then we must recognize that the idea of “choseness” is a barrier to a world in which every human being is seen as made in the image of God, worthy of respect and honor. In The Dignity of Difference, Jonathan Sacks challenges his readers “to see the face of God in those who are not ‘in our image’”.
I am not naïve. It is not likely that the Jewish world will follow Kaplan’s attempt to edit the chosen people idea out of our tradition’s lexicon. Nor am I under any illusion that, even if that were to happen, anti-Semites would suddenly think and behave differently towards Jews. But, in the end, religion should be about the raising of consciousness. If we think that Judaism can be a force for social transformation and harmony, we need to be more sensitive about the way we talk about the heritage that we love and what it implies about our neighbors who are not members of the tribe.