In this talk given at Congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, California, Rabbi Jacob Staub explores what makes Reconstructionist communities unique. Selected quotes follow. The entire call transcript is available at the bottom of this page.
Judaism Has Evolved
Jewish civilization evolves, has always evolved…and there are circumstances that make that happen…Lighting the candles on Friday night with the [traditional] blessing text…is an innovation from the 10th Century, which was really an anti-Karaite polemic, because the Karaites didn’t light lights on Shabbat. And the Rabbinites, the rabbinic Judaism said, “Ha, that’s from Sinai. God commanded it.” And so, one of our most central rituals, comes about out as a result of an intra-Jewish competition and conflict. And that doesn’t make it any less powerful. If you light candles on Friday night and you identify with your parents and grandparents and great grandparents and you bring in the light of Shabbat and your soul, that’s fine but that particular practice is only a thousand years old.
And the point is, therefore, we have an obligation to continue to evolve, to continue to reconstruct. It is a mandate. It is almost a divine commandment, that we can’t stay still. We can’t remain in place because everything changes and we must continue to evolve, to survive, to flourish.
So, because we are participatory decision-making communities, and because we believe in ongoing evolution and the imperative to adapt to ever emerging needs and to not apply old strategies to new circumstances, we often are the first to take the first step into the unknown, into new territory. Are our innovative approaches always a home run? No. Most things that we try don’t work, and some things work really well and resonate and spread from community to community and out of the Reconstructionist movement to other movements…
As a historian, as someone who teaches Jewish history, I can assure you that most innovations and experiments and changes that Jews have done over the centuries, we don’t know about because they didn’t last. They didn’t survive because they didn’t resonate, and it’s okay. It’s okay for us to continue to reconstruct and to continue to evolve and to try things until we find what really works, and that is part of what makes Reconstructionist communities different. We say tradition has a vote but not a veto. We listen to the voice of tradition, we study the voice of traditions, we learn what we come from, but we are not tied to doing things the same way and so we are free to do things that are outrageous in their time, that seem obvious to us 10 or 20 years later.
This is a transcript of a talk given by Rabbi Jacob Staub in November 2014 at Congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, California.
How are Reconstructionist communities distinctive, different from other liberal-inclusive Jewish communities? What makes a community distinctively Reconstructionist? The question is not uncommon. I get it a lot. “What’s the difference, what’s the difference? Why is there a need for a Reconstructionist movement?”
I often hear the question phrased less delicately…[laughter] Like, “Why is there a need for a Reconstructionist movement or for Reconstructionist synagogues when Reconstructionist communities appear very similar, indistinguishable from other communities?”
Part of this question goes, “Reconstructionism, we all are in it’s debt. It made a lot of major contributions in the 20th Century, but there’s no longer a need because we’re all doing what you innovated 10, 20, 50 years ago… Thank you so much for introducing the Bat Mitzvah ceremony in 1922, and women Torah readers in the 1940s and counting women in the minyan in the 1950s. Thank you for the new haggadah in the early 1940s. It was the first creative, interpretive haggadah, but now there are dozens and dozens and dozens, we don’t need it anymore. Thank you for showing us how to do new liturgy, how to take old ritual and make new meaning out of it, how to take out words and put in other words and put in other readings. But now, now we don’t need the Reconstructionist haggadah anymore.”
“Thank you, thank you so much for your vision and beginning to admit lesbian and gay students for the rabbinate in 1983, but now everybody’s doing it. Thank you for developing in 1992 same-sex wedding ceremonies, but that’s just passé today. Thank you for the extraordinary prayer book series called Kol Haneshama which has been very influential in the development of other movements prayer books, with a multi-vocal commentary where different interpretations are at the bottom of the page and where transliteration is where people can use it in the middle of the page, and the way that Hebrew and English come together in the middle, and all the different things that you did. It was so visionary, but there’s no longer anything distinctive about it. Everybody is doing it. And thank you for advocating, even before 1948, a new Zionism, a spiritual Zionism, which is for envisioning that Israel should have policies that embody Jewish ideals and values.” Nobody was talking about that besides Reconstructionists in the 1940s and 50s and 60s, but now many, many people are talking about it so not an innovation anymore.
Everyone, it is said, is caught up with us. “We broke new ground, but now we are just like everyone else and we’re smaller, so what’s the use?” That’s the question. That’s a title, that is a long thing. It’s the subject of this talk.
And here is my main point which I will then elaborate. The main point is, these contributions did not happen accidentally. It’s not just we lucked out on some influential innovations. They arose and continue to arise out of an approach to Jewish life. The approach that animates the way that Reconstructionist Communities are structured and the way that Reconstructionist Communities function. Others can adopt our innovations but they don’t replicate the culture, the theory and the structure and the practice from which these innovations emerge. So first a bit of background and then a lot of examples.
Some of you probably know and others may be less familiar that Reconstructionism defines Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. And permit me to analyze that statement in several parts as an introduction to what follows.
First, the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Peoplehood is primary. If you think about how an infant is acculturated, first you belong to your family, to community, then you learn how to behave like people behave in your community, and then you come to believe what members of your community believe. But being part of a people, belonging, is first, it is primary. Judaism, Jewish civilization, comes out of belonging to the Jewish people.
Second, Judaism is a civilization not just a religion. A religious civilization, yes, but it is far more than how we pray and what rituals we observe. There is a literature that’s Jewish. There is music that is Jewish. There are customs about how to parent, about how to give tzedakah, about what to eat. There are political attitudes and so on; I could go on and on. Everything that a civilization is composed of, Judaism has that, and it is perfectly possible to be a full and complete Jew, I hazard to say, even if you don’t believe in God and never enter into a synagogue. We are often fond of using the derogatory term, “bagels and lox Jews,” or you just have ethnic identification. But whether we approve of it or not, it is Jewish. Judaism, you can be a Jew who only reads about Jewish history. You can be a Jew on a secular kibbutz in Israel or now we have secular kibbutzim of young Jews in Kentucky and elsewhere. And you’re Jewish. It’s not just a religion.
The definition of Judaism as a religion, as ethical monotheism which the reform movement defined it as in the 19th Century, was on the Protestant model. How do we get emancipated and become part of the larger western society? Well, some people are Catholics, and some are Protestant, and some are Jews, but we’re all Americans, or all French, or all British. So we redefine Judaism to fit the mold of our contemporary circumstances, but Judaism is more than a religion and it doesn’t get fed. Traditionally, it does not grow and flourish out of one’s beliefs in one worship. It gets fed out of being part of a community, with all of its civilizational aspects.
And third, Jewish civilization evolves, has always evolved. Continues to change and adapt to new circumstances. Chicken was once pareve, now it’s meat. Fish was once pareve, it’s still pareve. And there are circumstances that make that happen. The Bar Mitzvah ceremony develops in the 15th Century when confirmation of Catholic children moves from eight or nine to 14. Before that, the Jewish initiation ritual happened at age six or seven. Coincidentally, the surrounding culture, the Christian society, the Catholic society, had confirmation at that age. So we are influenced by our surrounding culture. You would think that, you know, God commanded a Bar Mitzvah party at Mount Sinai but it’s not true.
Jeremiah or Isaiah or Ezekiel’s view of God is not like Rabbi Akiva’s and neither would be recognizable to the philosopher Saadia Gaon or Maimonides and neither would theirs be recognizable to Kabbalists in the Middle Ages. Our beliefs evolve as we are influenced by surrounding culture.
When you… One more example, licht benching, lighting the candles on Friday night with the blessing text asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, that says we are commanded to light the candles of Shabbat, is an innovation from the 10th Century, which was really an anti-Karaite polemic, because the Karaites didn’t light lights on Shabbat. And the Rabbinites, the rabbinic Judaism said, “Ha, that’s from Sinai. God commanded it.” And so, one of our most central rituals, comes about out as a result of an intra-Jewish competition and conflict. And that doesn’t make it any less powerful. If you light candles on Friday night and you identify with your parents and grandparents and great grandparents and you bring in the light of Shabbat and your soul, that’s fine but that particular practice is only a thousand years old.
And the point is, therefore, we have an obligation to continue to evolve, to continue to reconstruct. It is a mandate. It is almost a divine commandment, that we can’t stay still. We can’t remain in place because everything changes and we must continue to evolve, to survive, to flourish… Okay, so how does that work in terms of Bat Mitzvah or the prayer book series or all the other innovations that I listed? ..
…The major change from pre-modern to modern Jewish society is you no longer live in a self-governing Jewish community that is governed by Jewish law, in which rabbis have the authority over you. And the question that Kaplan tried to address over and over again in his various books is, “Can Jewish civilization survive if we don’t live in communities?” Because the way that a civilization flourishes and grows and changes is in the context of a people. A community, a nation, whatever. You have to be an entity. A group. And if you’re part of a larger secular nation of France or England or the United States or Canada, how can that work?
And his proposal in our program is that we need to create living, vital, exciting, voluntarily-joined communities. Participatory decision-making communities, in which you participate, but not just to get a reading to read on Rosh Hashanah or on a Friday night service. Not just by helping out the women’s or men’s club and getting together activities, or in some program board. Also, you participate in making decisions in the life of the community.
So if you’re trying to develop… A community has to have a policy on what can and can’t be brought in to the kitchen, in terms of the dietary laws, in terms of kashrut. It’s not something that a rabbi decides. It’s something that the community, or sub-community, a ritual committee, a religious committee, studies and talks about for a year or two and comes up with a consensus decision. You study the rules, the laws. You study the midrash, the interpretations. You study about the development of communities and community dynamics, and what are the pros and cons? Do you want to have people cook at home and bring it in, even if their kitchens at home aren’t kosher? Is it more important to have people be involved? Is it a matter of kosher ingredients? Is it a matter of just no pork or no shellfish?
I mean, whatever it is, you learn about the reasons for everything, and then you come to a decision that then gets brought, in some places to a plenary meeting, to the whole congregation, to ratify. Everybody learns about it, and at the end, you have a policy that everybody has ownership over, and in which everybody has learned about the dietary laws. And [that] everybody can be proud of, whether they agree or disagree with a final decision. Whether they were in the majority or the minority, they are part of a functioning community.
Should the synagogue staff, to take another kind of example, spend more time on in-reach, serving existing members, or outreach? Trying to get new members? There’s a lot at stake, often, for a community in that decision. Where should the person with the time, the valuable time of one’s professionals, be spent? On the one hand, you want to grow. On the other hand, you want to nurture people you already have. That is not a decision in Reconstructionist terms for the professional or other staff to make. It’s a decision of thoughtful people in conversation, in discussion and dialogue, to make jointly.
Whether it is a board of directors or the outreach committee, or however it functions. Laity, right? Non-rabbis, regular Jews participate in participatory decision making communities. Not because rabbis give them permission, but because it is their community. As an aside, as you may have noticed, Jews are extremely highly educated and are experts and professors and CEOs and professionals of all sorts. And when you walk into a synagogue, you don’t lose those skills and those insights and that wisdom. And in a participatory decision making community, your skills and training and wisdom get enlisted for the sake of the community not as an aside, “Well, I don’t really know how to pray. I can’t read Hebrew, but I am good at computer stuff.” That’s not… What you’re good at is part of what you contribute to the community.
So on many, many surveys that we’ve done, you ask people why they join Reconstructionist communities and the number one reason is it’s warm and welcoming, none of the other stuff that I’m about to talk about. But the question is, why are they warm and welcoming? Are you welcoming somebody because you’re a nice person? Well yeah, I think Reconstructionists are nice and are good people.
But if you’ve have a stake, if you have ownership in the community, then you’re welcoming someone not to somebody else’s community, it is yours. You have that kind of ownership and you are enthusiastic, and you’re a participant, and you get a lot of respect and appreciation for your contributions to the community. It all comes out of peoplehood. It is primary decision-making community, and participation, and decision-making communities is the way that we are trying and often succeeding to create really warm and exciting places that other people want to join.
So number two was warm and welcoming, and I’m done with that.
So, I’ll go on to number three. I think you know about warm and welcoming…You walk into this place, you know warm and welcoming. So, because we no longer have self-governing communities… you might call halakha the law, Jewish law, but it’s not. Laws are things that are enforced.
So therefore, when we observe and we’re really interested in observing…I remember in the late ’90s there were two surveys, one of the Reconstructionist movement and one of the people in the Conservative moment. It turned out we had a higher level of kosher observance than the Conservative movement, not because we think it’s the law, not because we think it’s commanded, but because we embrace our traditions, however we do [them], and because we find meaning in them. So, if you’re going to observe and you don’t think it’s commanded, then you need to make meaning. And if it’s not meaningful, you need to change it to make it meaningful. So, things get changed as a necessity, not as a gift or as a concession.
So, it’s not a matter of doing all the prayers that are prescribed on Friday night for Kabbalat Shabbat because it’s commanded. You want to create a meaningful prayerful experience, and you start with whatever we started with last night—Lekhah Dodi, I think. And you light the candles and you in the end have a prayerful experience, rather than covering every word in the siddur. You know what’s in the siddur. You make choices about how to do that communally, in concert. And you have therefore, a more vital prayerful experience. If you’re in a community, it’s not a matter of there being a mitzvah, a commandment that you should visit the sick. Visiting the sick is part of what you do in a community and many Reconstructionist communities have support system networks, where you have, first of all, support groups for people in the sandwich generation who are dealing with problematic teenagers or young adults, and parents, aging parents. You have a group that make sure that meals are provided when they are needed for a variety of reasons. You have people driving each other to chemo treatment appointments, if they need that. You have occasional retraining when people lose their jobs. You have people caring about each other not because they have to, but because they are part of a community.
So the fact that halakha is no longer enforceable, to summarize this point, means that you do more, not that you do less. We are not minimalist Jews, we are maximalist Jews, and we do them…
Especially Rabbi Amy Bernstein, she does a lot.
Number four. Nice segue. The rabbinic role.
So what is a rabbi if not an authority of Jewish practice telling you what you’re suppose to do? In this model, it is a collaborative model, a decision-making collaborative model, a collaborative model in connecting with people. It’s a model in which rabbis are educated to respect you and to elicit the best from you, and to value that because you are the essential members of a community, not the rabbi. The rabbi is very important as a leader, as an organizer, as a teacher but not as the authority. We know and we respect the fact that you’re going to do what you’re going to do, both here and after you leave the synagogue building and we don’t say you should be different. We want to know what you need, and we want to know how to provide that, and we want to bring all of you together to do that in ways that are meaningful and life giving and inspiring and exciting. And that’s what rabbis are here for.
Five, pluralism. Again, I’ve mentioned this somewhere in the course of the weekend. We don’t all have to do the same Jewish things, right? And we don’t all have to agree about what is legitimately Jewish and what isn’t. We don’t have to agree politically about what the right thing to do is. In the 1980s in Reconstructionist congregations, some people wanted to declare the synagogue Sanctuary for undocumented people who were going to be deported to places that they should not be deported to. And some people in those same congregations didn’t think that the synagogue should break the law and…risk everything by being Sanctuary in the time of the 80’s, and many synagogues decided to have groups in the synagogue forming Sanctuary, not declaring Sanctuary. Not the synagogue as a synagogue itself, not representing everyone, but just representing the people who were part of that interest group, people who were interested in doing so.
The people who were not interested in doing so, supported the right of the people who wanted to do it, to do it. There were legal issues but they were worked out. [Another] example: nowadays, in the Northeast, there’s this thing called Congregational Based Community Organizing, in which Jewish and Christian congregations work together for education, or to combat poverty, or various social justice issues, and the synagogue signs up. Again, synagogues are signing up not because everybody agrees that they want to do it, but because some people want to do it, and that’s a Jewish thing to do for some people. Not everybody has to agree. Everybody has to agree that people should do things in a Jewish context, whether you agree with that particular thing or not. There is no reason why there shouldn’t be both an AIPAC chapter of KI and a J Street chapter of KI.
A community isn’t a group of people all of whom agree about everything. It is a group of people who are being Jewish together in a variety, a diversity of ways. I love you.
Number six, to say that we are an evolving religious civilization, means that we always look to make meaning and to revalue [..] To reinterpret, to find meaning, so you celebrate, you make a Passover seder and if the traditional haggadah doesn’t work to make you feel liberated or to be dedicated to freedom for all people, so you change the ritual. You keep it but you change it so that you can evoke the meaning of freedom and liberation, both internal and political, in the ritual.
The Reconstructionist movement has a website called Ritualwell.org and nowadays if someone says, “Jacob, will you conduct a brit for my granddaughter … A brit banot, a covenental ceremony to welcome in my granddaughter,” they also send with the email some ritual that they find on Ritualwell and say, “Will you use this particular ceremony?” It’s all available. We collect them, we edit them, it’s an incredible wealth of material. In the last few months there’s a whole new section of ritual for the lives of transgender Jews. What is the beracha on the ritual for transitioning? What is the way to mark putting on tefilin for the first time as a man and so on and so forth. We are a movement that does not shy away from trying new things and for making meaning where there aren’t meaningful ways of doing things.
I mentioned that in the early 1990s we were the first to say, “Hey, if you think it’s all right for same-gendered couples to get married, let’s construct wedding ceremonies that are like and unlike the ones that come down to us.” We are the first in the early 1970s to develop a covenental naming ceremony for girls, the original baby girls, the original one by Rebecca and Joel Alpert and Dennis and Sandy Sasso was published, I think. in the first issue of Moment Magazine in 1972 or 1973. We are ready to try new things. If you need something that doesn’t exist, you look, you study, you are familiar with what rituals do exist and you see how to apply them to unprecedented situations.
And it’s not only ritual. Moving a little bit towards the future, if it turns out that congregations are no longer the primary locus of Jews’ identification in these new generations, if people are no longer joining synagogues—not because they’re not interested in being Jewish, just because they’re not interested in joining synagogues—you’ve got to figure out how to reinterpret what a community is. How does a virtual community work? How can you have e-lists and … I don’t know, I’m talking like I know what to do in the next generation, but people are working on this. If you’re not all in the same room, can you be a community? We need to figure that out, and instead of bemoaning the membership numbers in synagogues, we need to figure out how to do that. We need to do a little bit of what Hillel is doing, going where the Jews are to bring them in, but we also need to reconceptualize, because Jews are no longer living in areas of high concentration of being Jewish. We’ve got to figure out another way to do it. Everything continues to change and we need to evolve with new circumstances.
Another example. There are many, many communities today where people do not know what to do Jewishly because [of remembering] their parents or grandparents doing these things. “I remember my grandmother with a chicken over her head on Erev Yom Kippur.”
I have a wealth of memories. Eastern European memories of how things were. Today, many people do not have grandparents who ever did those things, and many people don’t have Jewish parents or grandparents, and given that, we need to revisit what Jewish identity is like. We have depended on nostalgia a whole lot. “I feel Jewish.” A lot of people don’t know what that means… They even want to be rabbis and they don’t know what it means to feel Jewish, and we’re working on it with them. We have labs and all kinds of ways of introducing them to new rituals. They know they love being Jewish, but they don’t have the “body knowledge”, you know, the childhood memory of that, and if rabbinical students don’t have it, then I assume non-rabbinical students don’t have it either, and we need to figure out what it means to be Jewish and how to express that and how to address it.
For sure, this next generation does not want to be Jewish because of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. Thank God, they are not traumatized the way previous generations have been, and they are not sure that the Holocaust is about to happen tomorrow in Pacific Palisades. It’s not clear to them that they have to be on guard, and their view of Israel, which they have only known post-1967 or post-1973 is not as an embattled nation. And so all of the reliance that the Jewish community has made in previous decades in cementing Jewish identity by evoking the holocaust and the embattled State of Israel doesn’t wash in the same way anymore, and we need other ways of involving people in a commitment to their identity. We need to reconstruct some basic structures of thought and identity that we have relied on for a long time. How can we be Jewish if it’s an ethnic thing? If you don’t have memories of bagels and lox, if you don’t know the smell of the challah baking, if you don’t remember the Yiddish of your ancestors, what does it mean?
It means a lot, but there are a lot of born Jews of older generations who resist the notion that you can be a bona fide Jew if you don’t have what they had, who resist change, who resist the need for ongoing reconstruction. Just a couple more points.
1. I can’t do this without mentioning [our rejection of] “chosenness”, chosen people. It’s not new, but it is central to all of our innovations and our approaches to Jewish life. Can you be Jewish if you don’t think that being Jewish is better than being something else? Is it possible to be proud without making the claim for superiority? We live in an open society. We marry, in ever larger numbers, people who are not born Jewish or people who are not Jewish at all. How do we relate to our colleagues, our friends, our family members, and how can we avoid the implicit superiority and chauvinism that saying that we are the chosen people engenders?
I should say that traditionally, that’s not what “the chosen people” was all about. Traditionally, “chosenness” meant you thought the Torah was the best, the only, that we were chosen to receive the Torah and all of its obligations. That is not what most of us mean because we have not accepted the Torah and all of its obligations anymore…
We end up counting Nobel prizes to explain chosenness: that we are smarter, we are more innovative, that we are better, and that is not what chosenness was originally about, and it’s a real turnoff to generations today.
Finally, and most dear to my heart—most important is the participatory decision-making communities—but dearest to my heart is evolution. Believing that Judaism evolves, frees us to acknowledge that many, many of our traditions, of our beliefs, and of our practices are unpleasant at best, and objectionable, right? They were [of] their time. They made sense to other people. They don’t have to make sense to us. We aren’t tied to justifying everything that our ancestors believed and did. Kaplan wrote a book called “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion” in which he revalues each of the holidays. I’ve mentioned Passover, but he has different values expressed by every one of our holidays. That’s fine, but he also says that some things can’t be revalued.
For some non-controversial examples, the treatment and the status of women can’t be revalued. You can’t apologize for it. You have to change it. The teachings in our tradition that say that there are 4 different kinds of souls. Plants, animals, humans and Jews. [The idea that] that we are a species different than other people is just not something you can throw into the washing machine and it comes out clean. You have to change it. We don’t stone our disobedient children, right? [Laughter] Stop, don’t do that. You know, husbands had the right to beat their wives in the pre-modern era if the wives didn’t obey them, didn’t do what they were supposed to do. You can find a lot of Jewish writing that says, “Oh yeah, well, we treated women better … Men treated women better than in other surrounding societies.” No. No, no. That’s not good enough. There are things you have to change, and I run into this a lot in subtle ways. “Tikkun Olam.” There’s a tendency in many places to say, “Oh yes, Jews have always been for social justice.” Not true. Not true. Some were and some weren’t. You need to acknowledge that in Poland in the 16th century, community took care of orphans, and if an orphan girl came from a poor family, they gave her a poor wedding, and if she came from a rich family, they gave her a rich person’s wedding. We were not in favor of egalitarian and communitarian values. We were taking care of people, but in our own way.
It’s not that we have always been progressive in the way that we’ve been progressive today. It’s okay to acknowledge that and to say, “And, we’re reconstructing that.” It frees me not to have to apologize for every silly thing that a Jew has done over the course of thousands of years, and it frees us to move forward without feeling bad about betraying the legacies of our ancestors, because Judaism hasn’t been perfect, and it’s not God-given. It is human-created and an encounter with the divine, but it is, as I mentioned this morning, however divine it is, it’s filtered through very human, imperfect beings. We are part of the [Jewish] people and we have that heritage but it’s okay. You can love your grandparents and great grandparents, even if you don’t like everything that they did. You are still their grandchildren, but it doesn’t mean that you have to do everything their way.
So, because we are participatory decision-making communities, and because we believe in ongoing evolution and the imperative to adapt to ever emerging needs…To not apply old strategies to new circumstances. We often are the first to take the first step into the unknown, into new territory. Our innovations, are our approaches always a home run? No. No, no. Most things that we try don’t work, and some things work really well and resonate and spread from community to community and out of the Reconstructionist movement to other movements. I’ve mentioned a bunch of those.
As a historian, as someone who teaches Jewish history, I can assure you that most innovations and experiments and changes that Jews have done over the centuries, we don’t know about because they didn’t last. They didn’t survive because they didn’t resonate, and it’s okay. It’s okay for us to continue to reconstruct and to continue to evolve and to try things until we find what really works, and that is part of what makes Reconstructionist communities different. We say tradition has a vote but not a veto. We listen to the voice of tradition, we study the voice of traditions, we learn what we come from, but we are not tied to doing things the same way and so we are free to do things that are outrageous in their time, that seem obvious to us 10 or 20 years later. I think I’ll end there. Thank you very much for your attention.