fbpx Reconstructionist Judaism: A Crash Course | Page 2 | Reconstructing Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism: A Crash Course

Article

If you advertise yourself as a Reconstructionist rabbi, people will inevitably corner you with “the” question: “Can you tell me—in a few words—what Reconstructionist Judaism is all about?”

In formulating a response that I could quickly pull out of my back pocket, I long ago decided not to lead people into the abyss of “two civilizations,” “vote-not-a-veto,” and other cul-de-sacs of Reconstructionist jargon. Instead, I like to approach the question by mentioning three arms which are vitally central to every form of Judaism, and I try to show people how Reconstructionist Jews (and, truth be told, a myriad of Jews around the world) view these matters in a way that is different from traditional Judaism, but surprisingly close to the spirit of that tradition.

My three litmus topics are Torah, prayer and ritual, and mitzvot. Here are my few words on each.

 

Torah

Tradition tells us that the Torah was dictated by God to Moses, and then transmitted through the generations. Reconstructionist Jews see the Torah as the Jewish people's response to God's presence in the world (and not God's gift to us). That is to say, the Jews wrote the Torah. But that is not to say that the Torah is merely a human creation. It is a response to the sacred. It is an attempt to convince an entire people to view everyday life in a sacred way.

 

Yes, it is intriguing to apply the tools of history, science and chronology to the Torah. These vehicles give us the historical and natural context of the Torah. But they don't give us the essence of the Torah. The essential Torah is neither the tidal explanation for the parting of the sea, nor the geological definition of the primordial flood nor the cosmological identification of “let there be light.” The essential Torah consists in the truth deep within these stories, a truth that radiates a picture of a society based on courts of justice and on social empathy. God didn't write that Torah, since God does not write per se. But God is everywhere in the details of it.

 

Prayer and Ritual

On the face of it, the text of the siddur suggests that our prayers are direct recitations and petitions to a God who is “other” and who, we hope, is listening and contemplating a favorable response. Reconstructionist Jews retain the traditional language of Jewish prayer, but not the obvious understanding of its meaning and function.

 

Rather, we understand prayer to help us perform the task of awakening. We need to awaken ourselves to the miracle that is life and to the obligations that inhere in that life. We believe that we are the primary respondents to our own prayers, and that we need prayer to remind us of the Godly values behind our benevolent actions in the world. We also understand prayer as a way of calling out to others in the world, in the hope that they, too, would sign on to the Godly enterprise of healing, caring, and righting injustice.

 

In sum, prayer and ritual are the Jewish people's way of heightening our awareness of the sacredness of life, of clarifying and reiterating our moral values and of marking time and space in a sacred way.

 

Mitzvot

The word mitzvah means “commandment,” and tradition literally understands mitzvot to be direct commandments from God, via the Torah. As such, we might utilize a mitzvah as an opportunity for meaningful relationship with God or our own souls, but we are obligated to perform the deed in any case, regardless of any spiritual uplift it may or may not provide.

 

As you would expect, Reconstructionist Judaism teaches that the mitzvot are our own invention. Mitzvot are our particularly Jewish ways of responding to the universal God. We perceive God as demanding sacredness in general, and the Jewish mitzvot are our people's way of bringing that universal sacredness to the minutiae of daily life in our own specifically Jewish context.

 

In this system, God does not choose the Jews to be performers of the commandments. Rather, the Jews choose to be called by God by means of a vast network of sacred acts (mitzvot) ranging from balancing work and rest (Shabbat), to establishing courts and laws, to sexual fidelity, filial respect, medical ethics and the rhythms of the seasons. (Hence, asher ker'vanu la'avodato, “who has called us to your service.”) Paradoxically, it is the mitzvot that keep us Jewish, but which simultaneously attune us to the greater universe of which we are a tiny part.

 

How do people respond to these sorts of answers? Clearly, most have never heard them before. They are not the answers they were expecting. Some love the responses, some are skeptical and some know that they simply have to let the information seep in. My hope is that this crash course in Reconstructionist Judaism leads people to see this movement not as a loosely defined “anything goes” religion, but as a serious modern attempt to understand Judaism as a discipline, as a life path and as a response to the holiness that fills our world.

Reconstructionism
Rabbi, Congregation Bet Am Shalom

Related Resources

News and Blogs

Reconstructing Pluralism through Conversation

Pluralism is dead. Long live pluralism.

News
News and Blogs

In Praise of Movements

Two November events loom as I write this column: the mid-term elections on November 6, and the first Reconstructionist movement-wide convention in a decade, a week later.  The first admittedly will have far more impact on the world than the latter, but they are linked in my mind for one important reason: movements matter.

News
News and Blogs

Evolve: Sowing the Seeds of Constructive Evolution

Reconstructing Judaism has just rolled out Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations with the intention of hosting difficult, groundbreaking conversations that are nevertheless mutually respectful and supportive. We invite you to visit Evolve and to join the conversations!

News

The Founding of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

A history of the beginnings of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Article
News and Blogs

Gathering Together

As we continue to develop new ways to build community across time and distance, we must also continue to find ways to “be there” for one another.

News
News and Blogs

Drawing Comfort from Community

Belonging connects us to something larger than our own individual experience. I belong to the Jewish people because claiming this connection enters me into a millennia-old conversation and joins me into community both vertical—all those who came before me and all those who follow—and horizontal—the Jews of today, in all our diversity.

News
News and Blogs

Reconstructionist Communities Make Disability Inclusion a Top Priority

With a welcoming ethos and a drive to break down barriers, Reconstructionist congregations and havurot have been part of a revolution that’s taken place in the public awareness of the importance of disability inclusion and related services.

News

Reclaiming Judaism After Centuries Underground

The small Italian village of Serrastretta has a hidden past: among its population are many families of anusim, hidden Jews whose ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Now, many locals are exploring their roots, thanks to new Reconstructionist affiliate Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud. 

Article
News and Blogs

Reconstructing Judaism: Evolution in Action

Judaism as an “evolving civilization” has been a Reconstructionist catchphrase for decades. But as board chair Seth Rosen writes, a deeper understanding of evolutionary biology gives fresh insight on the path ahead.

News
News and Blogs

Why Belong?

Why belong to the Jewish people? Why belong to a synagogue? Why belong to the Reconstructionist movement? These are some of the most important questions that I am asked and that I, along with all of us at Reconstructing Judaism, strive to answer powerfully and convincingly.

News
News and Blogs

Does The Torah Require Us To Publicize Names Of Sexual Abusers?

What does Judaism teach us about how to respond to accusations of harassment or assault?

News
News and Blogs

Reconstructionist Movement Updates

Though we count time Jewishly, by any consideration the secular year 2018 is an exciting year for the Reconstructionist movement.

News
News and Blogs

Living the Mission: Values-Based Decision-Making and Reconstructing Judaism

The story of Temple Emmanuel’s ongoing exploration of Reconstructionist liturgy, and the rich conversations the process has opened up.

News
News and Blogs

Keeping Judaism Alive Behind Prison Walls

Serving Jewish prisoners in state prison, rabbinic students find new perspectives on freedom and responsibility.

News
News and Blogs

Let's Journey Together

In an essay that appeared in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., makes the case that Reconstructionist Judaism matters now more than ever.

News