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Jewish Reconstructionist Movement


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What is Reconstructionism

The term Reconstructionism comes from the changes that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of blessed memory, wanted to occur in all of Judaism.  It was never his intent to form a new branch, but rather to influence the existing forms of Judaism to reconstruct themselves.  I believe that one of the key words in our movement is equality, and that it is the emphasis on equality that differentiates us from other Jewish philosophies.

This concept manifests itself in various forms.  Rabbi Kaplan's daughter was the first woman to become a Bat Mitzvah.  He believed that it was time for Jewish women to take their proper place in Jewish tradition and Jewish history.  The Reconstructionist movement has been a leader in this struggle for equality.  Today we accept a woman being president of a congregation, even among the more traditional.  In liberal Judaism we regularly see woman chanting Torah or leading services.

There is a true story which occurred some 20 years ago in a liberal congregation.  The chairman of the ritual committee was not highly Jewishly  educated; he could not read Torah, did not know the order of the service, nor even read Hebrew.  The only tradition of which he was sure was that women should not have an aliyah or be on the bima.  The Jewish world has seen many changes in regard to the status of women in the last 25 years, in large part, because of the work begun by Rabbi Kaplan and the Reconstructionist Movement.  Today, we even recognize that the siddur (prayer book) should reflect a more egalitarian stance.

The concept of equality also is evident in the area of decision making.  There are numerous models that have been used by congregations to establish policy.  In some synagogues it is the wealthiest member(s) who determine the course of action.  Along with each donation from these folks is usually a set of conditions.  In other Temples it is the families who have been supporters for the greatest length of time. To even serve on the board in these institutions one must have been associated for at least three generations.  There are also shuls in which the rabbi has the final say.  These synagogues often forget their real name and become known as rabbi so-and-so's place.  In the Reconstructionist Movement, ever member has an equal voice.  All major decisions are made by the entire congregation.  Any policy that is established by the board may be changed by the congregation.  In our congregation it is the community that decides policy.  Using this process, it often takes much longer to come to a conclusion, but it gives ownership of the community back to the community.

Reconstructionism also tries to balance the past, present, and future.  In some very traditional shuls, there are a set of practices that are believed to date back to the time of Moses.  (If not Moses on Mt Sinai, at least Moses Maimonides.)  No change may be made.  This is the way we have always done it, and this is the way that we will always do it.  There are also liberal congregations in which the observance of tradition is so fluid that one never knows what to expect.  All music must always be the latest and the congregation must be totally creative.  Innovation is the watchword and tradition is only that which has been done for the last three weeks.  In Reconstructionism, we try to balance the old and the new, the traditional and the innovative.  We believe that Torah began with the Five Books of Moses, but that it is a dynamic process.  It most definitely includes the ideas and opinions accumulated throughout the centuries.  The past has a great effect upon our present actions.  But, although tradition has a voice, it does not have a veto.

Being a Reconstructionist Jew presents us with a great opportunity to fully express our Judaism as it was meant to be.  But, it also puts a great responsibility upon each of us.  If someone else is making all the decisions, there is no need to become informed or educated.  On the other hand, if the fate of our community rests in our hands, it is incumbent upon us to know as much as we possibly can about both the past and the present.  As it suggests in the prayer on page 49 of Likrat Shabbat, by Aaron Zeitlin, we must not "sit fenced off  in our apathy."  We must recognize and accept this challenge to fully be a part of our community.  We are given the opportunity to become equal partners with each other and with the past,  present, and future.

The Torah asks us to assume our place in Jewish history. In Deuteronomy 30 we are told that it is not so difficult to accept our place: 11. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. 12. It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? 13. Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? 14. But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

I suppose that along with the word equality, the word challenge is important as a Reconstructionist Jew.  We are challenged to become all that we can be and to fully accept our roles as human beings and as Jews.


Sun, July 21 2024 15 Tammuz 5784