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Reconstructionism: Backround & Overview

RECONSTRUCTIONISM, ideology and movement in U.S. religious life. Both the idea and the movement owe their inspiration to Mordecai Menahem *Kaplan (1881–1983). Raised Orthodox in Eastern Europe, Kaplan came to America at age eight. He saw his generation responding to this radically different setting in two ways: struggling to maintain Jewish identity while acclimating to America, or abandoning Jewish identity altogether. Kaplan believed that with the breakdown of belief in the Torah as the revealed word of God, in the authority of halakhah (Jewish law), in a supernatural conception of God, and in the notion of the Jews as a separated and "chosen people," a new rationale for maintenance of Jewish identity was needed. Kaplan argued that in pre-modern times, Jews had remained loyal to their identity despite hardship and suffering because they believed that adherence to Judaism assured them of salvation in the next world. Before the French Revolution (1789) Europe's Jews also lived in segregated communities; with the entry of Jews into citizenship in the countries where they resided, the social and sociological constraints that kept them apart from the larger culture were removed, however imperfectly. Kaplan argued that Jews had to learn to live in two civilizations: the Jewish one and the larger culture of which they were now a part.

When Kaplan began his career, there was widespread disagreement among Jews about how to define Judaism and what comprised Jewish identity. Reform Judaism defined Judaism as a religion only, and Jews as a community of faith. Zionist theoreticians defined Judaism as a nationality, and Jews as citizens (in exile, perhaps, but citizens nonetheless) of the Jewish nation. Secular Jews saw Judaism as a culture and Jews as an ethnic group. Kaplan sought definitions that could encompass this diversity. He decided that Judaism should be understood as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people, and that the Jews should share a common sense of peoplehood. Judaism, like any other civilization, comprised a history, a language, a religion, a social organization, standards of conduct, and spiritual and social ideals. Under the influence of modern sociology, Kaplan stated that whatever is an object of collective concern takes on all the traits of a religion, which in its turn functions in order to hold up to the individual the value of the group and the importance of his complete identification with it. For Kaplan, belonging to the Jewish people came before behaving according to Jewish practice or believing according to Jewish religion.

Kaplan believed that Judaism had to be transformed from an "other-worldly" civilization into a "this-worldly" one. He rejected supernaturalism in all of its manifestations. For Kaplan, the Torah was a human document recording the Jewish people's earliest record of their search for God and for the behaviors that would lead to human responsibility. What tradition called mitzvot (divine commandments) were for Kaplan "folkways" (minhagim) that had been created by the Jewish people, and thus were subject to adaptation, change, and/or rejection in response to the changing needs of the Jewish people. The Jewish religion, said Kaplan, exists for the Jewish people, not the Jewish people for the Jewish religion. Where Reform Judaism saw ethical monotheism as the unbroken line of continuity throughout Jewish history, and Orthodox Judaism saw the Torah and halakhah as the unchanging constants, Kaplan held that it was Jewish peoplehood that was the sole constant throughout the evolving history of Judaism.

Many Jewish intellectuals were attracted to Kaplan's program for a Jewish life. Since Judaism was a civilization, Kaplan argued that its parts could best function in interrelationship with one another. Kaplan sought to replicate the model of the European Jewish kehillah as what he called an "organic community," in which the basic unit of Jewish life would be the entire aggregate of a given community's synagogues, educational institutions, Zionist organizations, agencies, and organizations, linked into a single structure with a democratically elected leadership. In Kaplan's vision, one would join the local Jewish community, pay dues to that community, and in return have access to all the services of that community from birth to death. While this model was never implemented in the way Kaplan envisioned, it did have an influence on the emergence and development of the Jewish Federations and Jewish Community Relations Councils, each of which sought to embrace the entire spectrum of the communities they represented.

Kaplan was also a pioneer in conceiving of the synagogue as a Jewish center, in which social, intellectual and athletic activities would be as much a part of the institutional program as the synagogue and the religious school. This vision not only influenced the development of Jewish congregational life in the period before World War II, but it also helped inspire the creation and development of the Jewish Community Center movement.

The most controversial aspect of Kaplan's thinking was his theology. The conception of God as a supernatural personality became for Kaplan a conception of God as force or process, or, in his preferred formulation, "the Power that makes for salvation." Salvation was understood by Kaplan as self-fulfillment on a social and individual basis. It meant the progressive improvement of the human personality and the establishment of a free, just, and cooperative social order. Kaplan maintained that there were adequate resources in the world and capacities in humans to achieve such salvation. Since we sense a power that orients us to this life and elicits from us the best of which we are capable, this notion of God conforms to our experience. Kaplan distinguished between conceptions of God and belief in God. He felt that Judaism offered many different conceptions of God, from rational to mystical, and from personal to non-personal. It was belief in God as that force or power in creation and in human life that supported salvation, what Kaplan later called "transnaturalism," that he felt was essential; the conception of God that a Jew might choose was less important. Some early Reconstructionists, such as Milton *Steinberg , rejected Kaplan's naturalistic theology while accepting the rest of Kaplan's program.

Until the founding of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in 1968, Reconstructionist ideology was essentially defined by Kaplan and his immediate circle of disciples and followers. Once the RRC began to ordain Reconstructionist rabbis, and as the number of Reconstructionist congregations began to grow in the 1980s and 1990s, Reconstructionism itself began to evolve, adapt and change to meet new circumstances. The inclusion of ḥasidic, kabbalistic and meditative practices and teachings broadened the spectrum of Reconstructionist spirituality in ways that the primarily rational approach of Kaplan might not have accommodated. As an independent movement, Reconstructionism had to grapple with creating positions and practices that, if not exactly couched as a return to halakhah, meant a serious engagement with halakhah. The rise of literary analysis and appreciation of biblical scripture in the last quarter of the 20th century provided a new opportunity to reengage the Torah and other biblical writings as myth and poetry, and not only as an historical document.

Reconstructionism in the 21st century remains firmly grounded in Kaplan's essential insight, that Judaism is the product of the historical experience of the Jewish people, and is not the revealed word of God or an inspired reaction to revelation. The traditional sources and practices of Judaism still have, in Kaplan's famous formulation, a "vote but not a veto." The organic Jewish community may never have actually been created, but the institutions of the movement and the congregations affiliated with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) try to operate with Kaplan's principles of democracy, egalitarianism, and openness. In particular, the concept of values-based decision-making has become integral to Reconstructionism, as has inclusivity, the bringing into the Jewish community of intermarried Jews, single Jews, gay and lesbian Jews, single Jewish parents and elderly Jews, among others. Kaplan's emphasis on belonging over behaving and believing remains central to Reconstructionism; what has changed is that it is as much the belonging to a Jewish community (congregation or havurah) as to the Jewish people that is now central.

The founding of the Reconstructionist movement may be dated from the establishment by Mordecai Menahem *Kaplan of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) in January 1922. The society served both as a synagogue center and as a forum for Kaplan's ideas. Several months after the publication of Kaplan's Judaism as a Civilization (1934), he launched the magazine The Reconstructionist in collaboration with his closest associates, of whom Milton Steinberg, Eugene *Kohn , and Kaplan's son-in-law, Ira *Eisenstein , formed the nucleus. In 1941 the New Haggadah and A Guide to Jewish Ritual were published. In the Guide, ritual was viewed not as law but a means to group survival and the spiritual growth of the individual Jew. The individual was to be the arbiter of which rituals or folkways would be followed, though when making such choices, a balance between one's own needs and those of the group was optimal. Preserving the integrity of the tradition, while being responsive to contemporary needs, was fundamental.

In 1945 the Reconstructionist Sabbath Prayer Book appeared, which resulted in a ban (ḥerem) against Kaplan by the Agudat ha-Rabbonim, a small Orthodox association, although such an attempt was largely ignored. But several of Kaplan's colleagues on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary published an adverse "statement of opinion" (gillui da'at) in the Hebrew publication Hadoar. In accordance with Kaplan's ideology, the prayerbook excised references to the Jews as the "chosen people," and to such concepts as God's revelation of the Torah to Moses, the parting of the Red Sea, and belief in the coming of a personal Messiah. Some passages of the traditional prayerbook were retained despite Kaplan's rejection of the concepts which lay behind them. In such cases the editors suggested to the reader how the passages were to be understood. Thus, prayers for the restoration of Israel were retained, but readers were told this should not be construed as the return of all Jews to Palestine. Kaplan was a Zionist of the American school, ardent in his support for the colonization of Palestine, but opposed to concepts implying the "negation of the Diaspora" and to emphasis on the necessity of aliyah. The entire second half of the prayerbook contained a major innovation for the time: supplementary readings intended to allow for variety in the structure of weekly services.

Kaplan's greatest success was in his impact on Jewish educators, social workers, and rabbis, especially students of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he taught from 1909 to 1963. Because he himself preferred to think of Reconstructionism as a school of thought rather than a separate movement, and because he was resistant to further dividing the Jewish community, Kaplan's followers were constrained from building on his intellectual and liturgical efforts. Only with the establishment in 1968 of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Philadelphia did Kaplan finally give his blessing to the development of Reconstructionism as an independent denomination. Ira Eisenstein, who had been Kaplan's closest collaborator, and had served as the editor of The Reconstructionist magazine since the 1940s, became the first president of the RRC, serving until his retirement in 1981. Without Eisenstein's dedication to the creation of the RRC, Kaplan's legacy would have been one primarily of ideas, and not of institutions.

Once Reconstructionism began to train its own rabbinic leaders, the movement began to grow, slowly at first, but then in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of affiliated Reconstructionist congregations and havurot grew rapidly. From ten affiliates in 1968, the movement counted 105 members of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) in 2005. As of 2005, the RRC had graduated 265 rabbis who served in congregations, agencies, schools, on campuses and in chaplaincy settings, and as writers, lecturers and teachers, so that the influence of Reconstructionism continued to be disproportionate to the size of the movement.

In the 1990s, the Reconstructionist movement issued a new series of prayerbooks and a new Haggadah. This second generation of Reconstructionist liturgy was unique in being the work of an editorial committee comprised of rabbis, academics, and laypeople, and in reflecting the contributions of many of the graduates of the RRC, who were also rapidly moving into positions of leadership on the faculty and administration of the RRC, the staff of the JRF, and of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA, established in 1974). In 1996 the RRA published the first Reconstructionist rabbi's manual. A new magazine, Reconstructionism Today, was established in 1994. In 2005, The Reconstructionist, now a journal, published its 70th anniversary issue. The initial publication of a projected three-volume Reconstructionist Guide to Jewish Practice appeared in 2000. In 2003, a Reconstructionist youth movement, No'ar Hadash, was established. That same year, the first Reconstructionist summer camp opened (Camp JRF); in 2005, the camp purchased a permanent home in the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania, which will also serve as a year-round conference and retreat center for the movement.

After Kaplan and Eisenstein, the most important and influential leader of the Reconstructionist movement has been David *Teutsch , who served as vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation (1980–82), executive vice president of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (1982–86), president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (1993–2002), editor-in-chief of the Kol Haneshamah prayerbook series (1989–2002), and director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the RRC (2002– ).

The intellectual history of the Reconstructionist movement came full circle with the publication in 2002 of the first volume of excerpts from the daily journal kept by Kaplan from 1913 until the late 1970s. Edited by Kaplan's biographer, Mel Scult, the journals helped to bring to a new generation of Reconstructionists and to all interested in the history of American Judaism in the 20th-century, the insights of the founder of Reconstructionism as he worked out the ideas, principles, and positions that would become Reconstructionist Judaism.

In September 2015 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, announced a significant change in policy: the organization would now begin to admit people with non-Jewish spouses into Rabbinical school. This decision was made to reflect the changing times and cultures of modern society, and comes amid news that an estimated 60% of Jews who married between 2000 and 2013 married non-Jewish spouses.


R.T. Alpert and J.J. Staub, Exploring Judaism: a Reconstructionist Approach (2000); E.S. Goldsmith, M. Scult, and R.M. Seltzer (eds.), The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan (1990); Communings of the Spirit: The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, 19131934 (2001); M. Scult, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan (1993); I. Eisenstein, Reconstructing Judaism: An Autobiography (1986).

[Richard Hirsh (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
“Reconstructionists to Ordain Rabbis With Non-Jewish Partners,” ABC News (September 30, 2015)