Brief Lesson on Reconstructionism:
Click here for a link to materials from the March 1 Shabbaton on Mordecai Kaplan.
History: Reconstructionism is the movement that began with the thought of the theologian Mordecai Kaplan, and has been developed further by many other people. Rabbi Kaplan recognized that most Jews in the 20th Century were no longer able to accept the basic premises of traditional Judaism: a supernatural God, who acted like a person, revelation at Sinai, the "chosenness" of the Jewish people, the hope for a Messiah, and resurrection of the dead. Indeed, he himself could no longer accept these premises. Yet, drawing on the new sciences of anthropology and sociology, he understood that the Jews are a People; that is not negotiable. All peoples have their own history, customs and ceremonies through which they transmit their values to their children. Indeed, that is what makes the Jews a People, as opposed to a philosophical society. It is our extended family through time, not a club we have joined or a church whose doctrines we have agreed to follow.
Theology and Liturgy: Reconstructionists recognize that all peoples, and all "civilizations" (cultures) evolve. The Jewish civilization, including its religion, has evolved over the centuries, and, Kaplan thought, could continue to evolve to be consistent with the way people thought in the twentieth century. The question was how to reconstruct Judaism on a firm foundation of beliefs or premises that did not conflict with the realities of modern knowledge and modern life. That required, among other things, changing our liturgy to reflect, to the extent possible, what we actually believed. Those are the changes you should listen for when you come to our synagogue, not just the amount of Hebrew we use, or how many new melodies we have introduced.
The Reconstructionist idea of God has, itself, undergone many changes. But from Kaplan on, Reconstructionists have believed that God is a process or a power in the universe, something which operates both within us and outside of us. The classic wording was that "God is the power that makes for salvation." That just means that we identify with God all those things that make human life worth while and make human fulfillment possible. Beyond that, it is hard to say that there is any one theology associated with Reconstructionism.
Community: Kaplan believed that, if Judaism is a total civilization, not just a "religion" in the church-going sense, the language of that civilization is Hebrew. It is the core language of our services as it is the language of our most important source: the Hebrew Bible. Hebrew is the language we share with all other Jews in the world. Similarly, Kaplan and his followers believed that the rebuilding of the Land of Israel, as a Jewish homeland, whether as an independent state or not, was crucial to the creativity and therefore, the vitality, of Judaism as a whole.
Since the one "constant" is the Jewish People itself, Reconstructionism has always stressed the importance of community. Without the community, no Judaism is possible. Our community is not just our own synagogue. It is the Jewish community as a whole in our city, our country, and the larger world. Of course, the most immediate community (like family itself) is going to play the central role in our lives. That's where we celebrate births and life cycle events, mourn our losses, comfort, and help one another in times of trouble.