Monday, December 28, 2009

Selectiveness, Favoritism and Exclusive Privilege – A Few Important Lessons

So, as we continue to read about the travails and challenges of being Yoseph in the ongoing text of our Parshiot HaShavuah, one just has to wonder – what lessons do we learn here about favoritism and its impact? Yes, Yoseph was Yaakov’s favorite son, continuing a long tradition of parental favoritism in the families of Bereshit; the Jews (we are often taught and proclaim) are G-d’s favorite people, and so goes life! What are we to do about this predicament?

I often teach that if we would all stop screaming at each other within the Jewish community, there are many important lessons we can and certainly should learn from each other. Let’s consider one of the most profound and fundamental teachings of Reconstructionist Judaism for just a moment, understanding that it may be challenging for some of us to do so – and that, my friends, is exactly the point! By ideology, the notion that the Jewish people are chosen as G-d’s favorite is basically rejected in this particular ideological system. As a result of rejection of this belief, references to such a chosen status are removed from the rhythm and content of prayer in this part of our larger Jewish community. Why exactly have our Reconstructionist Jewish friends replaced the Bracha of “who has chosen us from all of the nations” with “bring us closer with [G-d’s] commandments,” to mention one such change?

Now, to be sure, many ritualistically observant and Halachically oriented Jews will bristle at the notion of changing the words of our time-honored Siddur text. However, instead of tsk-tsking, let us wonder for a moment about what exactly the Reconstructionist fathers (and mothers) saw that brought them to this decision. I remember having these discussions with some of the movement’s leaders years ago. These words were removed precisely, according to how it was explained to me, because they conveyed a sense of superiority and selectiveness, which runs counter-intuitive to the Reconstructionist dedication to inclusivity and the love for all Jews and all of mankind. What exactly is wrong with this idea, you may ask or not care to ask. So, I did pose the following question to one of my Reconstructionist Rabbi friends in these discussions so long ago: Could we clarify exactly what the Jews were chosen for and educate the masses regarding the responsibility and role modeling we were to take on; thus clarifying the words asher bachar banu instead of removing them? What then ensued was a rather lengthy conversation in which many others became involved regarding how members of OUR Jewish community take on the notion of chosenness with such a superior air and judge other Jews and members of the human family with such passion and prejudice, it is hard to get back to rooted meanings of chosenness. Much is being written on this very painful phenomenon at this point in time.

This was part of what brought many Reconstructionist Jews to take on the agenda of inclusivity and equality for and of all people as a foundational defining element of their identity. Within this framework, I believe that many Jews across the spectrum, if they (we!) can be objective for just a moment, would not necessarily disagree with this move. That being said, I think it is a justifiable argument to posit that chosenness does not always mean such things as superiority or being “better or more favored” than others, though it is understood that there are many textual and linguistic references that do convey exactly this idea. However, this is NOT the focus of this piece here.

Now, let us return to Yoseph and his position in his family. His father gives his favorite son a special gift, Yoseph reports his strange dreams to all and we are told that he reports back to his father about the behavior of his brothers in the field. This is not exactly the makings of wonderful sibling relationships, to be sure. Do we fault the brothers for their treatment of Yoseph and deceiving their father; or do we look at the favorite son and ask some hard questions about what one can and should do with such a status?

I often say that to blindly (or in very good faith!) justify all of the aberrant or questionable actions of our Avot v’Emahot might be missing the challenge that Ribbonu shel Olam is putting before us in these rich and troubled (as well as troubling) narratives. What if the power of these stories is to teach us what NOT to do as well as what to do? At the end of the Yoseph narrative, one could make the point that he is overcome with the ramifications of his own actions as well as the separation that has occurred for so many years between him and his own family. As one psychologist teaches, rejection or absence of a nuclear family member leaves a hole in one’s heart, shaped with the profile of the family member not in one’s life. How many holes were there in Yoseph’s heart and how comforted must he have been when the rifts were finally resolved on whatever level! Clearly, when speaking of fault there was much to go around. Who in this family behaved honorably concerning this relationship? To be sure, there are some ideas expressed by our commentators regarding this as well, all to be trumped by the notion that Yoseph was fulfilling some divine plan to be in a specific place at a specific time to fulfill a specific mission. If this is the focus, it is easy to look away at how the members of this family treated each other. However, my contention is that this is exactly what we are NOT supposed to do in terms of learning and absorbing the full strength of the lessons these stories come to teach us.

Today, we teach that EVERY CHILD and EVERY PERSON is special with their own talents, perceptions and what they offer. That is to say, EACH AND EVERY PERSON IS CHOSEN for SOME DEED or MISSION. If we could embrace this idea and come to the place where we many not always understand each other or what we are doing and learn to ask questions regarding these misunderstandings instead of hurling insults, perhaps we would be able to heed the teaching of our Reconstructionist friends and look at chosenness differently. Imagine what we could learn about ourselves and others in doing so!