October Newsletter Article

Between Israel and the Nations When I practiced as a psychotherapist I learned a valuable lesson – what people tell you is not nearly as important, at times, as what people leave out. So it peaks my interest when our newsletter editor quotes from the Havdalah blessing that is in our prayer book, Kol Haneshama.  “Blessed are You……..who separates between holy and ordinary, between light and dark, between the seventh day and the six days of work.”  What phrase did our prayer book leave out of the traditional blessing? It is the phrase “Bein yisrael le-amim” — “Between Israel and the nations.”  The traditional prayer blesses G-d for separating Israel from the rest of the nations of the world.  Our Reconstructionist prayer book omits these words, without offering an explanation. Our prayer book does have a note, on page 444, which is relevant to the editorial decision to delete this phrase from our Havdalah prayer. “The traditional Aleynu ….. has troubled Reconstructionist Jews because it implies inferiority of other faiths and other peoples,” explain the editors.  They are concerned about Jewish chauvinism.  They are concerned that Jewish people will understand the prayer as saying not that Jews are “different” from others, but that Jews are “better” than others.  That is a legitimate worry, as Heaven knows we have our Jewish chauvinists.  Throughout the prayer book, the editors address this issue by changing the traditional language of the few prayers that can be misinterpreted in this way. Or, perhaps, it is the idea that Jews are “different” that makes us uncomfortable.  As Chicago writer Joseph Epstein beautifully puts it, “At the center of Judaism, if not always at the center of Jewish life, is separateness. Part of the burden of being, as the Bible specified, G-d’s “chosen people” was that Jews were to declare and maintain their separateness, which they did in myriad ways: through circumcision, through dietary laws, through hundreds of small rituals that qualified a Jew to call himself ‘observant’.” Jews have been struggling with the issue of separateness ever since the French National Assembly invited Jews to become French citizens with the same rights and obligations as other Frenchmen in 1791. If “separateness” is indeed, as Epstein says, at the center of Jewish life, how does one maintain it while fully participating in the national life of the country in which one is a citizen? If we give up most of the ways that set us apart – dietary laws, reading Hebrew, synagogue attendance, most home rituals, Sabbath observance, Jewish study – as many have, how do we maintain our difference as a distinct people?  How do the Jewish people keep from being swallowed up by the majority culture if we fail to practice our distinctive way of life? We are caught between a rock and a hard place. Epstein quotes writer Frederic Raphael in a lecture on Anti-Semitism: “If assimilated, the Jew becomes indistinguishable; if he insists on being indigestible he sticks in the throat of the world.” [1] Such dilemmas cannot be addressed by deleting some words from our prayer book.  Let the words remain, and make us uncomfortable, so we are forced to struggle with the issue of separateness and assimilation.        

[1] Epstein, Joseph  Envy  Oxford University Press 2003