Reconstructionist Judaism

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RECONSTRUCTIONIST JUDAISM . Reconstructionist Judaism originated in the philosophy of Mordecai Kaplan (18811983) and is widely considered the fourth religious denomination of American Jewry, along with Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Kaplan coined the term Reconstructionism in his major work, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), to define his intentions for making Judaism in the United States meet the needs of the generation of the children of eastern European immigrants who arrived in the United States in the early twentieth century and those who were born in the country subsequently. He believed Judaism as practiced in Europe would not be viable in the American environment, and he sought to create a blueprint for a new way of being Jewish that would combine the best features of traditional Judaism with the American way of life. He chose the term reconstruct because it indicated both a respect for Jewish tradition and an awareness that Judaism needed to be remodeled to fit the conditions of life in the United States. He saw his plan in contrast to reform, which lacked a connection to Jewish traditional practice because it focused on theology rather than customs. He also rejected the idea of more traditionally oriented Jews that Judaism needed to be conserved without change.

The Civilizational Approach

Kaplan's most influential idea, which was central to his platform of reconstruction, was that the Jews were neither solely a religious group nor a nation, as they were constituted in prior eras, but a people. He suggested that belonging to the Jewish people was what bound Jews together, even if they disagreed about belief and practice.

Kaplan's blueprint entailed a redefinition of the terms of Jewish life. Judaism was the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Influenced by the ideas of modern sociology, Kaplan retold the story of Jewish history through the conceptual framework of evolution, arguing that change was central to Jewish development over time. Just as Judaism in the past had changed from the times of the Bible through the rabbinic period and into modernity, the Jews in each era in the future would have a responsibility to reconstruct Judaism to meet the needs of the times. The key to this process in early-twentieth-century America was for Jews to understand Judaism as a civilization parallel to other ancient civilizations, like Greece or Rome, or modern ones, like France or England. While religion was central to Judaism, Kaplan viewed Judaism as more than a religion. Jewish civilization should be understood to have the same characteristics of those of other groups, including language, law, literature, customs, art, food, and music. Judaism was not simply a religion or a nation, as others claimed, but a fully developed way of life. This perspective supported those who were alienated from Jewish religious practice but were interested in remaining Jewish through their connections to literature or the culinary arts, for example.

Kaplan dealt with the problem of being both Jewish and American by claiming that Jews could live in two civilizations, the American and the Jewish, taking the best from each. He saw these two civilizations as perfectly compatible. The idea of living in two civilizations was an antidote to the melting-pot ideal that suggested that immigrants shed their ethnic backgrounds. Kaplan's idea that one could be both Jewish and American without experiencing conflict between those identities prefigured the ethnic and racial identity politics that became popular in the 1960s.

What Kaplan wanted Jews to take from the American framework was a connection to what he called the sancta of American civilization: the holidays, myths, and customs of America. To this end Kaplan created liturgies for holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. He also was a passionate believer in democracy and sought to transform Jewish institutions into the democratic patterns of American life. An intellectual disciple of Émile Durkheim and John Dewey, Kaplan wanted to reorganize American Jewish institutions to function in a democratic way. Instead of organizing Jewish life into synagogues and denominations, Kaplan envisioned the creation of organic Jewish communities where democratically elected leaders would reconstruct Jewish political, social, and religious life in concert. Kaplan was also an avid cultural Zionist and believed that a Jewish state in what was then Palestine would be the center that would hold these organic communities together in a worldwide, democratic Jewish structure of governance. Although this dimension of Kaplan's social vision was utopian and never was achieved, his ideas were influential in the movement to create synagogue centers and communal structures, like the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, and in Zionist and other organizations that sought worldwide connections among Jews.

Kaplan's Theology

To Kaplan, religion was the most important contribution of Jewish civilization to the world. Kaplan's own religious vision was controversial and achieved much attention but little support. In 1937 Kaplan published a theological treatise, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. Espousing a theology of religious naturalism, Kaplan defined God as "the Power that makes for salvation" and rejected anthropomorphic and supernatural views of God, instead defining God as an impersonal force that acts through and not beyond the natural world and inspires human beings to aspire to do good in the world. Influenced also by pragmatism, Kaplan's main concern was on how this Power functioned in people's lives to encourage them to seek out a meaningful and moral life. Although many have considered Kaplan's position atheistic, he was a passionate believer in the existence of this impersonal force.

Another controversial dimension of Kaplan's religious philosophy was his elimination of the notion that the Jews were the chosen people. A God that did not act in history could not single out one people for any special role. Kaplan taught that all peoples had a unique function to fulfill in the world and that each group could, through what he called "ethical nationhood," serve a divine purpose.

The Past Has a Vote, Not a Veto

Kaplan defined the traditional practices of the Jews as folkways rather than law. The idea that "the past has a vote but not a veto" became an important slogan for Reconstructionism. While the past needed to be respected, it could not be the final factor determining Jewish practice. Kaplan did encourage people to observe the Sabbath and other holy days and keep kosher, not because they were commanded to do so by God but because these observances were still meaningful to bind them together as a people and connect them to Jews in the past and the future. He encouraged Jewish groups to take Jewish folkways seriously and think about ways to reconstruct them. If customs in their ancient forms still had meaning, Jews should continue to observe them as they had been practiced. Other practices that no longer conformed to the ethical vision of modernity, such as the inequality of the sexes in ancient Jewish teaching, should be abandoned, however. Many customs that no longer were meaningful, Kaplan argued, should be reconstructed, given new meanings, and observed.

One of Kaplan's great contributions was to publish prayer books that illustrated his intention to reconstruct Judaism. He published a Haggadah in 1941 that told the Passover story as a tale of the triumphs of Moses and the people of Israel rather than God. Sabbath Prayer Book, published in 1945, changed the wording of key prayers to eliminate the concept of chosenness, reward, and punishment, as well as references to Temple sacrifice. The prayer book also removed special status for the ancestors of the priests and Levites, as Kaplan saw that practice as not in keeping with democratic principles and therefore in need of reconstruction. Sabbath Prayer Book was publicly burned by Orthodox rabbis in 1945, and Kaplan was excommunicated. Unlike his other works, The New Haggadah achieved great popularity and brought Kaplan great attention in American Jewish life in the mid-1940s.

The Spread of Reconstructionism

Kaplan's ideas were most influential with the leadership of Reform and Conservative Judaism from the 1920s, when Judaism as a Civilization was published, through the late 1940s. His magazine, the Reconstructionist, was a leading forum for discussion and debate about critical Jewish issues, from Zionism to economic justice. Kaplan was interested in influencing the leadership of the American Jewish community to follow his ideas. He was not interested in starting a movement based on those ideas. He was a rabbi of a synagogue he founded in 1922, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ). The SAJ was a place to carry out his experiments in liturgy. The services conducted at SAJ were based largely on the traditional Hebrew liturgy but also included English readings in keeping with the themes of the service and provided ample opportunity for discussion of the Torah portion and its relationship to issues of the day. The SAJ is also famous as the location of the first modern bat mitzvah, held rather unceremoniously for Kaplan's eldest daughter, Judith, in 1922.

Kaplan's primary vocation was as professor of homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a position he held from 1909 to 1963. During Kaplan's years at the seminary, Reconstructionism was seen primarily as the left wing of the Conservative movement. Kaplan's greatest influence was on the several generations of rabbis he taught, many of whom became his ardent followers. His followers were among those most dissatisfied with the way Conservative Judaism was developing, and they urged Kaplan to separate from the institutional structure of Conservative Judaism and embark on the creation of a Reconstructionist movement. He gave tacit permission and support to these rabbis but never embraced the idea of creating a separate movement based on his ideology. He refused opportunities to start his own seminary or to teach at other Jewish institutions.

But Kaplan's ardent followers were intent on creating a movement based on his philosophy. The task of movement building fell to Kaplan's son-in-law, Ira Eisenstein (19062001). Eisenstein was one of the many young men who became followers of Kaplan while training for the rabbinate at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Eisenstein slowly built an organizational structure that began with the Reconstructionist Foundation in 1940. The foundation was a membership organization that coordinated the publications produced by the nascent movement, including the magazine, the works of liturgy, and pamphlets explaining the Reconstructionist program.

Assuming that the future of a movement depended on attracting synagogues in addition to building an individual membership base, Eisenstein in the early 1950s took a position as rabbi of Anshe Emet, a large Conservative synagogue in Chicago thought to be sympathetic to the Reconstructionist program. Unsuccessful in the effort to make Anshe Emet a Reconstructionist synagogue, Eisenstein returned to New York in 1959. He and his colleagues organized their own synagogues and small study groups, which they called havurot, to further the work of the movement. With the cooperation of several rabbis who revered Kaplan as their teacher and who encouraged their congregations to affiliate with both the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements, the Reconstructionist movement began to grow. In 1954 they organized the Reconstructionist Federation of Congregations, which consisted of the SAJ and two other groups. As more affiliates joined the movement, the federation was reorganized as the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (FRCH) in 1960, and it later was renamed the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF). Through the next few decades the organization grew gradually, adding a few dozen or more Reconstructionist groups around the United States and Canada. Some of Kaplan's followers were also instrumental in creating a Reconstructionist presence in Israel, founding a synagogue, Mevaqshe Derekh, in 1962.

The slow growth of the movement can be attributed to several other factors in addition to Kaplan's own reticence. Many rabbis who were his followers were also institutionally loyal to the Reform and Conservative movements and did not want to build new institutions. And Kaplan's ideology was intellectually challenging and rigorous, and consequently attractive to only a small number of Jews who were dissatisfied with traditional synagogue life. As the sociologist Charles Liebman pointed out in an influential study in the 1970s, Reconstructionism functioned as the folk religion of American Jewry. Kaplan's work described what American Jews actually believed and practiced but not the way Jews wanted their religious institutions to represent Judaism in America. While Reconstructionist ideology may have described the actual theology and behavior of American Jewry, most Jews preferred that their synagogues hold up an ideal that was not necessarily reflected in their own belief or practice.

Founding a Rabbinical College

Although the Reconstructionist movement did not attract large numbers, congregations did form, and they sought leadership. Many Conservative rabbis were taught by Kaplan, but they were, like Kaplan, loyal to their institutional homes and were not willing to serve these new congregations. For Reconstructionism to grow as a movement, it was necessary to start a school to train its own rabbis. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) was founded in 1968 in Philadelphia by Ira Eisenstein who became the first president. While Kaplan generally opposed to the institutionalization of the Reconstructionist philosophy and was not involved directly in the school's creation, he did travel from New York to Philadelphia to teach a class once a week, and continued to do so until 1972 when he moved to Israel. The establishment of this school put Reconstructionism on the map as an independent denomination in the American Jewish community.

The timing for the creation of such an institution was excellent. Young men fleeing the draft considered this new kind of theological training. Young women influenced by women's liberation were another source of students for the new school. (Although the Reform seminary, the Hebrew Union College, ordained its first woman candidate a year before Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the first woman RRC graduate, completed her training; when RRC admitted Sasso, no woman had yet been ordained.)

Eisenstein sought to provide a training program and curriculum that reflected the Reconstructionist ideology. The ordination of women followed Kaplan's principled belief in women's equality. Living in two civilizations meant that graduates of the RRC would also obtain doctoral degrees in religious studies from a secular institution. To that end the RRC was located in Philadelphia based on an arrangement for rabbinical candidates to take doctoral studies at the Department of Religion at Temple University. The curriculum at RRC was constructed around seminars that focused on the evolving history and culture of the Jewish people. The first year was devoted to the Bible, the second to the Talmud, the third to medieval studies, the fourth to modern studies, and the fifth to the contemporary world. Text study was considered ancillary to the history seminar. This distinguished studies at RRC from those at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where learning Talmud text was central. It also distinguished the program from Hebrew Union College, which focused more on practical rabbinical training. At RRC practical rabbinical training was limited. The ideal was that RRC graduates would be teacher-scholars who worked with small congregations on weekends while they pursued their academic studies as their primary occupation.

Whereas some of the early students were interested in pursuing academic careers, others were more interested in traditional careers as synagogue rabbis. The Reconstructionist congregations were also seeking leadership. During the first decade, the Ph.D. requirement was reduced to a master's degree, and students began pursuing master's degrees in education and social work to support their vocational interests. Some of the graduates began to assume leadership in Reconstructionist congregations, whereas others served Reform and Conservative congregations or took positions as Jewish communal service directors, institutional chaplains, principals of day schools, or chaplains on college campuses.

Slow growth continued through the 1970s. The first graduates organized the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) in 1974. The RRA welcomed not only graduates of the RRC but rabbis who were supportive of the Reconstructionist philosophy and movement. The addition of an organization of Reconstructionist rabbis enabled the Reconstructionist movement to mirror the tripartite organizational structure of the Reform and Conservative movements and gain legitimacy on the national level.

The Next Generation of Leadership

For many years Eisenstein served as editor of the Reconstructionist magazine, the head of the Reconstructionist Foundation, and the president of the RRC. In the early 1980s he began the process of retiring from these posts, having accomplished his goal of establishing the institutions of the Reconstructionist movement. Eisenstein's retirement in 1981 was soon followed by the death of Mordecai Kaplan, and a new era of leadership and change ensued.

In 1981 Ira Silverman succeeded Eisenstein as president of the RRC, and David Teutsch became the head of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot. Neither man had a prior association with the Reconstructionist movement. Silverman had been the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, and Teutsch was a recently ordained Reform rabbi. Both had been strongly influenced by the newly developing avurah movement in Judaism. Although Reconstructionists had formed ̣avurot (small fellowships for study and celebration) as early as the 1950s, the avurah movement envisioned these small groups quite differently.

avurah Jews formed their groups as an alternative to synagogue membership. The groups usually consisted of young people in their twenties and thirties who came of age in the 1960s, singles and couples, some with small children. Many were educated in the Conservative movement's youth and summer programs and as a result were quite knowledgeable about Jewish texts and practice. While they were generally comfortable with traditional theology, they were critical of Jewish institutional life and uninterested in synagogues and rabbis, preferring intimate, participatory gatherings where the participants could alternate leadership roles. With the exception of an annual conference and newsletter, they opposed the creation of new institutions. They preferred celebrating and studying together in these small groups, and most such groups had no need for Jewish communal institutions. Teutsch and Silverman, on the other hand, saw the potential of the institutions of the Reconstructionist movement as a structure within which to harness the energy of avurah Judaism.

Important elements of the ideological orientation of Reconstructionism are compatible with avurah Judaism. Reconstructionism and avurah Judaism share an emphasis on peoplehood, community, and democracy; a passionate embrace of women's equality; an interest in developing new rituals and practices; and an informal and emotive worship style. However, Kaplan's theology and his unbridled enthusiasm for America were not of importance to the avurah orientation and would no longer be emphasized. This rejection of Kaplan's ideas was a source of tension between those who came to be defined as classical Reconstructionists and the next generation.

Silverman made many changes at RRC. He moved the campus from its small, urban home near Temple University to a much larger building in a northern suburb, and he added the nationally recognized scholars Hershel Matt, Arthur Green, Arthur Waskow, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to the faculty. The presence of Waskow and Schachter-Shalomi in particular created problems for the small movement. These men were the key leaders in what later became known as the movement for Jewish Renewal.

Like Reconstructionism and avurah Judaism, the Renewal movement emphasizes community, equality for women, and ritual innovation. But Renewal Judaism, particularly as defined by Schachter-Shalomi, is also neo-Hasidic with an emphasis on charismatic leadership and mystical union with God. Schachter-Shalomi taught that Jewish life is enriched by borrowing practices from other religious traditions, like Sufism, Yoga, and Native American spirituality. This emphasis created enormous tension and debate among Reconstructionists, who did not appreciate his mystical orientation. Waskow was controversial within the organized Jewish community for his outspoken political views, including his criticisms of the government of Israel. The Reconstructionist movement endured much censure for keeping him on the faculty during Silverman's presidency.

When Silverman resigned in 1986, Arthur Green became the president of RRC. Green was a scholar of Hasidism and a critic of Kaplanian theology. He shifted the curricular focus of the rabbinical program, ending the requirement for outside study. He replaced the requirement with an emphasis on traditional textual study, shifting the curricular focus away from historical critical study. He added a mandatory year of study in Israel and increased Hebrew language requirements in the curriculum. Green left in 1993 to resume his career as a university professor.

Teutsch resigned as the director of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot to serve RRC as dean of admissions and then as executive vice president. He was chosen to follow Green as RRC president in 1993. Teutsch embarked on a program to fulfill the institutional mandate of the original Reconstructionist leaders, to make Reconstructionism a legitimate fourth denomination on the American Jewish scene. In his years as president, Teutsch initiated capital improvements, began master's degree and cantorial training programs, and solidified the financial base of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. But his most important contribution was as the editor of the five-volume prayer book series Kol Ha-neshamah, published over a ten-year period, 19891999.

This prayer book series replaced the old Reconstructionist prayer books that had been so controversial and popular in their time. Kol Ha-neshamah includes the classical Reconstructionist formulation of the prayers alongside traditional prayers and more contemporary innovations. By making these options available, the prayer books provided room for Reconstructionists of different theological orientations to feel welcome within the Reconstructionist community. The prayer books made a definitive statement that the Reconstructionist movement had a distinctive worship style and a contribution to make to Jewish religious life. For Reconstructionist congregations, Kol Ha-neshamah created a perception that even if congregations make different choices about which prayers to use, they are all part of one Reconstructionist community, reflecting Teutsch's emphasis on consensus building. The number of Reconstructionist congregations also expanded during this era, growing in number from several dozen to over one hundred as the movement placed greater emphasis on supporting congregational life.

Beyond Classical Reconstructionism

The emphasis on creating liturgy linked the new era to the Reconstructionist past but also highlighted how spirituality became a dominant feature of contemporary Reconstructionism. Reconstructionist congregations welcome Jews who embrace Kaplan's theology of religious naturalism, or a cultural rather than religious orientation to Jewish life. But Reconstructionist Judaism has followed the contemporary Jewish trend toward a focus on the human-divine encounter that is predicated on a more traditional view of God as a partner in conversation. Reconstructionist Jews are not likely to believe that God responds directly to prayer or acts to reward or punish them in their lives. But they are likely to seek a relationship with God through prayer and meditation. Rabbinical students at RRC have mentors for their spiritual direction, and Reconstructionist synagogues sponsor healing groups, prayer circles, and Jewish meditation.

The emphasis on community, and in particular on inclusive community, became the other hallmark of Reconstructionist Judaism under Teutsch. Kaplan was a maverick, often at odds with the faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary, espousing a theology that many perceived as heretical. Eisenstein also propounded an antiestablishment orientation, founding an upstart movement and school in an era when few new institutions were being developed in American Judaism. Following that pattern, contemporary Reconstructionist philosophy emphasizes welcoming Jews who see themselves as unwelcome in the rest of the Jewish community, particularly gay men, lesbians, and the intermarried. The Reform movement has also reached out to these groups, but the Reconstructionist movement has taken bold steps to welcome them without the institutional strength of the Reform movement. The RRA adopted patrilineal descent (accepting the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as a Jew) and developed guidelines for welcoming intermarried couples in 1978, supporting a position taken by the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation in 1968. The RRC under Silverman was the first seminary to admit openly gay and lesbian students, in 1984. The emphasis on inclusive community reinforced the classical Reconstructionist orientation toward acceptance of those who were alienated from Jewish life but took the idea in a new direction.

In 2002 Teutsch stepped down as president to direct the Center for Jewish Ethics at RRC. He was succeeded in the presidency by Dan Ehrenkrantz, the first RRC graduate to hold the position. With an alumnus of the rabbinical college in the highest leadership position for the first time and with the stabilization of its institutions, Reconstructionist Judaism claimed a place in the mainstream of Jewish life.

See Also

Kaplan, Mordecai.


Alpert, Rebecca T., and Jacob J. Staub. Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach. New York, 1985. 2d ed. Wyncote, Pa., 1997. A basic introduction to the ideas of Reconstructionism.

Eisenstein, Ira, and Eugene Kohn. Mordecai M. Kaplan: An Evaluation. New York, 1952. Essays by the early leaders of the movement, including a brief autobiographical essay by Kaplan.

Goldsmith, Emanuel S., Mel Scult, and Robert M. Seltzer. The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan. New York, 1990. Essays chronicling Kaplan's contributions to Jewish life and the development of the Reconstructionist movement.

Kaplan, Mordecai M. Judaism as a Civilization. Rev. ed. Philadelphia, 1994. Kaplan's most influential work, this book describes his program for the reconstruction of American Judaism.

Kaplan, Mordecai M. The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. Rev. ed. Detroit, Mich., 1994. Kaplan's most accessible work, this book illustrates his theology through the cycle of the Jewish year.

Kaplan, Mordecai M., and Eugene Kohn, eds. Sabbath Prayer Book. Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation. New York, 1945. The prayer book that was burned by Orthodox rabbis for its iconoclastic prayers.

Kaplan, Mordecai M., Eugene Kohn, and Ira Eisenstein, eds. The New Haggadah for the Pesah Seder. Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation. New York, 1941. The original Reconstructionist Haggadah that focuses on the story of the people of Israel and not on God's liberatory intervention.

Levitt, Joy, and Michael Strassfeld, eds. A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah. Elkins Park, Pa., 2000. The new Reconstructionist Haggadah.

Liebman, Charles S. Aspects of the Religious Behavior of American Jews. New York, 1974. The first critical academic study of the Reconstructionist movement.

Scult, Mel. Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan. American Jewish Civilization Series. Detroit, Mich., 1993. A definitive Kaplan biography.

Teutsch, David A., ed. Kol Ha-neshamah: Shabat Ve-hagim. Translated by Joel Rosenberg. Wyncote, Pa., 1995. The Reconstructionist prayer book for the Sabbath and holy days.

Teutsch, David A., ed. Kol Ha-neshamah: Mahzor Leyamim NoraʿIm. Translated by Joel Rosenberg. Wyncote, Pa., 2000. The Reconstructionist prayer book for the high holy days.

Rebecca T. Alpert (2005)