As a rabbi, I try to encourage us to explore every aspect of our identities, and I recognize that our ideas – even about ourselves – change over time.
Each year, our confirmands ascend the bimah on the festival of Shavuot to formally confirm their place as part of Beth Ami and the Jewish people. During the service, they will read statements about what it means to them to be Jewish. For many, hearing these statements is a powerful reminder, and sometimes a meaningful challenge. What does being Jewish mean to each of us?
The answer is deeply personal and varies from person to person. However, there is a beautiful frame which can help us find our own answers.
Anyone who has studied a second (or third) language, knows that in order to understand a language, we must also learn the culture of those who speak it. That is why great literature almost always loses something in translation, no matter how skilled the translator. Part of our challenge as American Jews is that we speak English, a language created and developed in a Christian society, which reflects Christian ideas and ideals. It is not well suited for describing what it means to be a Jew. The definition of religion is: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency.” In other words, it is all about belief. Those who believe the central tenants of Christianity are Christian, those who do not, are not. However, for us, things are not so simple. If we really want to get somewhere, we need to turn to our language, to Hebrew. In Hebrew we are called: B’nei Yisrael – the children of Israel.
What does that mean?
Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism conceived of a layered answer:
First, we are all descended from the same man, whose name was changed from Jacob to Israel. We do not see ourselves merely as his spiritual descendants but as his genetic stock. With this in mind, Kaplan describes us as a large extended family.
Second, we are also a nation. The modern state of Israel is the third Jewish commonwealth in our ancient homeland.
Third, we are a religion, in a covenantal relationship with the Eternal.
Fourth, we are a culture, with our own languages, art, music, etc.
Fifth, we are an ethnicity (i.e. Jewish-Americans)
Taken together, these five things, according to Kaplan, we are not a religion but a civilization. We are a civilization with strong familial, national, religious, cultural and ethnic components. This is why some of us are more religious, others more cultural, and others still more focused on our national interests. As a rabbi, I try to encourage us to explore every aspect of our identities, and I recognize that our ideas – even about ourselves – change over time.
One of the best ways to explore all five aspects of being Jewish is to travel to Israel, with your rabbi! Our next congregational trip to Israel is already in the works, and details can be found on our website at https://bethami.org/jewish-life/israel/. In addition, we will be getting together for an informational session on Wednesday, May 22 at 7:30 pm, when I will share more details about the trip and answer your questions. Please rsvp to Susan Neumann at email@example.com so that we can have enough seats set for everyone.
Finally, whether you will be coming to Israel or not, we can all celebrate our Jewish identity with our Confirmation students on Shavuot, June 9, at 10:30 am. Who knows, you might even be inspired to think a little more about, well, you!
Rabbi Gary Pokras