So really what does it mean to be chosen?
Documentary filmmaker Joshua Gippin wasn’t sure, but he knew that the whole idea made him uncomfortable. He was able to shove it to the back of his mind, though, until he had children. Four years ago, when the older one was 5 and the baby only 2, he realized that “I had to try how to figure out how to teach them about our Jewish heritage.”
So he went on Kickstarter, raised enough money to begin, and created the film “The Chosen People?”
On erev Shavuot — Saturday night — it will screen in Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues across the country; here, Temple Emeth in Teaneck will show it, and a discussion, led by the Emeth’s Rabbi Steven Sirbu, will follow. (See box.) (The film also is available online, at chosenpeoplefilm.com.)
“I would say my motivation, like the motivation for so many works of art, comes from a place of pain,” Mr. Gippin said. “It really bothered me. I was uncomfortable with the idea that we are chosen among all the nations, to the exclusion of other nations. I was uncomfortable with the idea that we are a holy people — because that implies that everyone else is not.”
He’s pleased that the film will be shown on Shavuot because it’s particularly relevant then, he said. “It’s such an underrated holiday, but it is super important. It’s the big moment, when we receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. We are chosen, collectively, by God, biblically, on Sinai. The connection of Shavuot to chosenness is obvious, and the film goes to those biblical roots.”
Mr. Gippin interviews many people from across the Jewish spectrum in “The Chosen People.” It’s a personal work. “I am clear about my own personal biases,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges was to move beyond those biases and try to make this a work of journalism.” He interviews his wife, his children, and other family members, but “this is on a much bigger scale,” he said. “There are 3,000 years of history. The film goes back to the shift to monotheism, and the central tension between God being the God of Israel and also the God of everyone. I look at our relationship with Christianity, and also with Islam; I interviewed Christians, and also a local imam.”
Local, by the way, is Akron, Ohio, where Mr. Gippin and his family belong to both their local Reform synagogue and Kol HaLev, a Reconstructionist congregation in nearby Cleveland. Reconstructionism, with its out-front grappling with the idea of chosenness, “is where my heart is — but if you watch the film, you will see plenty of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox voices, and there also is a Chabad rabbi who has a ton of screen time,” Mr. Gippin said.
Mr. Gippin studied cultural anthropology as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and then he did field research while he earned a graduate degree at SUNY Albany. “I take from it the idea of ethnocentrism,” he said. “It probably was at the back of my mind all along. It means that if I am Jewish, I am going to believe that we are God’s chosen people. If I am raised Christian, then I going to believe that Christians are. It’s putting your own ethnic group at the center of history and the universe. That comes out in nationalism, too. We are more likely to say that America is the greatest country on earth than, say, Chinese people are. They’d say China is.”
Given all that, he was as transparent as he could be in making the film. He sent a rough cut to the rabbis he interviewed, and asked if anything in it bothered them, and how they would change it. “There was a lot of back and forth,” he said.
Did his own position change? “Absolutely it did, and it still is changing,” he said. “And it probably always will be. This is such a complex topic. I had more of a chip on my shoulder at the beginning, and one rabbi even points that out. I feel much more comfortable in my own skin now. I was worried about my Jewish identity, and I had to resolve it. Now I feel that I have a place in the Jewish community.
“I had felt more judgmental toward Chabad and the Orthodox. Now I feel that we all have a place within the fabric of Jewish society. Their place is to hold up tradition, and mine is to innovate, and to try to make it relevant for our times. And there is a place for both.”
So what’s in the film?
“There is a quote at the very beginning from Dr. Avi Beker, the former secretary general of the World Jewish Congress,” Mr. Gippin said. “He refers to chosenness as the central historical, psychological, and theological problem at the heart of Jewish/gentile relations. And when you speak to Christians today, it becomes apparent that it is every bit as painful, that there are as many feelings of resentment and envy and even disdain now, even 2,000 years later, than there were then. It is still so much of an issue that it’s hard to describe. And when it gets into the issue of Israel, it climaxes. When they talk about the relationship between the Chosen People and the Promised Land, and the belief that some evangelical Christians have around the end times, it is particularly troubling, especially in light of what is going on now.
“My primary audience is Reconstructionist and Reform Jews, and liberal Christians and Muslims,” Mr. Gippin said. “The interfaith community, and those who are trying to forge bridges of unity. It’s for people who want to talk about the things that were so divisive for so long.
Who: Temple Emeth
What: Will screen “The Chosen People? A Film about Jewish Identity.” A discussion with the synagogue’s Rabbi Steven Sirbu will follow.
When: On erev Shavuot, Saturday, May 19, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck
For more information: Call (201) 833-1322 or go to www.emeth.org