Reconstructionism – The Most Misunderstood Movement in Judaism

by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.Many of you have heard the jokes – “Did you hear about the Reconstructionist Jew? He was overheard praying, “Shema Yisrael, I don’t know Elohaynu, I don’t know Ehad.” Or, “Even the anti-Semites don’t understand Reconstructionism. Do you know what the anti-Semite did to the Reconstructionist family? They burnt a question mark on their lawn!” And if you are a Reconstructionist Jew who tries to explain your philosophy to another Jew, you will probably be cut off with a pre-empty, “Oh yes, you are the ones who don’t believe in God.”

For those of us who are Reconstructionists, all of these misconceptions are a source of constant frustration. Particularly since even though the ideas that we have taught and passed on to the general Jewish community of North America are not readily identified as coming from us, in truth Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, the founder and intellectual giant behind Reconstructionism was without question the single most influential American Jewish thinker of the 20th century.

If you have read and understood the writings of Rabbi Harold Kushner (of When Bad Things Happen to Good People fame), you have read the writings of a Reconstructionist rabbi who was a student of Mordecai Kaplan. If you have read the writings or heard the sermons of Rabbi Harold Schulweis (of Valley Beth Shalom), you have heard the teachings of a Reconstructionist rabbi and student of Mordecai Kaplan. In fact, since Kaplan taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York for fifty years, he taught and influenced numerous generations of leading rabbis in America.

So for those who are curious, here are five simple keys to understanding the philosophy and beliefs of Reconstructionist Judaism. All five are easily remembered by simply keeping in mind the unique definition of Judaism first expressed by Mordecai Kaplan in his groundbreaking book, JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION, published in 1934. In that remarkable book, Kaplan revolutionized Jewish thought simply by stating what is now taken as obvious – that “Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. “ The very essence of Reconstructionism is found within this phrase.

Key number one – what we mean by “evolving.” The Judaism that we live and practice today is the result of some 4,000 years of constant evolution. It has changed from generation to generation and country to country as rabbis, teachers, individual Jews and entire communities have created ever new, different and more personally relevant and contemporary ways of acknowledging their identity and celebrating the values, customs and authentic beliefs of Jewish life. The Judaism of Abraham is not the same as that of Moses, or King David, or Moses Maimonides, or Golda Meir. Reconstructionism simply recognizes and acknowledges this fact as a central understanding of Jewish life.

Key number two – what we mean by “religious.’ Judaism is religious, because it is involved with issues of ultimate meaning in life. Reconstructionism teaches that the primary path to discovering life’s meaning, is through the rituals, customs, holidays, prayers and moments of everyday holiness that we experience through Jewish civilization. God is understood, not as something to be “believed in,” but rather something to be “experienced” in the everyday miracles of our lives. God is that power that animates life, that we discover in the daily acts of creation that surround us, and in the highest strivings of the human spirit. God is not an external being that acts upon us, but a power that works through us.

Key number three – what we mean by “civilization.” As a civilization (and not simply a religion of beliefs), Judaism involves language, literature, art, history, music, food, land, rituals and beliefs. The best analogy is probably to a large extended transnational family, with “peoplehood” as central focus of our identity. That is why what primarily gives Jews our identity is not belief but rather the feeling of belonging to the Jewish civilization itself. We observe Jewish holidays, rituals and customs, not because a divine being commanded us to, but because it is our primary method of reinforcing Jewish identity, and so we consciously include as much of Jewish ritual and tradition as can be made contemporary and relevant to our modern lives.

Key number four – what we mean by “Jewish people.” Reconstructionism is a totally egalitarian, inclusive approach to Jewish life, where men and women, gay and straight are all equally embraced and welcomed. In fact, we were the first movement to formally recognize that a child is fully Jewish if either the mother or father is Jewish and the child is raised as a Jew. Today, we understand the “Jewish people” to be composed of Jews-by-Birth (who were born from a Jewish parent), Jews-by-Choice (who formally convert to Judaism), and Jews-by-Association (non-Jews who marry into the extended Jewish family).

Key number five – what we mean by “Reconstructionism.” This term was coined by Mordecai Kaplan in the 1930s, and reflects his idea that the structure, beliefs, rituals, customs and culture of Judaism constantly require “reconstructing” in each new era of Jewish life, so that Judaism itself will continue to retain its freshness and relevance to each new generation of Jews. Along with its non-supernatural theology, Reconstructionism is distinguished from other movements by its rejection of exclusive “chosenness” of the Jewish people, (teaching that all people choose their own unique paths to answering the same ultimate questions of life), and its embrace of working in partnership with others to repair the world through actions that reflect fundamental Jewish values. 

Reconstructionism then, is a form of contemporary, common-sense Judaism, a spiritual humanism where answers to the ultimate questions of life’s meaning are lived out while embracing the totality of human knowledge and highest levels of intellectual integrity. It is a people-centered Judaism where, in Kaplan’s words, “the past has a vote but not a veto,” and where the ultimate worth and dignity of every human being is celebrated and valued.

Steven Carr Reuben is Senior Rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, California, and, most recently, co-author of Becoming Jewish, a guide to Jewish conversions. Reprinted by permission.