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what is reconstructionism?

Posted on Friday, February 20, 2009 in what is reconstructionism?

since you will be coming to a graduation of the reconstructionist rabbinical college, maybe you want to know more abour reconstructionism. here is something i wrote about reconstructionism in 2004, in my first year of rabbinical school:

The Roots of Reconstructionism

Reconstructionist thought was developed by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan during the nineteen twenties, thirties and forties. Kaplan was a product of a Litvak yeshiva as well as the likes of Emerson, Dewey and Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical culture. Kaplan loved America and loved Judaism. Kaplan was deeply concerned about Judaism being able to survive the sea voyage from Eastern Europe, which it looked like it would not. In 1930, only 23% of Jews were members of congregations. It seemed as though the religious remained in Eastern Europe and those that were eager to get away from a restrictive rabbi and shtetl headed west. In responding to this threat his intent was not to promote secularism, but rather to develop Judaism in a way that would allow for cooperation of two civilizations—the American and the Jewish. Though very much taken with the freedom of thought and practice that was available here in the United States, Kaplan also realized that it was at a cost—the loss of community. Rather than forcing an impossible choice between American or Jewish civilization, Kaplan revalued civilization to keep religion in the mix. A meaningful Jewish life, Kaplan thought, would save Judaism.

Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Kaplan’s vision and innovations were seen as radical and heretical. In 1945 when the first Reconstructionist prayer book was printed, the Orthodox community in New York burnt the book, a picture of which appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Kaplan in particular was considered a serious threat, worthy of public denigration due to the transformations he was making in Judaism visibly and transparently. In reality, though, Judaism has always been changing and evolving. What Kaplan was engaged in was a process of revaluation— which means he was transparent in adapting Jewish tradition to be compatible with contemporary sensibilities and commitments. Steeped in the Orthodox world, Kaplan was contradicting the course of transvaluation – which means actually making changes and adaptations and presenting it as a static tradition. Valuing intellectual consistency and traditional continuity, Kaplan urges us to consider our spiritual inheritance and simultaneously acknowledge how we have been affected and changed by science and modernity. It is important for us to acknowledge the distinctions between us and our ancestors.

Reconstructionism defines Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. This definition illustrates the nexus of our past, present and future. This idea may seem basic but is in fact radical. The idea has three parts: one, that Judaism was created by people as a way to engage with, understand and add meaning and depth to their lives. Let me be clear: this stands in contradiction to the traditional Jewish understanding that Judaism was divinely received. Second is that this tradition that was created by Jews is dynamic and has been developing, changing and adapting through time. Reconstructionists are committed to transparency in relation to this development and evolution of Jewish life. Third is the inclusion of culture including art, drama, literature and music as well as traditions of social justice and ethical decision making to the mosaic of Jewish life. Religion is central to Judaism, though not exclusive.

As opposed to a more traditional Jewish observance where halakha and “the rabbis” are central, Reconstructionism places the Jew at the center of Judaism. What this means has implications in the way Reconstructionists think about the evolution of Jewish life as well as contemporary rituals and communal organization. For example, Kaplan brought us the first bat mitzvah. On March 18, 1922, his daughter Judith Kaplan, came onto the bimah at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City, where Kaplan was rabbi. As the first bat mitzvah, Judith was called for an aliyah to the Torah and she read a piece of the Torah portion for that morning. Unfortunately, the phenomenon didn’t really catch on following it; we did not see a surge of young women becoming bat mitzvah until decades later. The effect though, of egalitarianism, innovation and inclusion motivated and informed liberal Judaism and also marks the Reconstructionist contribution to Jewish life.

What Kaplan was doing as part of his plan to reconstruct Judaism was change the definition of Judaism. He boldly recognized that Judaism is not just a religion. Decades after Kaplan, Rabbi Richard Hirsh summed up Reconstructionist Judaism well when he wrote:  “For Reconstructionists, Judaism is more than Jewish religion; Judaism is the entire cultural legacy of the Jewish people. Religion is central; Jewish spiritual insights and religious teachings give meaning and purpose to our lives.  Yet our creativity as expressed through art, music and drama, languages and literature, and our relationship with the land of Israel itself are also integral parts of Jewish culture.  Each of these aspects provides a gateway into the Jewish experience that can enrich and inspire us.”  Judaism is a culture; it is an ethnic identity; it is a story.  And for all of us as Jews, whether we were born as Jews, chose Judaism, returned to Judaism or are still in the process of questioning and wrestling with Judaism, we all have a story. And as a member of the global Jewish community, each story is sacred and essential.

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