At a time when all three major Jewish denominations in America—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—find themselves in a state of deep internal fracture, a fourth and much smaller movement, Reconstructionism, has just voted to create a unified body to coordinate the activities of its lay and rabbinical arms. Such a display of consensus is striking enough these days; as a sign of life, if not liveliness, in a movement that many Jews are not even aware of, it prompts a look into the history and aims of a peculiarly American institution that has never truly realized the hopes of its visionary founder.
Those hopes were articulated by the ex-Orthodox thinker Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983) over the course of a half-century of tireless writing, lecturing, and politicking. Kaplan, who rejected wholesale the core tenets—revelation, chosenness, rabbinic authority—of any then-extant conception of Judaism, sought to develop a Jewish consciousness based neither on dogma nor on ritual practice but on the notion of Judaism as, fundamentally, the ever-evolving, self-actuating, and progressively self-fulfilling civilization of the Jewish people. Judaism as a Civilization, Kaplan's massive 1934 summa, meticulously deconstructed the fallacies and weaknesses, as he saw them, of Reform and Orthodoxy, both of which were rooted in an outmoded supernaturalism, and called for the reconstruction of Jewish life on a new basis designed to correspond with what Jews had actually come to believe.
Possessing a studied ambivalence toward anything smacking of denominationalism or partisanship, Kaplan spent nearly two decades trying, largely fruitlessly, to promulgate his ideas first within American Orthodoxy and then, with greater plausibility, within the nascent Conservative movement led by Solomon Schechter at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was not until 1955, by which time he had become thoroughly disabused of the notion of finding a foothold for his ideas within establishment Judaism, that Reconstructionism took shape as a distinct denomination of its own.
Since its founding, the movement has established a rabbinical seminary and ordained 310 rabbis, built an affiliation of 105 congregations across North America, published prayer books and ritual guides reflecting its controversial revisions of Jewish liturgy and practice, and exercised a palpable if largely unacknowledged influence on modern American Jewish identity and culture—not least by helping to popularize the notion of Jewish "peoplehood."
But much has happened in the last half-century to alter the ideological disposition of Reconstructionism. To Kaplan and his first-generation followers, the task of radically reformulating the nature and meaning of Judaism was to be pursued in the light of certain inviolable facts: the impossibility of revelation (at Sinai or elsewhere), the unique historical development of Jewish civilization across three millennia, and the democratic right of living, breathing individuals to participate in the ongoing process of defining an authentic Judaism. Denominational trappings notwithstanding, the aim was outward-focused: nothing less than the retrieval and reinvigoration of the Jewish people as a whole. Not for nothing was Reconstructionism marked from the start by a strong Zionist bent.
And now? Curiously, neither Kaplan nor his thought features prominently in Reconstructionist self-understanding. Even as an old guard piously claims to want to educate, in the words of Rabbi Shawn Zevit, "a whole new generation of members who are not well versed in Kaplanian thought or Reconstructionist principles," the movement's newly ordained rabbis commonly describe their own attraction to Reconstructionism in altogether different terms. Their approach is neatly summed up in the words of one young rabbi for whom the appeal of Reconstructionism is that it "really puts the individual Jew back into Jewish life."
This statement aligns perfectly with the findings of Arnold Eisen and Steven Cohen in their 2000 book, The Jew Within, which traced the process whereby the promptings of the "sovereign self" have come to be enshrined as the chief standard of value in the religious lives of many Jewish Americans. Little could be farther from the defining essence of a movement that set out, above all, to find meaning for modern Jews within the organism of a living and evolving people. Today's rising Reconstructionist leaders, little concerned with Kaplan's ideas, seem driven instead by nebulous notions of personal fulfillment combined, however improbably, with "progressive" political activism. Fully half of the 30 members of the rabbinic advisory board of "Jewish Voices for Peace"—a prominent component of the anti-Zionist initiative known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)—are affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement; the comparable numbers for Reform and Conservative rabbis are four and one.
That so quintessentially American and Zionist a movement should have lost touch with its founding ideals may not have come as a surprise to Mordecai Kaplan. For all his radicalism, Kaplan harbored no illusions that a robust Judaism could maintain itself in the absence of a normative element of some kind; Jewish life, he wrote in 1948 (in The Future of the American Jew) is "meaningless without Jewish law." Indeed, Kaplan was cognizant of the risks involved in imbuing people with authority to break with a tradition so that it might, paradoxically, survive in the modern world. In the case of Reconstructionism, now evidently in thrall to the regnant secular ideologies of the day, the result seems to have been a break with Reconstructionist tradition itself.
Was Kaplanism, then, just another big idea, bound to come to grief in its encounter with history? It is for today's leaders, newly outfitted with an arch-organ of the movement's internal affairs, to supply an answer to this question and, if Reconstructionism is to thrive, formulate a strategy for re-establishing its former identification with the "essentially communitarian nature of Judaism."
Joseph J. Siev is a program officer with the Tikvah Fund in New York.
As an RRC graduate (1997) I am proud to say that not only is Kaplan's vision of an Israel (and klal yisrael) centered Jewish civilizational approach still alive, but it is thriving. Our approach as reconstructionists is communitarian, it takes Jewish and secular law seriously (take a quick look at the groundbreaking work of the Center for Ethics at RRC) and it is having an impact far beyond any boundaries of the movement.
If you haven't met many Reconstructionist rabbis, here's a hint at what makes us a little different -- we are non-conformists to begin with and we are taught to challenge the status quo. Are some of my colleagues questioning Zionism? Absolutely. And it has become increasingly easy to point fingers at them and shry. But one could have also chosen to highlight my colleagues who have fully embraced the Zionist dream and have moved to Israel and are working on Kaplan's vision within the ultimate "normative" context. But the vast majority of us are in the place that Kaplan himself occupied -- critical thinking Zionists living outside of Israel. Kaplan was a Hebrew speaker and had the opportunity to travel to Israel, but he ultimately felt more comfortable on the Upper West Side. When I look around at my colleagues in the movement, I sense that the Israel-centered Jewish civilization still resonates with us, so we send our children to Zionist summer camps and Israel programs, we spend time studying in Israel or taking our sabbaticals there, we read the Israeli papers daily, and we debate one another about possible ways to keep Israel looking like the place we fell in love with at some point in our lives. But, for all sorts of reasons, we have not made the leap of packing up our bags and throwing ourselves into the ultimate normative Jewish civilization.
So we find ourselves working in America - many of us in chaplaincy (where we see the struggles that elderly Jews face in the health care system) and on university campuses (where we see the impact of declining investment in public education) and in communities across the U.S. (where we encounter an incredibly diverse group of congregants.) So, yeah, we adopt predominately Progressive views -- mainly because we still have faith that democracy and communitarianism can be forces for good.
"Today's rising Reconstructionist leaders, little concerned with Kaplan's ideas, seem driven instead by nebulous notions of personal fulfillment combined, however improbably, with "progressive" political activism."
This line is, uh.... a bit hyperbolic? I have spoken with over a hundred reconstructionist rabbis. They are not driven by nebulous notions of personal fulfillment (and if they were wouldn't that make them like all other humans?) but by a desire to serve something greater -- in this case the Jewish community and to quote Kaplan, the "power that makes for salvation." These rabbis mainly place their personal fulfillment as a distant second to their community's (and sometimes family's immediate needs) -- and do not receive the financial rewards or status points of others.
I am proud to be a part of such a community of rabbis. Does it drive me a little nuts that some of my colleagues have adopted anti-Zionist positions? Absolutely. But anti-Zionism has been part of the Jewish community since Zionism was born. (hey, remember when the anti-Zionists were Orthodox and Chasidic rabbis? Oh wait, there still are Chasidic rabbis who are anti-Zionists? and they live in Israel? What????)
I'd rather be part of a movement that values open debate and critical thinking about Israel, about American politics, and about, well, just about everything. That's Kaplan's legacy. And it is one that I see my colleagues embracing and living out on a daily basis.
Am Yisrael Chai!
What's more interesting is how often, after explaining Reconstructionist ideas to Jews of another movement, they say, "oh, that's what I believe too."
Kaplan’s intuition, which has been (to some degree) borne out by subsequent sociological research, was that he was merely articulating a conceptual framework for what modern Jews had already come to believe. If so, Reconstructionism is no more complicated than the state of modernity itself.
In any case, surely simplicity qua simplicity is not a primary value in religious ideology.
Thank you for your comments. My own Zionism is deeply informed by Kaplan’s, including his refusal to privilege life in Israel over that in the Diaspora. It is unclear to me what in my article prompted your eloquent defense of Kaplan’s Zionism, your own, and mine.
The proportion of Reconstructionist rabbis, however, who are actively (and in some cases prominently) involved in anti-Zionist activities is positively staggering, particularly when compared to those of the other major denominations. This is demonstrable fact, and its implications are not so easily deflected as it seems you would like.
It would be one thing if this was a lone digression from the Reconstructionist mission. However, I argue that it is symptomatic of a broader appropriation (or perhaps neglect) of Kaplan’s legacy – a legacy I see as profoundly important – for the sake of ideals about which it says little, and is at times plainly in conflict. I do not claim that this phenomenon is universal, nor that it is innate, but rather that it is significant and, so far as I can surmise, largely recent.
No offense Joe but I think you proved my point. Working Jewish families, just getting by, stressed by modern day life, probably will not respond to such high minded thought. I'm not suggesting a bumper sticker approach but a few bullet points might do the trick. Food for thought.
I defy anyone to give any of those 30 traitors who, in the name of the Jewish people, endorse a boycott of the Jewish homeland, a test in taking a blatt gemoro ( page of Talmud) and translating it, showing the shaklevetarya ( give and take) of the gemoro vs. the mishnah, the meforshim ( commentaries) etc.
Learning Torah is the essence of what it means and has meant since Sinai to be a literate and pious Jew.
Now we are having a legion of ignoramuses announcing that they are Jewish teachers and leaders by crowning themselves as rabbonim in their very own seminaries.
You left out the disciples of Zalman Schaechter who also have created their own Judaism. A perfect example of the nonsense that this group has spawned is the arch-know it all, Michael Lerner.
BTW, I am not orthodox but I lived that life for many years and I can tell you that the average orthodox man has a better Jewish education than any of the morons quoted in your article.
Right on! Big egos have infected Judaism since the earliest times of Rabbinic Judaism...the first departure from Torah She'Bictav. The most interesting discussion of this can be found in Gefen Publishing's new HAAZINU (LISTEN UP), a quite enlightening and enjoyable read on what it will take to have God's face shine on Israel again. And it's certainly not the advent of Reconstructionist Judaism, where, as you noted, the founding philosophy grows from the absence of Talmud Torah in its "supposed" teachers.
Indeed denial of G-d's revelation at Sinai to the Jewish People and the giving of the 10 commandments by G-d to the people is the belief of all non-Orthodox group. In contrast Rabbi Samson Hirsch of 19th century Germany said Man Must Not Mold Judaism - Judaism must mold Man!. To those that do not believe in a G-d that created the world and can do anything of course there can not be revelation. Regarding "the fact it cant be", note Islam and Christianity acquiesce to the Truth of the Exodus from Egypt and giving of the Torah at Sinai. This is because it was historic fact. Indeed in Josephus it was acknowledged and there were no other tales of national experience in its place. Can one make up a national (in front of the whole nation) event at a given place and time and if it was not true not here any dissenters to that said event? If a religion is purely man made, why have more allegiance to one over another or any?
Rabbinic student International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism
To call Jewish Voice for Peace a "prominent component" of the BDS movement is simply not true.
BDS is initiated and led by the Palestinians themselves. For information on the BDS movement, go to their web page at: http://bdsmovement.net.
As for Jewish Voice for Peace. Please read their docs:
JVP supports BDS for the Occupied Territories, not for Israel in general, which makes their approach significantly different from the BDS movement itself.
I'm one of the RRC graduates on JVP's Rabbinical Council. I'm certainly not anti-Zionist. The opinions I hold regarding the importance for Palestinians to achieve self-determination I do, in part, out of my love for Israel and my desire for Israel to succeed.
In the Jewish community one hears a lot of pride about Israel being a democratic state. But Israel is not a democratic state. My involvement with JVP stems, in large part, out of my desire to restore Israel as a democratic state.
JVP includes people like myself who are Zionists and people who don't consider themselves Zionists. We share a commitment to ending Israel's occupation and for Israelis and Palestinians to come together, using non-violent means to achieve a just solution to the problem.
2.I am just a simple man, by no means a learned one (particularly by Hershl's definition) when it comes to Judaism. I learned my Judaism standing on one foot from another "big ego" - Rabbi Hillel. As I recall he defined the essence of Torah as follows: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it." I admit that I haven't spent much time doing the learning - I've been working on the first part - it's not easy.
3. I am also an accidental Reconstructionist. I agree that starting from the name of the movement itself, it seems very difficult for people to grasp conceptually. But I have what I think is a very simplistic reason why I love the whole concept of Reconstructionism: It is the only religion that I know of whose core dogma is that you must constantly QUESTION your dogma.
4. As for Hershl and Madel, I have great respect and envy for your belief in the divine revelation and for HaShem's existence. Unfortunately, I am from Missouri. I always like to go back to source. And since I couldn't witness Sinai I don't have the surety that you do, so I have to just circle back to Rabbi Hillel.
5. As for Rabbai Shai's discussion of JVP, I unfortunately have to agree with the gist of his very real observation: there seems little denying that Israel is moving away from democracy week by week. If one reviews recent legislation coming out of the Knesset, it is very hard to refute that statement. Again, I like to go back to source and much of this legislation controverts Israel's Declaration of Establishment. On point, there is proposed legislation yesterday with broad support across the political spectrum that wants to clarify law for the courts that Israel's "Jewishness" trumps its "democratic-ness". Reports indicate that this is being specifically to override anything to the contrary from the Declaration. Pretty depressing for those of us who are Hillelians.
6. SHAMELESS PLUG: If you care to argue with any or all of the above, I invite you to check out my blog re:Middle East peace - www.beyondzs.com
7. Finally, thank you Rabbi Brenner - I couldn't agree more:
"I'd rather be part of a movement that values open debate and critical thinking about Israel, about American politics, and about, well, just about everything."
Did you ever consider that Jews like Kaplan and yourself, as well as those in each of the other Jewish denominations, might be responsible in their own way for God's face being turned from the Jews, leaving everything to chance?
A very unique premise in that HAAZINU novel I mentioned before, is that when Jews INTENTIONALLY reject any or all Torah law, they have fashioned for themselves a false god. Right or wrong, morally repugnant or not, to you, when God set the Torah before the Israelites as an eternal contract with rewards and punishments (promises and damages), and gave them the free will to reject Torah law in whole or in part, we at least have to be cognizant of what "Love thy neighbor as yourself" truly means. Each of us is responsible for the other, and as HAAZINU (both the Gefen novel and the penultimate sedra in the Torah) so eloquently says...even if you reject those rewards (blessings of health, peace, and prosperity for the Jewish people) personally, observe Torah law for your neighbor's sake so that the Jewish people don't have to suffer another 2000 years like the last 2000 years.
What usually comes to mind for me is Socrates saying he knew nothing and talking about people's 'conceit' of knowledge, and also Moses being described as the humblest person who ever lived - something to that effect. Comments?
Those are interesting points and comments. I would guess that you stay with rabbinic Judaism and are not Karaite even though you comment on how so many rabbis have deviated from the text. I can read a book like Malachi, and it seems to apply to the present day even though it is ancient. I am a convert and it has been important to me to retain some intellectual freedom, or whatever to call it, so for example I am open to any point that "the Nazarene" had to make as an Israelite of 2000 years ago. But I have no interest in messianic Jews, Jews for Jesus, all that mixture of theology. It would be interesting to know if you are a young person or an older person and if the views (or understanding) you have now are the ones you have always had. You seem to say that they are. Regards
These views have been distilled over many years, and yet, as you surmise, I remain a committed, traditional, Rabbinic Jew, appalled by how today's organized, splintered Judaism has distanced itself in each quarter from the only divine revelation (the Pentateuch) we have. In the name of "saving" the Jewish people from themselves, each Jewish denomination has denied the God of Israel, who promised that He would always be the Jewish people's savior by never abandoning them completely (Leviticus 26.44-45) no matter how severely they violated His laws. Quite unexpectedly, Gefen Publishing recently put out a book by Yerachmiel ben-Yishye (HAAZINU (LISTEN UP) that pretty much mirrors my thinking, and so I often reference it since the author says what I feel much better than I.
I honor and respect your beliefs. Your faith is admirable.
Here is a link to an article reportedly about the American author of the book you mention: http://washingtonjewishweek.com/m/Articles.aspx?ArticleID=14946
Just looking up the pen name of this author showed me how much discussion goes on under the articles of Jewish Ideas Daily. Regards
I had thought he was an Israeli writer with the name Yerachmiel ben-Yishye because the book itself has no bio info, and it came from Gefen in Jerusalem. Seems he's a humble one like you referred to Moses earlier in this thread. But now that I know he's an American, I feel even closer to his thinking. It's also nice that all his royalties go to the Jewish National Fund, another humble gesture. I've supported JNF since I can remember, from the days of their blue and white pushke boxes. Thanks again...I didn't know you could find newspaper reviews without a subscription.
It looks like the real proto-denomination is rabbinic Judaism, and all the new denominations that people are identifying with are fruits of its tree. There it is and it's what we have and there may be no better alternative, but it may be so hard to pin it down that all these movements are necessary to give people a graspable idea of what it is about.
In any case it gives me a reason to read Siev's article again in order to see how much wicked tongue there may really be in it.
Only replying to you, though it would be interesting if others added something. It may be that our exchange here has gotten off the topic of the article… I was remembering this: "Now Eli's sons were scoundrels, etc." in the book of Samuel, ch. 2. So the Bible says problems arose even with the priesthood. Why was something making priests look bad included in the "Neviim"?
What about starting with the book of Deuteronomy alone? Scholars say it was part of a reform.
Well, enough for now. "good shabbos."
I think this discussion is definitely ON TOPIC. It is my opinion that Reconstructionist Judaism is just another denomination answering humanity's quest for why bad things happen to good people. The Orthodox have been decimated for millennia, so Reform Judaism is invented to answer the question. But still, no answer, so Conservative Judaism takes a shot. Then the Holocaust, and still no answer, so Kaplan and Recon. Judaism takes its shot, built on the ego of Kaplan. What none seem to realize is that there is ONLY ONE true Judaism, and it disappeared 2 millennia ago after Rabbinic Judaism ousted it. Until it returns, God's face will be turned from us, and we Jews will suffer.
The one thing I do know from the Torah is that Levitical Judaism is the ONLY ONE sanctioned by God. The Levites were given a tithe as their eternal inheritance to be the rabbis, and God forbade any other tribe (like the Judeans) from usurping it (Num, 36:9). But the Judeans did. One thing I do believe: that it would take a return to Levitical Judaism, the ONLY Divinely-sponsored Judaism, to unite the splintered Judaic world again as ONE people.
As to Eli's sons, yes, there have been rotten priests, but that's a different issue. The priests (KOHANIM) were limited to the Temple, which no longer exists. The Kohanim were Levites, but it was primarily the non-priestly Levites, who were the roaming Torah teachers, with the tithe as their compensation in doing it. In fact, their were dozens of Levitical cities placed in the territories of the 12 other tribes (Joseph, you recall, was split into 2, Ephraim and Menashe, to make thirteen tribes). That's the primary reason we talk of the ten lost tribes, and only two that distinctly survive today: Judah, which absorbed Shimon to its south, and is called Israel, and Levi, which has both Levites and Kohanim). So when you get called to the Torah today in an Orthodox shul, usually the first aliyah goes to a Kohane, the second to a non-Kohane Levite, and the remaining five to Israel (the largest population segment of Judeans).
You are making interesting points. Nowadays I am not sure that complete public unity is the best thing. It may always have something totalitarian about it, unavoidably.
You mentioned attribution before. I have to say that the writer who has had a strong effect on my views of religion is Immanuel Kant. Making allowance for the fact that he grew up with Christianity, his thinking about religion in general seems applicable to Judaism, even if some of his comments about Judaism are off the mark. Even then they may be thought-provoking because he was an original thinker. I used to be more perplexed by the question of denominations, but reading Kant helped burn away some of the fog and made that question less pressing (it did not make it go away). I'm not recommending that anyone read it, but the work in question is Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. I would recommend that any reader go straight to the book itself and not to anyone else's "summary" of it.
The various denominations appear to be large-scale responses to historical situations. Also how can you be sure that the mentality that wants to reinstate Levitical Judaism is so different from the mentality that led to the development of the various denominations in the Ashkenazi world??
I'm familiar with Kant from college philosophy, but will go back to him at your suggestion. The one thing I know about today's multiple denominations in Judaism is that they are ALL man-made...the Sages (Chazal) forward through Akiva and the Talmud and the commentators (mefarshim) for Rabbinic Judaism and Orthodoxy to the most recent in Kaplan and Recon. Judaism...each with some love and much ego. None, however, had God's blessing as exemplified by the Torah curses that have befallen the Israelites/Jews from the inception of Rabbinic Judaism circa 2500 B.C.E. after the return from the Babylonian exile. The only DIVINELY-sponsored, Torah-revealed Judaism gave the Levites the exclusive rabbinic (teacher) role as an inheritance along with its tithe. I'd take that authority any time over the man-made one ensconced in all denominations of Rabbinic Judaism. Shavuah Tov and will look for your intelligent insights on the next thread.
I'm pretty ready to leave this topic for now, but since Levites are already identified within Jewish communities one possibility is try to associate with them more. I saw a thought somewhere about that some years back, but am not sure where it was. Regards
"For all his radicalism, Kaplan harbored no illusions that a robust Judaism could maintain itself in the absence of a normative element of some kind; Jewish life, he wrote in 1948 (in The Future of the American Jew) is "meaningless without Jewish law." "
As a convert I have no family feeling or history to rely on, so requirements of some kind seem important to me. As it is I feel out of the loop often enough, and not being a synagogue-goer probably contributes to that.
The article purports to describe a certain condition of Jewish denominations in the United States and then bemoans the Reconstructionist movement's alleged drift from Zionism and lack of fidelity to Mordecai Kaplan and his thought. Rabbi David Teutsch has addressed the latter. I am more interested in the former.
The article begins with praise for the movement's "display of consensus" for creating a "unified body to coordinate the activities of its lay and rabbinical arms." It asserts such an organizational change is a sign of "life." But we are not told what prompted the change nor what it is designed to accomplish.
If the other movements are in states of "deep internal fracture," was the Reconstructionist movement similarly infected? If so, how will adopting this organizational model help? If the movement was not so infected, what does this change achieve? Above all, how does it advance Kaplan's thought and the participatory Judaism that was once the hallmark of the movement?
To me, it is clear that the Torah is not of divine writ, even if it may have elements that encourage transcendence. Therefore, Karaism won't work. Orthodoxy has too many dogmas that are difficult or impossible for most people to accept. Reform does not follow their original philosophy, which proved empty of substance, and I'm not sure what they follow. Conservative is wishy-washy, with no united view on what they are. I like Kaplan's ideas, but as mentioned in the article, Reconstructionism no longer really follows them, and instead has replaced them with leftist dogma. Jewish Renewal is feel-good Judaism that demands no commitment. Secular Humanist Judaism has ditched many fine cultural Jewish traditions, such as kashrut.
None of the above movements really empowers me or many other individual Jews and certainly, none of them empowers the Jewish people as a whole. What we need is a strong, traditional Judaism, which is open to the world at large, including a critical analysis of the texts, and that at the same time, encourages traditional observance and intense learning. Emphasis must be placed on the transformative qualities of traditional Judaism and what it does for you in your life.
It is OK to have differences of opinion regarding the Palestinian question and even to support, as I do the founding of a Palestinian state, but support for Israel as a Jewish state should be non-negotiable. It is also important to encourage strong Jewish communities that can sustain and protect themselves, wielding weapons from armed militias to political influence. And finally, and probably most importantly, it is vital to encourage large numbers of conversions to Judaism, including mass conversions of hundreds and even thousands of people.
Anything less than what I propose above is insufficient for the needs of the Jewish people.
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am yisroel chai!