Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Following the series of interfaith engagements, Global Ministries’ Atlanta office organized another Mission Dialogue Forum on June 27th, 2018. This time our lecturer was Rabbi Joshua Lesser, who leads Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta. Rabbi Lesser belongs to the tradition of Reconstructionist Judaism.
Reconstructionist Judaism is a socio-politically and religiously progressive Jewish movement that is the smallest and youngest of the so-called “big four” American Jewish denominations; the big four being the Orthodox, the Reform, the Conservative and the Reconstructionist. Reconstructionist Judaism was founded in 1922 in the US by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) in an attempt to adapt classical Judaism to modernity, science, art and reason.
Rabbi Lesser has emphasized several key ideas of reconstructionist Judaism. Let me highlight four of them:
1. Judaism as a civilization: Judaism is understood not just as a religious movement but as a movement of civilization which is active in the world and responding to the changing world and society at large. For Kaplan the term "civilization" has been central to explain his reconstructionist form (Judaism as a Civilization (1934 by Kaplan). Judaism was the evolving religious civilization. Influenced by the ideas of modern social sciences, Kaplan retold the story of Jewish history through the conceptual framework of evolution, arguing that change was central to Jewish development over time. His concept of civilization embraced the aesthetics, artforms, music, laws, science and social transformation in an open way.
2. Inclusive community: Judaism should be inclusive people where Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers are accepted as fully Jewish, non-Jews are welcomed as major participants in community life, intermarriage (with some restrictions) is permitted, women have full rights, and people of any sexual orientation are accorded equal rights. Reconstructionists appreciate the universal nature of human dignity, rights, values and the global nature of humanity.
3. Social Justice: Judaism and working for social justice are inseparable. Tikkun olam - which means 'repairing the world' through social action - is a way to live out Jewish values. Therefore, working for social justice is a spiritual practice, like prayer, meditation and study. Working for social justice takes humanity closer to realizing "a Messianic age" in this world. Working for social justice is the way to achieve salvation in this world, which is the only world in which salvation can be achieved.
4. Prayer Life: Reconstructionists don't believe that they must pray in order to comply with religious law, but they do regard prayer as being very important, because it is a way of finding and expressing meaning and values. The effect of prayer is the change that it brings about in the person doing the praying, or in the praying community as a whole. Prayer serves many purposes: prayer reinforces values, prayer creates community and brings the community together, prayer connects the individual with other Jewish people, prayer connects the individual to history, prayer acknowledges that human beings are not all-powerful, prayer deepens spiritual lives, prayer increases connection with God (or with godliness), prayer increases awareness of what people hope for in their lives, prayer increases awareness of what people are grateful for in their lives.
Recent Pew research says as of 2010, there were about 14 million Jews around the world, representing 0.2% of the global population. In 2050, the Jewish population is expected to number about 16 million. The share of the world’s population that is Jewish – 0.2% – is expected to remain about the same in 2050 as it was in 2010. http://www.globalreligiousfutures.org/religions/jews
A Washington Post article analyzing the US Jewish demographics highlighted that ‘in 2016, the American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis University estimated the U.S. Jewish population at 7.2 million. The American Jewish Year Book estimated 6.9 mllion’. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/02/23/measuring-the-size-of-the-u-s-jewish-population-comes-down-to-identity/?utm_term=.f38e3a919959
Rabbi Lesser also emphasized the need of Jews and Christians to engage in dialogue and also of all faiths working together for a better world, global peace and justice. There has been a growing interest in Jewish-Christian Dialogue in the last several decades; some of these encounters have been led by the World Council of Churches and others by the individual denominations. Encouraging Jewish-Christian dialogue, the United Methodists also have resolved (Book of Resolutions 2016) that:
"While the Jewish and Christian traditions understand and express their faith in the same God in significantly different ways, we believe with Paul that God, who was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self (2 Corinthians 5:18-19), is none other than the God of Israel, maker of heaven and earth. Above all else, Christians and Jews are bonded in our joyful and faithful response to the one God, living our faith as each understands God’s call."
The same resolution emphasized that as United Methodist Christians, we are deeply affected by the anguish and suffering that continue for many people who live in the Middle East region that includes modern Israel. In responding to this call, the UMC mission agency Global Ministries has partnered with the World Methodist Council and the Methodist Church UK in creating a liaison office in Jerusalem to work for peace, justice and reconciliation.