fbpx The Reconstructionist Revolution: Foundational Ideas | Reconstructing Judaism

The Reconstructionist Revolution: Foundational Ideas

Spoken Audio

The Reconstructionist Revolution: Foundational Ideas

In this hour-long conference call, Rabbi Jane Litman presents an overview of the revolutionary ideas that underlie the first century of Reconstructionist Judaism.

Selected quotes follow. The entire call transcript is available at the bottom of this page. 

On Judaism as a “Religious Civilization”: 

What is the substance of peoplehood? The people are the members of peoplehood, but the substance is their culture. And so Kaplan said that we have a “religious civilization.” He used the word “civilization” instead of “culture” in that instance in order to differentiate from this sort of narrow usage of “cultural” or secular Jews meaning “non-religious.” But when we look at a culture in an anthropological or sociological way, what we mean is that which is the production of the peoplehood. And so for Jews who do not identify as strictly religious in that faith sense of the word, that Protestant Christian faith sense, but they identify with the Jewish people, everything that isn't part of that faith way of identifying things, is part of the culture. So you have things like Jewish music, Jewish literature, Jewish cinema, Jewish humor…The great Jews who took Jewish ideas and brought them out into the world: people like Freud or Emma Goldman or Karl Marx, are not looked at as religious Jews, but it's clear that their Jewish values permeate their life work. In the same way, for many Jews today, Jewish values permeate their lives. If you look at where Jews are located demographically and in terms of professions, it's clear that Jews tend to cluster around certain kinds of Jewish values. And so Reconstructionism is open to that and in fact supports that and articulates it. So a Reconstructionist community is often a good fit for somebody who thought of themselves as a secular or cultural Jew.

On Tikkun Olam

Kaplan used to say that prayer without Tikkun Olam is basically not prayer. Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is putting into practice our theology, the trans-natural theology we talked about, which is, if we're looking at the world as God bringing us the power toward salvation, toward redemption, God does that by using human beings as God's partner. We're the feet on the ground to create the better world that is Tikkun Olam. And so Reconstructionism can't really exist, theologically, ideologically, without a component of social justice—Tzedakah and Gemilut Chasadim, acts of love and kindness—both in terms of how we treat each other, in terms of our derekh eretz, our respectful and civil treatment of each other, and the way these larger issues, labor issues, ecology issues, justice issues. This means that we take certain stands as Reconstructionist Jews, in terms of the bigger issues in the world.

On The First Bat Mitzvah:

The first Bat Mitzvah in 1922, I use as my marker of the beginning of Reconstructionism. To me that was the moment when Kaplan and his followers made the symbolic and visionary break with tradition in a way that there was no turning back from. Because the implications of calling a woman to Torah in that time moved forward everything else we've seen since then, which is a commitment to full egalitarianism and full inclusivity and, in a sense, full peoplehood. In Jewish traditional sources, there's often a ranking of people. There's men and then able-bodied men and non able-bodied men, men and then women, men and then children; and with the calling up of [Judith] Kaplan to the Torah was a way of saying, “Torah is available for everyone, and Torah speaks to everyone and every single person has the potentiality for coming to the Torah.” We have yet to fully realize that, but we're on our way. And to keep making Judaism and Torah available and attractive and inviting for all Jews; and for the people who love them, people who belong to Jewish communities.

 


 

Full Transcript

This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rabbi Henry Schreibman (HS):

It is my pleasure tonight to introduce my friend and colleague, Rabbi Rachel Jane Litman. She's known to many of you around the country because she graduated the RRC in 1989. She's been a congregational rabbi for 20 years, and she joined the movement staff in 2008. She wanted you to know that she is deeply committed to Reconstructionist thought and practice. She is widely published, and is one of the master teachers for all age groups. I like to describe her as a vanguard in our movement, an academic woman who has been able to take us places we didn't even know we would go. And in my estimation, she is one of the great women of Judaism in our era. She is my friend, and a mentor to me as well. She is a pragmatic visionary and therefore the person that we need to discuss our topic of the evening. Jane, thank you for being with us tonight.

Rabbi Jane Litman (JL): Thank you, Henry. And thank you for the really lovely introduction.

HS

Let's get right into the procedure of this evening. Jane has identified, together with the other consultants in our movement, seven thematic areas that we can work our way through, and hopefully leave everybody out there hungry tonight for even more… Jane will approach our thematic areas tonight in units of two: The first thematic group will be “Jewish Peoplehood and Theological Openness.” The second thematic area pairing will be “Integration of Reconstructionist Tradition within Contemporary Life”, together with “Judaism as the Culture/Civilization.” And the last three units of thought will be “Egalitarian and Inclusive Norms within Reconstructionism”, “Democracy and Grass Roots Engagement”, and “Thoughtful Zionism.” [Jane] has decided that she will take questions at the end of every thematic section of two.

Rabbi Jane, what do you describe as the core elements of Jewish Peoplehood?

JL

 Jewish Peoplehood was a concept that Kaplan came up with, as opposed to the way that the classical Reform movement at that time looked at Jews. And that Reform Judaism looked at Jews as a faith, similar to Catholicism, or Protestantism, most similar to Protestantism. Reform Judaism looked at the denominationalism of Protestantism and put itself in that kind of category. In a certain way, so did Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, which most people don't realize was a backlash against Reform and did not precede it. So, theirs was a denominational view of Judaism in a Protestant pattern. However, Kaplan looked at Judaism rather differently, not as a denominational view. And in that way, he wanted to include people that we would call now, the “Pew Jews” to use the recent Pew study. Jews who often call themselves secular, or cultural—though I don't really think that's the right term—but see themselves as not part of merely a faith system but rather something more tribal and larger.

And so the core elements of peoplehood are, as Kaplan put it, an evolving religious civilization. People who belong to the Jewish entity, which since the days of Kaplan, we all call a “people.” Though before Kaplan, no one had ever used that term, we understand ourselves as part of that collectivity.

HS

When you think about early political Zionists, they tended to conceptualize Judaism as a sort of a national entity, similar to being Irish or Vietnamese, and saw Jewish life in the diaspora as a sort of unnatural expression of that identity. How does the Reconstructionist idea of peoplehood transcend that early view?

JL

Political Zionism was part of the nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, and believed that Judaism, like the other nationalist movements of the time, needed its own national movement of political expression in Israel — although in the early political Zionist days, even other places besides Israel, for example Uganda, were raised up as possible national homelands for the Jews. People who were more cultural Zionists understood that it had to be Israel for Jewish cultural reasons, but if you were a political Zionist, that wasn't true — any national place would be a good homeland for Jews as a nation. The idea of political Zionism was to “normalize” the Jewish people, to use their word, by bringing Jews back from the diaspora and exile into a national identity. According to the idea of political Zionism, Jewish identity in the diaspora was by its nature unnatural, because how could you have a people without their homeland? So its goal was to bring all the Jews back to the homeland in Israel or wherever.

Now, Reconstructionist peoplehood looks favorably upon the aspirations for a Jewish homeland, but sees the Jewish homeland in Israel and the Jewish homelands in the diaspora as partners: partners in preserving the culture of the Jewish people. In a Reconstructionist perspective, any community of Jews wherever they are, are, if you will, a bit of the Jewish homeland, because Jewish peoplehood is transnational and multicultural and is a great umbrella. Anywhere you have a group of Jews expressing their Judaism, their Jewish identity, that is part of the people in a Reconstructionist perspective.

HS

Rabbi Litman, Reconstructionist Judaism is frequently described in its inception as not super-naturalist but rather trans-naturalist. How would you describe the distinction between the two [in terms of] theology?

JL

Well, “supernaturalism” postulates that God can act outside of nature, that there's a God that is separate from the natural world as we understand it. “Supernatural” means that God is beyond the universe — that God…can part the Red Sea in a literal way, stop the Earth spinning in a literal way. There's no such thing as a supernatural God in Reconstructionist thought. There might be a God that's beyond our perceivable universe, but there is no God that interferes with the laws of physics in the way that is sometimes described if you're a Biblical literalist. Kaplan says that God isn't just naturalist, though—God is trans-naturalist. [This distinction is manifest] in the partnership of human beings with God. Our tradition states that we're all made b'tzelem elohim, in the image of God, which means in the moral image of God, and that each person therefore carries a sense of godliness within them. As people come together, and come together with the natural world in its grandest sense—in the Einsteinian sense of the universe not being a crapshoot—putting those pieces together creates something in which the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. Kaplan says that whole is this power that makes, that steers us toward salvation. This being steered toward salvation is a form of godliness which isn't merely neutral, but is part of an evolutionary and developmental process toward good. In that way Reconstructionists are, and Judaism is, optimistic and able to view the world through a prism, not of fear, but of hope, and of faith toward a better tomorrow.

HS

So there are many folks who've been attracted to Reconstructionism over the years who are very attracted to this non-supernaturalist approach and are also very comfortable in their atheism. So when you think of traditional theists and atheists, who are both welcome and active in the Reconstructionist communities, can you explain how well that works and why does it work so well?

JL

Reconstructionism, particularly in its early days, articulated a really innovative and creative view of God. It's so innovative and creative that in 1945, ultra-Orthodox authorities burned the first Reconstructionist prayer book as heresy. But in spite of its being highly innovative and creative, [Reconstructionism] actually [encompasses] the overarching and big tent approach of most non-Orthodox diaspora Jews. There's a range and a spectrum, where the 'big tent', and the people who are traditionally theistic, function well in Reconstructionist communities because our attention to reconstructing tradition meanings that we take tradition seriously. If you look in our prayer book you'll see that tradition is taken very seriously. [On the other hand], our innovative approach really lets people come in where they are theistically — we don't have a catechism, or a certain way of thinking. So if you have a peoplehood-centered approach to Judaism in which you say, “What we're most interested is in belonging,” belonging preceding believing, then it's fine for Jews and the people who love them to belong to a Jewish community, and have a spectrum of beliefs.

Question 1:

Jane, when you opened up you started speaking, you mentioned that Orthodoxy came out of a backlash against the Reform Jews. That's a concept I'm not familiar with, would you mind explaining that a little bit more?

JL

Often we think that Orthodoxy is what Jews were forever, that Moses was an Orthodox Jew, but in fact, Jews were traditional Jews with a variety of practices, particularly in different geographical regions, and often non-standardized practices, practices that varied greatly. And as Jews came into the modern world those practices changed with more and more interchange with modern beliefs, and also interchanged between modern Jews and modern non-Jews. For example, a friend of mine did her PhD on mikvaot (ritual baths) in the city of Warsaw in the late 19th century, and found that just demographically it's clear that the female population of Warsaw didn't have enough mikvehs in order for all the women to be using it in a historically Orthodox manner.

So we know that Jews did and didn't do various things and that some Rabbis are considered more makhmir, more strict, and some Rabbis were considered more meykil, more flexible. Into that sort of general background of traditional Judaism, the Reform movement, over a period of time—not immediately, but over a period of say 10 to 15 years—created a denomination which hadn't existed, based on a Protestant model. The Reformers viewed themselves as something other than what had existed before. First in practice, things like mixed seating and use of the vernacular and music in services. And then just developing an ideology to back these changes in practice, these changes that made them more appealing in the modern world.

I have to say that in defense of Reform Judaism, early Reform is often accused of being assimilationist. It actually wasn't intended to be assimilationist, but rather a pride kind of movement of Judaism that people who were young and college educated could feel proud of and identified with. So after the early Reform prayer books started to emerge, there was a great backlash among some of the traditional Jews and that was the creation of Orthodoxy, which was subsequent to Reform. Now, this all happened in Europe. In America that most Jewish immigrants who came to America in the mid-19th century were somewhat secular, Reform Jews. The first major American Judaism was Reform Judaism, but classical Reform Judaism in America really took on really assimilationist aspects: Having Sunday services, calling the rabbis “ministers”, eating non-kosher food. And at the first graduation of Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement seminary, they served what's often referred to now as the Trefa banquet, in which the first course was frog's legs or something like that. A number of rabbis got up and walked out, and they founded the Conservative movement, which was very, very small at first.

[Then came] the great immigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States, as opposed to Western European Jews. The Eastern European Jews didn't fit in in these big Reform temples and the German Jews didn't want them. But the German Jews didn't want them to become socialists and atheists, so they wanted some kind of middle road. German Jews like Jacob Schiff gave a great deal of money to the Jewish Theological Seminary in order to expand Conservative Judaism to be a middle road, appealing to the children of the immigrants.

Now that was Kaplan's garden in a sense. That was where he was, where he had his plot and he grew his, so to speak, “flowers.” Conservative Judaism was his home, until he started really realizing that Conservative Judaism, particularly in that period, did not have any kind of ideological center. That in fact, its [entire] ideology was that it was the center. Kaplan had an ideology beyond that. An ideology that was not Reform Judaism and not Orthodox Judaism and not Conservative Judaism, but about these new ideas of the 20th century about being progressive, about identity, about peoplehood, about democracy, about inclusivity, about egalitarianism, and theological trans-naturalism. That is why it's so appealing to all of us, because it was a way of articulating the world in which he really lived as opposed to a world of the past.

HS

So, Jane, thank you so much for that answer. I'm going to ask both you and our questioners to keep it as brief as possible, so we can get more participation.

JL

That was brief as possible, Henry.

HS

Hallelujah.

[laughter]

Question 2:

With regard to Jewish peoplehood, how do converts, potential converts, and say non-Jewish interested parties fit in with the Reconstructionist peoplehood model as opposed to Judaism as a religion?

JL

That's a terrific question, and the answer is that Judaism is not a faith, nor is it a national identity as the political Zionists said, nor is it a racial identity, as many people in the 20th century and even today try and articulate. That's why I sometimes think when they do these sort of “find the gene” of the Kohanim studies, I don't think it holds water. Judaism has never been a genetic heritage and in fact, you can just prove it by going and looking at the Jews of Cochin, who look like their [Indian] neighbors. The Jews of Ethiopia look like their neighbors. The Jews of China look like their neighbors. The Jews have clearly been involved in DNA mixing for as long as our heritage has existed—in fact the Torah says that a mixed multitude went out of Egypt.

People who are part of the Jewish people, are people who are attached themselves to the narrative of the Exodus, that we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Because of that experience, that deep profound experience of slavery and freedom, we have learned to be kind to the stranger. And that is in a certain way, the essence of our theology—this narrative theology of the core experience of being oppressed and being free, and therefore having empathy for those who are oppressed and having a system to move toward freedom. And throughout Jewish history, non-Jews have always attached themselves to that story and these people. And they become part of the Jewish people. In other eras, there were firmer boundaries. In our era, it often takes a while—somebody's sort of part of the people, sort of not part of the people, and then increasingly sees that it works for them to be part of a Jewish community.

Q2

Yes - I'm an anthropologist by training. But for converts and potential converts [there's a real] acculturation effort. It does seem like it's much more heavy lifting to get your arms around a cultural norm than to just simply subscribe to a system of beliefs. It's a harder and longer reach for folks “outside the club” to go and get with the program.

JL

I think that's true and I think it's to our advantage. Basically, we like to have “A-listers.” And I think that that's true for people who are born Jewish too. Being part of a culture is more demanding than merely being part of a faith tradition. And it's to our advantage. We're enriched by being filled with heavy lifters. And as we say, everybody was there at Sinai. All Jews were there at Sinai. So, I think there is a metaphorical open door for everyone, but in order to be an engaged Jew, you get back what you put in, whether you were born Jewish or not.

HS

Let's move into our next chunk of thematic questions, thank you all. We're talking now about the integration and the reconstruction of tradition within contemporary life. So, Rabbi Litman, could you sort of blend an answer to the classic phrase we hear, “The past has a vote but not a veto.” by using kashrut and tzedakah as an example of that evolving approach.

JL

Thank you, Henry. As Reconstructionists, we are an evolving religious civilization, which means that we look to the past for precedent but we're not stuck in it. So, for example with kashrut, the ancient system of kashrut was probably some kind of ancient biological categorization system, or some way of differentiating Jews from non-Jews. And then, over the Greco-Roman period, it became a kind of table fellowship, like the Greco-Roman table fellowships. And in our day, kashrut is what we try and look at often as ethical kashrut. And so, increasingly in Reconstructionist circles, you'll see that there's a kashrut that's associated with labor practices of the employers and also with whether there's sustainability in terms of the food. And so, we're less concerned about whether it has 1/60th of [a forbidden substance] in it or something like that, and more concerned about broader contemporary issues.

However, the past still has a vote. And you'll see in most Reconstructionist congregations, their kitchens are kosher in some way, either vegetarian, or dairy, dairy-fish, something like that, or that they have rules for how to bring in and serve meat. With tzedakah, similarly tzedakah in the Bible period, there's a head tax, a half a shekel, Over the course of Jewish history it becomes more about the rich pay more and the poor pay less, and it's a kind of social justice mechanism. And in our day, tzedakah is a way that we try and have a broad-based understanding of using our resources to create social justice in the world.

HS

One of the things that I think is most dramatic about what you indicated in terms of Kaplan is that he really did [move] forward, in the early 1900s, the whole area of sociology of religion and he started that at 28 years old at JTS. So, it really is a revolution that he began. Now we're gonna look at the second component of this second theme. And Judaism is a “culture/civilization.” How many people now quote this and really don't have any notion that it was Kaplan that framed this as his original magnum opus, if you will? So how would you say Reconstructionist Judaism is a good communal fit for Jews who tend to identify as either cultural or secular?

JL

I think in a certain way this takes us back to peoplehood. What is the substance of peoplehood? The people are the members of peoplehood, but the substance is their culture. And so Kaplan said that we have a “religious civilization.” He used the word “civilization” instead of “culture” in that instance in order to differentiate from this sort of narrow usage of “cultural” or secular Jews meaning “non-religious.” But when we look at a culture in an anthropological or sociological way, what we mean is that which is the production of the peoplehood. And so for Jews who do not identify as strictly religious in that faith sense of the word, that Protestant Christian faith sense, but they identify with the Jewish people, everything that isn't part of that faith way of identifying things, is part of the culture. So you have things like Jewish music, Jewish literature, Jewish cinema, Jewish humor. Often when you talk about people who are like the non-Jewish Jews.

The great Jews who took Jewish ideas and brought them out into the world: people like Freud or Emma Goldman or Karl Marx, are not looked at as religious Jews, but it's clear that their Jewish values permeate their life work. In the same way, for many Jews today, Jewish values permeate their lives. If you look at where Jews are located demographically and in terms of professions, it's clear that Jews tend to cluster around certain kinds of Jewish values. And so Reconstructionism is open to that and in fact supports that and articulates it. So a Reconstructionist community is often a good fit for somebody who thought of themselves as a secular or cultural Jew.

HS

You speak, with a strong sociological analysis. As many of you know, the Pew Trust, which is not new to many of us but the Jewish community seems to have just identified it, seems to have surfaced almost a million more Jews just by asking the question differently and not framing it in a traditional fashion. And as you said, Jews tend to be very much part of certain cultural ethical aspects. So Hindus and Jews by religion, longitudinally, are the most generous when we track it through the Pew Trust, in terms of tzedakah. In terms of actually giving back to the community

Question 3:

I know many, many Jews who feel very, very Jewish, but when they hear the word “religion”, they freeze up. They don't want any part of it. And you explain to them that we're not asking anyone to do any particular thing, but to join being Jewish. And you see the same thing happening in Israel where you find secular people joining together. They don't want anything to do that sounds like religion. How do you overcome that?

JL

Well, Jerry, you know that's a really good question. I think a lot of people conceptualize religion in almost a fundamentalist Christian sense. And liberal Christians have to deal with this too. So you'll have people who are fundamentally religious in a fundamentalist sense and then what I call fundamentalist atheists, who are the flipside of the coin and critique them. Either way you have such a narrow view of what religion is. In the press and by the media, religion tends to be presented in a way that makes more open-minded and flexible people see it as very unattractive. Particularly when it has this Christian fundamentalist tinge, [the connotations of “religion”] make it very unattractive to people who think of themselves as secular Jews.

And so one of the first things we have to do is identify that we're not fundamentalist or narrow-minded, or trying to tell people what they should believe or think, but that we're welcoming, we're inclusive. I think, Jerry, that what you said was perfect: that we're just a vehicle for ways that people can find richness in their Jewish heritage and identity. We're offering, rather than judging or demanding from them.

Q3

But if you just say the word God in front of them, they run away.

JL

I think we can be flexible about our God-language We can't eschew the God, right? God is an important concept in Judaism and important for Reconstructionists, but Kaplan would often say things like “the God idea” or “the God concept” in a way that's sort of step back, giving people a little more breathing room. And in our prayer book you'll see that the word God is often replaced by some other term, “beloved one”, “sustainer” and what we're trying to do there is give people more room, so that when they hear the word God it doesn't mean a punitive old man in the sky, and then they don't have to run away or freeze up.

HS

Thank you so much. Could you give us a sense, just a little bit about the arts in civilization?

JL

Well, the Kaplans and then the Eisensteins were committed to the arts, particularly to music, and to fully integrating music—both the historical Jewish musical tradition and the non-religious, the historic, cantorial Jewish tradition and the Jewish tradition as it existed in the secular world, and bringing both those into their Jewish communities. And often their communities would host art nights or musical evenings. I think Reconstructionism benefits from having that foundational integration of arts into our sense of community and our sense of spirituality. And so many of our congregations, for example, have a musical Shabbat in which the music is center stage and not either the prayer or the teaching, but an ability to either listen to very quality music or sometimes sing along, to have participatory song as a form of spiritual expression.

HS: Now we're moving onto our final area. We're now going to take on three chunks, if you will; the egalitarian-inclusive norms, the impact on democracy and grassroots engagement, and Kaplan's impact and Reconstructionism's impact on what you would like to call “thoughtful Zionism”. So, Rabbi Litman, let's start with what is so often quoted but so often forgotten, which is the significance of the first Bat Mitzvah in 1922.

JL

The first Bat Mitzvah in 1922, I use as my marker of the beginning of Reconstructionism. To me that was the moment when Kaplan and his followers made the symbolic and visionary break with tradition in a way that there was no turning back from. Because the implications of calling a woman to Torah in that time moved forward everything else we've seen since then, which is a commitment to full egalitarianism and full inclusivity and, in a sense, full peoplehood. In Jewish traditional sources, there's often a ranking of people. There's men and then able-bodied men and non able-bodied men, men and then women, men and then children; and with the calling up of [Judith] Kaplan to the Torah was a way of saying, “Torah is available for everyone, and Torah speaks to everyone and every single person has the potentiality for coming to the Torah.” We have yet to fully realize that, but we're on our way. And to keep making Judaism and Torah available and attractive and inviting for all Jews; and for the people who love them, people who belong to Jewish communities.

HS

This impact and the bravery, if you will, of this revolution around issues of women, really continues to this day, but it also is egalitarian. Could you say a word about this Reconstructionist innovation of… I would basically say acknowledging egalitarian descent, which as you know across the country is usually referred to as the acceptance of patrilineal descent. How is Reconstructionism part of that?

JL

The first Bat Mitzvah was a Reconstructionist innovation and changed the Jewish world a generation later. As I said, all these things are inherent and embedded in the Bat Mitzvah. Once that happened, everything that's happened since is an unfolding of that act. Equilineal descent, the great innovation, which the Reconstructionists voted on well before the Reform movement, was a way of saying that Judaism isn't just the heritage of your mother: that fathers are perfectly able to hand down their Jewish values and tradition, and that in fact, parents as a whole, and getting out of the categories of male and female, of mother and father, we really say that a parent has both the responsibility and the privilege of transmitting Judaism to their children, and that we recognize any parent who's doing that and we affirm them and support them.

HS: We now move into the area of democracy and grassroots engagement. Could you say something about the notion which can be beaten into the ground to some degree, Tikkun Olam, which really is central to the early revolution of Kaplan and Reconstructionism.

JL

Kaplan used to say that prayer without Tikkun Olam is basically not prayer. Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is putting into practice our theology, the trans-natural theology we talked about, which is, if we're looking at the world as God bringing us the power toward salvation, toward redemption, God does that by using human beings as God's partner. We're the feet on the ground to create the better world that is Tikkun Olam. And so Reconstructionism can't really exist, theologically, ideologically, without a component of social justice—Tzedakah and Gemilut Chasadim, acts of love and kindness—both in terms of how we treat each other, in terms of our derekh eretz, our respectful and civil treatment of each other, and the way these larger issues, labor issues, ecology issues, justice issues. This means that we take certain stands as Reconstructionist Jews, in terms of the bigger issues in the world.

HS

You know, several times in both Exodus and in Deuteronomy, we're reminded that the rich and the poor have to be treated equally and have equal access to the law. So one of the questions that comes up is values based decision making. How does that come about and how was that envisioned all those years ago?

JL

Values based decision making means that we put mission front and center. First, we think, what is our mission? What are we working towards here, in our communities? And then from the mission, we go on to think, what are the values that guide this mission? So the values we talked about—the foundational values of Reconstructionism, the seven that we identified in the beginning: these are foundational values. When we make decisions about what social justice cause to support, about how to run our community, how we do our dues, how we prioritize having a religious school, how we figure out what kind of kashrut we have in our kitchens—when we say that all of those are values based. We make those decisions in a values based way, eaning that we understand what our values are, we make sure that everybody has access to that [understanding] and has buy-in and input to what the values are, and then when we make a decision, the first thing we do is look at our values. And we say, is this decision in line with our values?

In doing so, remember one of our values is reconstructing and integrating tradition, so that in our values based decision making, Jewish tradition has a vote. Again, but not a veto. And so there's the vote of tradition, and we integrate that into our sense of where we're going now and what we believe in.

HS

We identified as the last thematic area as “Thoughtful Zionism.” Rabbi Litman, could you attend to this complex era? Classical Reform Judaism had been opposed to Zionism, because it believed the Jews should give their national loyalty to the countries in which they resided. How much was this an answer to the dual-loyalty accusation? What was the assertion of early Reconstructionism at that critical moment, that obviously turned the tables in the opposite direction over the next half a century?

JL

So early classical Reform Judaism was anti-Zionist though they've changed now. I want to make sure everybody understands that the Reform movement is now pro-Zionist. But in its early days it wasn't, because it believed that Zionism had, as you say, dual-loyalty. And the Reform Jews wanted to be very, very clear that their loyalty was to Germany or England or the United States and not to some other entity. Interestingly enough, Orthodox Judaism was also anti-Zionist, because they believed that only the Messiah could bring about a Jewish entity in Israel and that human agency was heretical in that way. And in fact there are still Orthodox Jews, again a very small minority, people like Neturei Karta who are anti-Zionist. Reconstruction put out the belief that from a peoplehood [perspective] the Jews, wherever they, are are part of the Jewish people and that the Jewish people is entitled to have a cultural homeland in Israel.

That doesn't mean that every Jew needs to move there, but the Jews have that right. And so Reconstructionist Jews were Zionist before most Jews in America were Zionist: well before the [Second World] war or the events that transpired after it. Nowadays, this is ironic, in that nowadays Reconstructionist Jews are among those who often tend to be critical of the current government of the state of Israel. It might seem ironic, but it actually isn't because it is about engagement: instead of being apathetic about Israel or merely obedient, Reconstructionist Jews are thoughtful Zionists as opposed to knee-jerk Zionists and often see that the current Government of Israel can be its own worst enemy. And so you'll find that Reconstructionists have a spectrum nowadays of views about how to best support a Jewish Democratic State in the land of Israel.

HS

I would love to hear about your work in Israel over this current struggle of Women of the Wall; and how this fits into a Reconstructionist vision of how to make things happen from the Diaspora and within Israel as well and that collaboration that is so key. Could you say something about that?

JL

For people who don't know, Women of the Wall is a group of women who've been praying for 25 years, trying to pray with tallit and tefillin and reading Torah in the women's section of the Wall. Now the Western Wall in Israel has become increasingly Haredi ultra-Orthodox and for many years these women were attacked and had chairs and rocks thrown at them, and were incredibly brave. And some Reconstructionist leaders are among [their leadership.] Rabbi Deborah Brin, who's a Reconstructionist Rabbi, led the first service of women at the Woman of the Wall and many, many of them have close ties to the movement.

In their bravery and steadfast courage, eventually they became a problem for the government of Israel and the government of Israel started to look for solutions to this problem. And in the solutions that it began to articulate was the idea of a different pluralistic section of the Wall not in the hands of their Haredi authorities, but in the hands of liberal Jews including the Women of the Wall and including the Refor,m Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements that would find a place where we would have, again, the big tent solution.

Instead of having to fight over a small portion of a little wall, we would actually make the pie bigger, so that there could be room for everybody. And in that room for everybody, where there would be a Haredi section and then a section for everybody else, in that [configuration] we could, again, be the Jewish people. And so the Women of the Wall's leadership is now in high-level negotiations for moving toward that solution, a Reconstructionist solution that isn't a solution of losers, but a solution of shalom bayit, of learning we all need to live together. And if we can, we will, but we also have to follow our consciences in certain ways. So I'm looking forward to a big success very soon. And that we'll be able, all of us, to go pray at the Wall in the way that works for us.

HS

And I think I told you a couple years ago when my wife and I visited Israel, we bought a new shofar and she broke it in on the woman's side and had about 200 women circle around her, but I'm waiting for the day when it will be much more egalitarian and open and I know your work in this area is absolutely key.

JL

Well, I feel very privileged this High holidays to hear Trish sound the shofar and I can't wait to hear her sound it at the wall in egalitarian open section where I'm standing next to you and we listen to Trish sound shofar.

HS

Amen Selah. So on along those lines, who and what we are as Reconstructionists really is at essence of what the leadership needs to transmit to be in the marketplace of ideas. So, every time you out there across the country share a bit of this classical information you are reclaiming the territory for so much of what Rabbi Litman just spoke about. It is now considered by some in Hebrew you would say muvan me'eylav, self-evident: Oh of course we're egalitarian, of course we have Bat Mitzvah, of course we speak in a grass-root sense. But so much of that came from the movement that so many of you have poured your life work into as volunteers. So, we're happy to support that and bring this topic to you so that you can disseminate it. So much of what you do, Rabbi Litman, is about belonging. Could you tell us, when you think of yourself as a Reconstructionist woman and leader for these decades, what is your favorite sense of belonging? Where you feel like you're part of something bigger because of this revolution?

JL

One of the things that I love about my current job is that I get to visit so many of our affiliates. And although each one is different, I can feel a Reconstructionist community when I walk in…there is a certain kind of inclusive welcoming, a warmth and a flexibility and open mindedness that is just the hallmark of Reconstructionism and it's been my incredible joy to be able to serve our affiliates and the members of these affiliates. I'm very much looking forward to our next call on this topic when Rabbi Deborah Waxman will speak about how as we enter the second century, what kinds of values we start to bring into the next hundred years: values such as pluralism and activism and how we we build on inclusivity and democracy in very radical and far-reaching ways.

Related Resources

God in Metaphor: A Guide for the Perplexed

Rabbi Toba Spitzer explores the obstacles to prayer posed by stale language about God, and suggests new language that may ease our way in finding connection.

Article
News and Blogs

America's First Bat Mitzvah and its Legacy for American Jewish Life

The first American bat mitzvah took place nearly a century ago, but its effects reverberate to this day. This podcast episode explores how the bat mitzvah helped pave the way for greater inclusion of women in public Jewish ritual and practice and laid the groundwork for further steps toward inclusion.

News
News and Blogs

Rooted and Relevant: 21st Century Jewish Life

In her presentiation, Rooted and Relevant: 21st Century Jewish Life, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., explores how Reconstructionist Judaism can lead the way in the post-COVID world toward a religious revival that meets this century’s new realities. 

News
News and Blogs

Collaboration Across Difference: An Innovation Power Tool

This article was originally published in eJewish Philanthropy on Nov. 25, 2019.

News
News and Blogs

Provide for Yourself a Rabbi

If we are serious about building Jewish community, what could be more important than educating, nurturing and supporting Jewish leaders — rabbis — who will partner with us, teach us, learn with us, and both ground us in our tradition and inspire us to reach for new meaning?

News

Divine Justice: A Jewish Perspective

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D. spoke at the Chautaqua Insitution about divine justice, about good and evil and about God’s presence, plans, and love in the face of what seems to be unearned suffering. 

Article
News and Blogs

New Book Sparks Conversation Between Torah, Kaplan and Real Life

A Year With Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D. is a deeply rooted and boldly relevant Torah commentary. For each week’s reading, Rabbi Reuben weaves together traditional commentary, a nugget of Mordecai Kaplan’s thought, and a vivid personal insight that illuminates the connection between the two. This powerful and accessible work invites us to engage with Torah, Kaplan and contemporary human experience in ways that are nourishing, optimistic and inspiring.

News

Session 5: Questions and Answers

Audience questions and answers at Reconstructing Jewish Communities panel

Article

Session 4: The Need to Wrestle with Difficult Issues

Rabbi Shira Stutman on Reconstructing Jewish Communities panel

Article

Session 3: The Need to Reconstruct Judaism Itself

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld on Reconstructing Jewish Communities panel

Article

Session 2: Redeveloping Congregational Identity So That Being Part Of The Congregation Makes Meaning

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann on Reconstructing Jewish Communities panel

Article

Session 1: The Need for Progressive Jewish Communities to Reconstruct Themselves in This Era

Rabbi Sid Schwarz introducing Reconstructing Jewish Communities panel

Article
News and Blogs

What Does a Thriving Synagogue Look Like?

Synagogues are a means, not an end in themselves. But thriving synagogues contribute to Judaism’s goal: to create healthy individuals, thriving communities, flourishing Jewish life, interconnected human life and a sustainable planet.

News
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