Attempting the Impossible: Eliminating Election from the Jewish Liturgy

By Kaminsky, Joel S. | Midstream, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

Attempting the Impossible: Eliminating Election from the Jewish Liturgy


Kaminsky, Joel S., Midstream


AUTHOR'S INTRODUCTORY NOTE: This article reflects on the internal Jewish debate over an idea that many antisemites claim is the root cause of their own hatred of the Jews. That is, the Jewish notion of being the chosen people leads Jews, according to many antisemites, to hate all non-Jews. If others dislike Jews it is because Jews have separated themselves from humanity at large. Thus, Jewish exclusivism is really to blame for antisemitism. While this charge is patently false, it has had enough resonance in the Jewish community to lead many liberal Jews to consider jettisoning the idea of God's election of the Jewish people. In the following article, I take a critical look at the Reconstructionist movement's attempt to eliminate the idea of chosenness by emending the Jewish liturgy.

Since the advent of Reform Judaism in 19th-century Germany, it has become clear that many liberal Jews who are active in synagogue life are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the synagogue liturgy. During the height of the classical Reform period, notions of the messianic return to Zion were toned down or eliminated from various prayers. In fact, the Reform Rabbinical Conference at Frankfurt in 1845 openly declared that "the wish to return to Palestine in order to cream there a political empire for those who are still oppressed because of their religion is superfluous." (1) Yet today, few Jews affiliated with any of the major movements of modern Judaism would question the centrality of Israel in modern Jewish life or see the centuries-old longing for a Jewish return to Zion as an outmoded idea whose usefulness has long passed. Similarly, the Pittsburgh Platform issued by the Reform movement in 1885 dismissed many Jewish practices as irrelevant, archaic rituals no longer compatible with modernity. (2) In recent years, however, ritual is making a comeback, with many individuals and groups recognizing the deep spiritual and psychological importance that ritual plays in life. These examples demonstrate that the tendency to jettison a central theological idea or an important stream of religious thinking by emending the liturgy and life practice of the community to fit contemporary mores is sometimes shortsighted or even downright foolish.

Yet there are liturgical and theological innovations that appear likely to succeed in the long term. For example, adding the names of the four Matriarchs to the opening paragraph of the Standing Devotion (the Amidah), as is done in many liberal synagogues, strikes this reader as a winning strategy. Such an innovation has a greater chance of success both because of its modesty and because of the fact that it is in consonance, rather than utterly at odds with the major streams of Jewish theological thinking, as they have developed over many centuries.

In recent decades, there has been a growing discomfort among some Jews from all three of the more liberal Jewish movements (Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative) (3) with the notion of chosenness, the idea that the Jewish people were specially elected by God. The intellectual roots of this uneasiness are articulated as far back as the Reform prayer book adopted by the Berlin Reform Congregation in 1844:

   [T]he concept of holiness and of a special vocation arising
   from this has become entirely foreign to us, as has the
   idea of an intimate covenant between God and Israel
   which is to remain significant for all eternity. Human
   character and dignity, and God's image within us--these
   alone are signs of chosenness. (4)

This discomfort with the notion of Jewish election was further exacerbated within the pluralistic democratic environment of the United States, resulting in various attempts to redefine the meaning of election or find an alternative central purpose for the existence of the Jewish people. (5) In fact, Arnold Eisen has argued that the problem posed by the notion of election has driven much of the explicit theological discourse in American non-Orthodox Jewish circles over the past century. …

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