You Shall Pursue

January 9, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 3: Two Civilizations

Filed under: Choosing Life, Rabbinical School, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 1:30 pm

I am writing this to you on a computer, in English, wearing blue jeans, in the city of Philadelphia in the country of the United States. What does that have to do with Judaism? According to Kaplan, quite a lot.

While Kaplan wrote extensively on the “Jewish civilization,” he did not see Judaism as a bounded, separate entity from the rest of the world. Quite the opposite, in fact. He recognized that Judaism is affected by the broader civilizations in which the Jews live. From Aristotle’s influence on Maimonides to Polish music’s influence on klezmer, Judaism has always borrowed from the surrounding culture and made elements its own. And he hoped that a thriving, healthy American society would, in turn, help Judaism to thrive. In particular, he was excited about how democratic ideals could help make Judaism more participatory and open to its laity.

When Kaplan put forth his idea of “Judaism as a Civilization,” he was advocating that Judaism should be respected and celebrated in a way that was uncommon for religious and ethnic minorities in his day. The prevailing paradigm for Americanization in the earliest years of the 20th century was an assimilation into WASP culture, which was identified as American and pushed onto minorities as a condition for social acceptance. So when Kaplan calls Judaism a civilization, he is not just advocating that Jews take Jewish ritual, religion, and culture seriously. He is also advocating that ALL Americans take the Jewish project seriously, rather than an identity that Jews must shed outside of the synagogue to become “real Americans.”

Things have changed, to say the least. Multiculturalism is still a challenge in America (see: FOX New’s “War on Christmas” stories every December, current anti-Islam hysteria) but, in general, we accept that Americans can proudly celebrate and embrace a variety of identities and still be wholly American. It is very rare that we are asked to justify how we can consider ourselves both loyal Americans and Jews. And in many cases, this leads to Jewish people identifying much stronger with the American Civilization than the Jewish one.

The question is where that leaves us as a community. Predictions of doom and gloom aside, from where I stand Jews are still innovating, passionate, and fighting to keep their civilization vibrant. I am really not interested in talking about whether or not Judaism is going to survive the next generation, or the next dozen. What I am interested in discussing is how Jews who are invested in the Jewish civilization can make that passion, investment, and innovation clear to Jews who may be rejecting a sixty-year old version of Judaism, when there are pockets that addressed their concerns decades ago (see: Jews who are angry at “Judaism” for rejecting interfaith families when I am in rabbinical school).

Part of this is adapting to modern American tools of information dissemination. Part of the reason I am writing this blog is so that there is another young, liberal, religious voice out there talking about social justice, God, and what it really means to become part of the clergy (I’ll talk about this more later). Part of this is fighting against a very real and painful tendency for the most Jewishly invested members of our community to ghettoize. Since coming to rabbinical school, I spend the vast majority of my time around other rabbinical students, and other religious Jews. But I also dance, and keep in touch with my friends from high school, and go to church with my grandmother on Christmas, and in small ways I try to stay open and enthusiastic about my work and my Judaism while firmly embracing the parts of myself that are in love with broader American society.

And last, and perhaps most counterintuitively, I think that we as a community need to become more comfortable about the fact that ALL Jews live in multiple worlds, and dip back and forth between them at different times throughout their lives. The more we can acknowledge the challenges of balancing between two worlds, both our own and those faced by the people we are trying to serve, the easier it will be to convince people that the values, education, and rituals in the Jewish civilization are worth clinging to.

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