When I tell people I’m a Reconstructionist rabbi, I generally get this response: “I’ve heard of Reconstructionism, but I don’t know anything about it.”
Those of us who trained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College near Philadelphia are used to this. In fact, in our first class on Reconstructionist thought in the seminary, we are all assigned to write “The Elevator Paper” — a summary of an entire movement that can presumably be presented to someone during a brief ride in an elevator! Since America celebrated its birthday yesterday, I thought it would be appropriate for me to get in the elevator with everyone who is reading and introduce you to Reconstructionism, the only form of Judaism born on American soil.
The founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), did not intend to form a new branch of Judaism. His goal, rather, was to introduce a process by which Judaism would be continually “re-constructed” so successive generations of Jews could find meaning in Judaism in the era and culture in which they lived. He was profoundly influenced by living in America (he immigrated with his family in 1889) and was inspired by the democratic principles upon which the country was founded.
Kaplan’s seminal work, “Judaism as Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life” (1934), put forth this important doctrine: “Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” Kaplan used the word “civilization” consciously. He was influenced by the then-new field of sociology and argued that Jewish civilization included history and culture, language, literature, art, ethics and values, and beliefs and practices. He insisted that Jews who were not connected religiously to Judaism but who had different ties to it were still part of the civilization.
But he himself was not a secularist. Kaplan’s view was that Judaism was the product of the religious experience of the Jews through the history of the Jewish people.
Kaplan rejected the notion of what he called a “super-natural” God. He viewed divinity as the coordinating, integrating factor in nature that allows for the actualization of justice, truth, and compassion. He taught that human beings seek the divine because doing so adds meaning and purpose to their lives.
Kaplan described the Torah as the “earliest diary of the Jewish people.” He believed Torah to be the record of our ancestors’ search for meaning as well as the repository of a society’s moral principles, values and laws through which we are encouraged to become fully human. Reconstructionist theology teaches that Torah is the Jewish people’s response to God’s presence in the world.
Kaplan taught that Jews living in democratic societies could and did “live in two civilizations.” I bristle when I hear the rather new appellation of “Jewish-American.” I’m not a Jewish hyphen American. I’m Jewish and I’m an American. I take part in American political, social and cultural life. American English is my native language. I celebrate Thanksgiving and the 4th of July and other American civic holidays. My father (age 99) is a veteran of World War II and served in the European theater. My husband was a reservist who served in the Gulf War in Saudi Arabia. How much more American can we get?
But we are also Jewish, and our personal calendars run according to Jewish rhythms. We are both: Jewish and American. Kaplan articulated this concept to Jews struggling with their new American identities and the old-world Judaism many had shed when they arrived on our shores.
Reconstructionism teaches that “the past has a vote but not a veto.” Like Reform Judaism, it is a post-halachic movement. Reconstructionists study Jewish texts to discern answers to today’s questions. Jewish tradition is the starting point for Reconstructionists, but it may not be the ending point. Teachings at odds with contemporary values may be rejected or “transvalued” — given new meaning to match the sensibilities of contemporary life.
Many American Jews of different denominations — or of no denomination — actually think about their Jewish lives much in the way Kaplan suggested without calling it “Reconstructionism.”
It has been quite a long elevator ride, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of Reconstructionist Judaism. I am a member of the third generation of Reconstructionist rabbis (the seminary was founded in 1968) and am one of about 335 Reconstructionist rabbis in the world. I wonder what Kaplan would have thought of our discussions of his theology at the seminary. Many of us are not “Kaplanians”; Reconstructionist prayer services would no doubt seem foreign to him. But Kaplan would probably be happy to see that Reconstructionist Judaism has continued to evolve.
After all, he shocked the world, including his own congregation, when his daughter Judith was called to the Torah to become the first Bat Mitzvah in 1922. America is the land of innovation, and Reconstructionist Judaism has found fertile soil here for its first 45 years.