By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
This article was written for the May 2021 edition of the Washtenaw Jewish News
On May 16th, Jews around the world will celebrate Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates our receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Why did I write ‘our,’ rather than ‘their’? Because tradition teaches (Shevuot 39a) that when the Torah was given, every Jew was standing at Sinai, including the souls of all Jews (and converts to Judaism) who would ever be born.
The idea that every soul was present at Sinai means that each one of us has a natural connection to God, Torah, and every other Jew that ever lived. This is a powerful birthright. But it might also be felt as a burden.
A burden in what way? Well, I’ve had countless conversations with Jews across the denominational spectrum who insist that they’re ‘not a good Jew,’ meaning not knowledgeable enough, or not committed enough, or not connected enough. Weighted down with overblown expectations of what it looks like to be ‘a good Jew’ and shame for not meeting those expectations, it’s no surprise that for many, Judaism can feel like an albatross.
And ours isn’t the first generation to feel this way. According to one midrash (Shabbat 88a), during revelation, God held a mountain over the Israelites’ heads and threatened: “Either accept the Torah or this shall be your burial place!” From the very beginning, we have some interpreting our religion as coercive and burdensome. But that’s not the only way.
In Reconstructionist Judaism, we understand that wrestling with God and our received tradition is part and parcel of being Jewish. It can be generative and joyful, especially when done in the company of fellow seekers. Reconstructionist Judaism also teaches that the past has a vote but not a veto. As the living embodiment of Judaism, we get to discern which aspects of Judaism support our moral vision for ourselves and for the world. We get to choose what kind of relationship to have to commandments, culture, history, and communities.
This perspective is also rooted in our tradition. Even as one midrash imagines God holding the mountain over our heads as a threat, another describes the mountain as a magnificent chuppah for the wedding between Israel and God (Mechilta Bachodesh 3).
This is the story I prefer: That being Jewish is a choice we make to be in relationship. It’s a choice that we get to affirm daily, weekly, monthly. It’s a choice that makes room for joy. And we are encouraged to come to the relationship with the fullness of who we are and who we are striving to become.
May is Open House Month at the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation. We welcome all visitors to our Zoom Shabbat services and programs, including Wednesday May 12th’s “What IS Reconstructionist Judaism: A Discussion with Rabbi Ora,” at 7:30 pm. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org; learn more at www.aarecon.org.