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The Power of "We" - Kol Nidre 5782

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

In a few minutes, we will recite the “Aleynu” prayer, that begins with these words: “Aleynu l’shabe’ach la’Adon hakol, la-tet gedulah l’yotzer bereshit” – “It is up to us to praise the Source of all, to declare the greatness of the Creator.”  This prayer was originally composed for the Rosh Hashanah service some time in the early rabbinic period, two thousand years ago, and then at some point became part of the daily liturgy. 

The traditional Aleynu goes on to say: “sh’lo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot, v’lo samanu k’mishpachot ha’adamah, sh’lo sam chelkenu ka’hem, v’goralenu k’chol hamonam.” This translates literally as: “Who has not made us like the other nations of the earth, or given us a portion like theirs, or a destiny like all the others.”  The original version of this prayer had an additional sentence, which was removed from Ashkenazi Jewish prayerbooks during the Middle Ages in Christian Europe:  “For they worship vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save.” 

In the 1940s, when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and his compatriots decided to publish a Reconstructionist prayerbook, they removed all of the references to Jews being the chosen people.  Kaplan felt very strongly that it was impossible to disentangle the idea that Jews and Judaism were somehow superior to others from the notion of chosenness.  Chosenness was a concept that was, in Kaplan’s view, un-reconstructable; it simply could not be made palatable in a pluralistic, democratic society like America.  And so in our prayerbook today the erev Shabbat Kiddush, the blessing we say when we are called to the Torah, the havdallah blessings and the Aleynu prayer have different language than in any other Jewish prayerbook.  Following Kaplan, we remove references to chosenness and substitute the idea of vocation – that is, that as Jews our path to universal truth is a particular one, the path of Torah.  It is particular to us, but we do not need to compare it to any other path. In the Aleynu, we say that God is the Power “sh’natan lanu Torah emet, v’chayei olam nata b’tochenu” – that “gave us a Torah, a teaching, of truth, and planted within us eternal life.” 

But I want to go back to that very first word of the “Aleynu” – “It is up to us.”  The Aleynu prayer, like much of our liturgy, is stated in the first-person plural. There is a lot of “we,” a lot of “us,” in Jewish liturgy.  Tonight we recited the Kol Nidre prayer, asking to be lifted from the burdens of all oaths which we might have sworn. We chanted “Ashamnu” and  “Al hayt sh’chatanu” – taking responsibility for the transgressions which we have committed. 

The concept of “we” is powerful, and it can also be problematic.  As Kaplan taught, sometimes the Jewish “we” has taken an unsavory turn, promoting the idea, whether consciously or not, that Jews and Judaism are superior to those around us.  Sometimes “we” is problematic not because it implies superiority, but simply because it is unclear who it includes, and who it excludes.  The word “we” can make a lot of assumptions. 

With gratitude to Sue Lanser, who shared with me an article that she wrote in 1986 called “Who Are the ‘We’? The Shifting Terms of Feminist Discourse” (Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall - Winter 1986) this problem of who exactly is “we” is one that challenges not only Jews.  “We” is an attempt to connect me and you, whomever the ‘you’ might be.  As Sue writes, “’We’ allows me to seek and join you on what I hope is common ground.”  However, “we” is also problematic, because of the danger that I am assuming that the others joining me in “we” are just like me.  To quote Sue again: “This is why ‘we’ always risks erasing you, distorting you, absorbing you.’” 

This issue of who exactly is “we” is one that Dorshei Tzedek has been wrestling with as we seek to become a conregation that reflects not only our core values, but also the reality of the global Jewish community.  It is something our movement as a whole and the American Jewish community is wrestling with as well.  As a congregation, as a movement, “we” are predominantly white, predominantly Ashkenazi, predominantly middle and upper-middle class.  But of course that is not only who we are. Like the rest of American Jewry, we are also Black and Latine, Asian and Native American.  We are working class, and Sephardic, and people who are not Jewish but have chosen to connect themselves to the Jewish people. Our “we” is quite varied, which is a wonderful thing. 

As the rabbi of Dorshei Tzedek, I am often confronted with the challenge of when and how to use that word “we.”  As a congregation, we have made a commitment to work for justice—social, economic, environmental and racial justice.  Indeed, to work effectively for justice in America entails an understanding that the fundamental American sin of racism is implicated in all of the injustices we are battling.  And so our community has engaged in struggles for racial justice out in the world—in working to transform the criminal justice system, working for affordable housing and workers’ rights, in responding to the targeting of Black and brown immigrants, and more.  We have also taken this on in regard to our own community, striving to become actively anti-racist internally as well as externally. As a congregation, we have made a commitment to become a place where all of our members, children and adults, will truly find a home, a place to be celebrated and not harmed.

Yet it is precisely in this commitment that our “we” becomes complicated.  There are those of us in the congregation with lived experience of racism in America, and those of us who need to learn about it. There are those of us with white skin privilege, like me, who perpetrate racism, even if unconsciously, and those of us, Black people, people of color, Indigenous people, who have been the targets of that racism.

And this is not a problem particular to CDT.  A recent, in-depth survey of over 1,000 Jews of Color from around the U.S. called “Beyond the Count” quantified what too many American Jews know from their personal experience.  75% of those surveyed affirmed the statement that “others have made assumptions about me based on my skin tone.”  74% agreed with the statement, “I have felt burdened with explaining myself/my identity.”  Over 60% said that they agreed with the statements, “I have been asked questions about my race/ethnicity that made me uncomfortable” and “I have experienced stress due to being the only member of my race/ethnicity.”

I want to share some words from my colleague, Rabbi Sandra Lawson, a Black Jew who is  the inaugural director of Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism.  She writes:

“When I officially joined the Jewish people in 2004, I imagined and believed, perhaps naively, what I was told, which is once you convert to Judaism, you are a member of the tribe, you are part of the Jewish people. Though I love Judaism and the Jewish community with all my heart, too often I’ve been made to feel different, other.  In America, there still exists an unspoken assumption that American Jews are white. In previous generations, American Jews relied on stereotypical identifiers to discern if someone was Jewish. Today, communities must understand that those stereotypical markers are, to an increasing degree, incorrect and unreliable”  (Grounded in Gratitude: Tackling Systemic Racism with Open Hearts, May 2021). 

What Rabbi Lawson names here is the way in which some of us Jews of European descent exercise our “we-ness” by trying to figure out who is Jewish, often based on nothing more than a last name, or a physical look we associate with Jewishness, or maybe a type of Brooklyn accent.  Too often white Jews ask inappropriate questions of Asian or Black or brown Jews, trying to figure out how “they” are Jewish.  When white Jews do this, the “we” has been broken, or has been revealed as a lie, a distortion, a cause of harm rather than connection. 

There are times when I do think it is important for those of us who are white to use “we” to refer to ourselves – not as Jews, but as people who have the status of white people in American society, regardless of whether or not we think of ourselves as white.  Whiteness means power and access in our society, and it is a status that is conferred, not one that is chosen.  Sometimes, as the white-skinned rabbi of a multi-racial congregation, I need to name the we-ness that is white people, as part of taking responsibility for an oppression that benefits me on some level, and as a person who can inflict harm, even if entirely unintentionally. 

At other times, I need to acknowledge that there is a “we-ness” among other Jews that I don’t share – for example, that the Black Jews in our community have experienced slavery not just in the ancient Jewish narrative of the Exodus, but in the all too real, all too recent history of the Americas.  I cannot know what it feels like to sit at a seder table with that personal experience.  I cannot know, but I can learn from those who have had that experience, and in so doing try to become a better member of the “we” of the global Jewish community.

There are other ways in which our “we” remains complicated, and demands attention.  The congregation has begun to take on the work of being more accessible to people with disabilities, as well as working to shift our awareness around able-ism, so that our community can nurture and truly appreciate all of our members.  This is work that will expand our capacity to better care for one another, and that will hopefully enable all of us to bring our whole selves to the community.  We are working on our “we” when it comes to the topic of Israel/Palestine, figuring out how to honor the wide range of experiences and opinions in our community.  And as the community becomes more openly supportive and celebrative of our trans and non-binary and gender non-confirming members, adults and kids, our “we” is expanding in beautiful ways.

So, the work of “we” continues.  There is often a tendency, especially for those in the majority, to make unconscious assumptions that my “we” includes everyone in the community.  That “we” are all married, that “we” all have children,  that “we” all have advanced degrees or own our homes or have bodies that function exactly like mine does. That “we” are all Democrats, or share the same opinions on every issue. I am fairly certain that many of our members have felt like an “other” at one time or another, as the “we” of that moment fails to include us.  Greater awareness of the limitations of saying “we” can be a very helpful thing for our communal conversations.”  Before you say “we,” pause a moment to reflect on who might be erased or unintentionally excluded by that little pronoun.  It’s often fine to just say “I,” and let others to decide if they are part of your “we.”

The “Aleynu” is a messianic prayer. It imagines a day when all peoples, all nations, will come together in the realization that Adonai – the Source of Life, the Cosmic Power of the Universe – is One.  It proclaims that on that day, “we” will be real – that no one will be excluded, no one treated as “other,” but all celebrated as b’tzelem Elohim, created in the divine image. So until that day, may we be both aspirational and careful with our use of “we.”  May we honor and celebrate our differences, and also own our biases.

As Sue wrote in her article, there is an aspirational “we,” whose “power is to forge unity without erasing any one of us.”  This is the hopeful “we,” the “we” that invites us together as a community to create a better world, a “we” that helps us realize that until the world is repaired for everyone, no one of us is truly safe, none of us is truly free.  May we, all of us, merit to see that day. 


Rabbi Toba Spitzer 
Kol Nidre 5782

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784