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Kansas City Native Suggests Expansive Notion Of Judaism To Sustain The American Jewish Community

John Chase
Kansas City native and law professor Robert Mnookin.

Robert Mnookin grew up in the 1950s as a member of B’nai Jehudah, one of the biggest and oldest Jewish temples in Kansas City. But asked to describe himself, the Harvard law professor doesn’t immediately say, “I’m Jewish.”

“We all have many strands to our identity: I’m a father, a grandfather, a husband, a law professor, I’m a Harvard graduate, and I’m from Kansas City. And, I’m Jewish,” Mnookin told Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann.

The author and editor of several law-related books, he has written the just-published “The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World,” which discusses what it means to be Jewish in the United States today, and what that identity might look like in the future.

He said he hadn’t thought much about being Jewish until his daughter, then 11, came home from school and told him that during a religious education class, she had identified herself as Jewish. His daughter knew that was correct, but also felt a disconnect from her Jewish identity in practice.

“When are we going to become Jewish?” Mnookin’s daughter asked him and his wife.

In the past, he said, “being Jewish was not something you needed to choose to become, you just were, whether you liked it or not. It depended on descent.”

Jewish-ness was determined by the matrilineal principle: if your mother is Jewish, you are too.

However, he said, “I think in the future, for my grandchildren’s generation and beyond, this is no longer going to be true. I propose a much more expansive and inclusive standard.”

Those proposed “expansive and inclusive” revisions to Judaism were part of what prompted a New York Times book reviewer to write that Mnookin’s ideas “amount to a revolutionary (some would say heretical) revision.”

Judaism was presented to Mnookin through the lens of his “assimilated reform” family; that is, he grew up without traditional Jewish rites of passage like bar and bat mitzvahs — neither he nor his wife had one.  Loosely speaking, his temple was to traditional Judaism what Lutheranism is to Catholicism; among other things, that meant the language of the service was not in Hebrew, and less emphasis was placed on ritual.

As B’nai Jehudah’s website states today: “Our congregation values each one who walks through our doors. ... We will accept others for who and what they are, recognizing ourselves in them. Each is created in God’s image and has gifts to share with other members of our congregation.”

So, perhaps Mnookin was primed early to believe that a broader, more expansive notion of Jewish identity was needed to carry the religion forward at a time when the majority of Americans who identify themselves as Jewish marry people of other faiths or no faith at all.

He told Kaufmann that Judaism has room for anyone who wants to join. He said that in his own family, one of his daughters married a Jewish man, the other did not. His grandson, whose father is not Jewish, recently had his own bar mitzvah. 

“The ‘chosen people’ must become the ‘choosing people,’” he wrote in the book.

“In terms of the Jewish community as a whole, public self-identification should be enough,” he told Kaufmann. “If someone is prepared to say, ‘I consider myself Jewish, I want to be part of the Jewish people,’ as far as I’m concerned, welcome.”

Listen to Robert Mnookin’s full conversation with Gina Kaufmann here.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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