Just what is Reconstructionist Judaism?

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By Judi Siegal

While most people have heard of Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism draws a complete blank.

It is not exactly a household word but its beliefs and practices have found their way into the other branches of Judaism with most Jews not realizing where these ideas have come from.

Reconstruction Judaism is the youngest branch of the Jewish tradition and its history dates back to the 1920s with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who left the Conservative movement to found a new branch of Judaism. His core belief was that Judaism was a civilization, a cultural legacy, with beliefs and practices as well as language, culture, literature, ethics, art, history, social organization, symbols and customs. He advocated the idea of a synagogue-center that offered religious services as well as study programs, art, dance, sports and exercise. He believed that Jews should be an integral part of American society and he encouraged the American ideals of liberty, democracy and respect for people with different religious views. Rabbi Kaplan felt that Judaism needed “reconstruction” toward a more liberal and democratic approach with fresh ideas with a different American outlook as opposed to the other branches, which originated in Europe.

The other branches share Reconstructionist beliefs as well, but the meanings behind them are somewhat different. The Torah is viewed as sacred writing but not written by God, but by people. The Jews are not the chosen people but rather the choosing people, that is the Jews chose to be a nation infused with what they believed the One God demanded of them. They saw God’s presence in the world and accepted the Torah stories for the values and ethics that they teach. The Torah helps the Jews see the world in a sacred way even in the most mundane activities.

The Reconstructionist approach to prayer is that it helps the worshipper to be more aware of the miracles and beauty of our world. Prayer is a form of focus, of reminding the Jew of the Godly values that inspire us to do kindly acts. It also serves as a call to others to  follow in the path of righteousness, social justice, healing and caring. The movement advocated Tikun Olam, repair of the world and is involved with environmental and social action issues.

Reconstructionist emphasizes communal efforts toward observance of rituals. Rather than everybody “doing their own thing”, the community works together to form the levels of observance so that the rituals are taken seriously. Halakhah, Jewish law, like in the Reform movement, is non-binding and while it is a guide, in light of contemporary America, the members are allowed to make their own choices in terms of religious practice and observance. The movement is respectful of tradition but tries to find new meaning in the more traditional ways. Reconstructionism sees Judaism as an evolving tradition, one in which each generation has had a hand in shaping. In this way, new meanings can be found and the beliefs and practices can be made relevant to every age.

The Reconstructionist movement has given much to mainstream Judaism. The first bat mitzvah, a coming-of-age ceremony once only given to Jewish males at age thirteen, is now one of the most well known rites of passage. The idea was conceived by Rabbi Kaplan and his daughter, Judith, was the first bat mitzvah, which was celebrated back in the 1920’s. Gender-sensitive words describing God are a hallmark of the Reconstructionist prayer book and are used by the Conservative and Reform movements as well. Women were given equal opportunities and the idea of ordaining women as rabbis was part of the original plan when the JRF opened its rabbinical college in 1968. Sandy Sasso was the first female to be ordained in 1974. (The Reform movement ordained Sally Priesand in 1972) The use of music, especially joyous, uplifting types, characterize Reconstructionist services and that idea has trickled down to the other branches as well. And its emphasis on social justice and activism also influenced the other branches.

According to its Web site, www. jrf.org, the movement is “a progressive, contemporary approach to Jewish life which integrates a deep respect for traditional Judaism with the insights and ideas of contemporary social, intellectual and spiritual life.” Like the many churches within Christianity, Reconstructionism offers people a new choice in the path leading to God. May each of these paths lead us to greater understanding and tolerance of our different beliefs as we work to make this world a better place.

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil, and they enjoy RVing together.