Explaining Reconstructionism – Chelm Style

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

Chelm’s rabbi, Reb Dovid, was not a tall man. To reach the top row of his bookshelf, he had to stand on a crate, and on top of the crate he had to put another crate. One morning, as he was deep into his studies, he went reaching for a book on the top shelf to look up a word in his dictionary, and “Crash!” He flew off the crates and landed head first on the carpet! He was knocked out cold. He lay on the floor for nearly a minute. “Where am I?” he said as he got back on his feet. He didn’t recognize his own library. “Honey, what happened?” his wife, running in from the porch, called out. He looked at her up and down. “Who are you?” he said. The rabbi went into the cupboard and made a sandwich. He put a nice piece of cheese right on top of a piece of salami. The great Rabbi had forgotten the laws of keeping kosher. He took a bite without saying the brucha. He’d forgotten everything about his precious religion.

The town council met. “What are we going to do?” people shouted. The Mayor stood and spoke: “The rabbi remembers nothing! He is the only one who knows the laws and the stories that explain them–So we cannot continue with the religion of Judaism. We will have to create a new religion. Let us have a contest between the two smartest people in Chelm. They will create a new religion, and we will have a discussion and vote on it. I appoint Lev, the water carrier, and Shayna the dressmaker to bring us new religions by the next full moon!

As the moon grew from a tiny sliver to a bright, glowing light Lev the water carrier and Shayna the dressmaker thought about what the new religion would be based on. Who would they pray to? What would be the holidays? What would be the sacred places?

The full moon came and they were called to the town hall. The mayor rose, and announced: “Present us with our choice of religions!”

Lev began:

“We all need water to live. We must drink water, our bodies contain water, we use water to take a bath. So we should acknowledge the greatness of water. Every morning when we wake up, we should have a sacred holy act of taking a bath. Three times a day we shall drink a glass of water and say “Praised be water, the source of life”. Every time that it rains there should be a holiday. We will have a special ceremony when a child learns how to swim—then they will be called an adult. Any couple wishing to get married will simply take a bath together. The holiest place of all will be the ocean, which we will all visit every summer!”

The crowd applauded with delight. What a wonderful religion! Then Shayna got up and spoke:

“Why pray to water? Water can be muddy and yucky. It could have bugs in it. The ocean water smells like dead fish! Would you want to pray to something like that? We should pray to things that are beautiful and protect us. So I ask — what makes us beautiful? What protects us? The answer is simple–clothing. Look at all the colors–the reds, and blues and yellows and greens. When we get dressed in the morning we should say “Thank you shirt for making the world look nice!” We should say “Thank you sweater for keeping me warm, thank you belt for holding up my pants, thank you shoes for protecting my feet.” Clothes are very special objects—look how we care for them and fold them and admire them. In the clothes religion, every year we will have a shopping holiday, when everyone will purchase a new outfit of clothing. We will have another holiday when people exchange gifts of clothing. And we will celebrate with a costume ball. When a person learns to sew, they will be called an adult. When a couple wants to be married, they will purchase matching outfits. The holiest place of all will be the pasture where the sheep graze, because that is where the wool comes from to make clothes!”

The people of Chelm began to argue? “Water or clothes? What is more important? Without water we’d only have juice or milk to drink!” they said, “Without clothes we’d be running around naked like animals!” They discussed the issue for hours and hours. The debate went on, and more questions arose, and the people could not make a decision. Finally, the Mayor arose to speak.

“Citizens of Chelm,” he said, “ I have come to a decision, we can not decide between water and clothing, but we can all agree that we like to come together and have a discussion. Therefore we will have a new religion called the discussion religion. Each full moon we will have a community discussion night. Everyday at breakfast people should discuss a matter of importance with their family members. When a child can lead a discussion, they will be called an adult, when a couple would like to be married, they should discuss it. The holy place will be any place you have a conversation!”

The people applauded. They took a vote and everyone voted ‘yes’ for the discussion religion.

Just then the rabbi ran in, waving matzahs in his hands. “What is going on Rabbi?”

“I just got my memory back! I remember our religion!” he said, “ Tonight is Passover we must eat Matzah, and drink wine and eat horseradish, and charoset!

The Mayor delcared: “But Rabbi, we have already voted on a new religion! We cannot reverse our vote! It is against the by-laws of Chelm!”

The Rabbi thought, scratched his head, and then he declared: “I have a solution to the problem. Let us put the two religions together, we will have a discussion of Judaism, and we’ll have it at my house at the seder table!”

And so they all went to the Rabbi’s house for Passover and thus reconstructionism was born in Chelm.

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