Reconstructionist Judaism has been described by one of my great rabbinical school teachers, Rabbi Arthur Green, as religious humanism. He also teaches that the first and most important “commandment” of the Hebrew Bible is captured in Genesis 1:27 with the phrase “tzelem Elohim (the image of God).”
These are two essential teachings for me. They capture the ikar, the vital core that enlivens how I wish to be, and what I wish to do as a rabbi, a Jew and a person. That all beings are whole and holy wholly shapes my life and practices. Conferring wholeness and holiness to all is not solely a religious precept; it is also a moral and political one.
Seeking and working for universal human rights through a lens of tzelem Elohim is sometimes a treacherous endeavour these days. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, is regularly accused of traitorous views in the vilest language, typically by anonymous accusers on social media, but sometimes by mainstream Jewish organizational leaders. In this regard, she belongs to a large cohort of important – and Jewishly-committed – organization heads, rabbi, journalists and bloggers who are similarly targeted.
In this environment, the new U.S. president nominated a man to serve as U.S. ambassador to Israel who calls Jews who support certain organizations “kapos” (Jews assigned by the Nazis to supervise other Jews in forced labour and concentration camps). The vituperative name-calling of Jews by Jews is reaching a new 21st century low.
What has happened in the North American Jewish community is the fraying of solidarity, and the dissolution of a shared sense of the mandate to pursue justice – drawn from a key verse in Deuteronomy 16:1, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (justice shall you surely pursue).” This is not mere biblical verse cherry-picking. There is much embedded in the texts of our people to cause shock and awe, as well as inspiration and guidance. That’s why the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism holds up its evolving nature, which, like any living organism, absorbs and wrestles internally with the challenge of what to retain and sustain for its health and survival.
We have wrestled with liturgy and excised some specifics. In the Havdallah ritual at the end of Shabbat, in the Aleynu, the closing prayer of every public Jewish worship service, and in the blessing before the chanting of Torah, the Reconstructionist liturgy erases connotations of triumphalism, superiority or exclusive chosen-ness. We choose to say “Who has drawn us near in service,” rather than “Who has chosen us from among all peoples.” All the while, we retain our fierce commitment to sustain Judaism, Jewishness, and our ties to Am Yisrael (the people of Israel).
Despite such emendations, among others, we nonetheless recognize that, by sustaining in any way this Jewish identity, these religious practices, we are still seen as declaring that “He has not made us like the nations of the world, and has not placed us like the families of the earth; who has not designed out destiny to be like theirs, nor our lot like that of all their multitudes (translation of the Aleynu from “Siddur Hashalem,” Philip Birnbaum, editor). The eerie symmetry is in the separating out, by dint of slander, accusation, smear tactics and redlining (the practice of excluding Jews) certain Jewish activists and thought leaders from access to Jewish spaces and resources.
The effort proves illusory, for all of us – religious humanists and fervent fundamentalists alike – stood at Sinai. We know of tzelem Elohim because of the revelation at Sinai, the gift of Torah – matan Torah. We hold it up, teach it and sustain its preciousness to us without ignoring difference, but by affirming how variegated we are and how vital it is that we affirm the values of tzelem Elohim and Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.
In my hope for these times, I join with Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker in his declaration that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Both south of the 49th parallel and here within our borders, there is work to do to bend the arc.