How Reconstructionism Differs

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

I’ve told it before, but it’s probably the most famous Mordecai Kaplan story of all: Kaplan used to teach homiletics, the art of giving a sermon at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he worked and taught rabbinic students for 50 years. His habit was to give a sermon to the class each Monday based on the Torah portion of that week and then assign one of his students to give a sermon on Friday, five days later based on the same Torah portion. Kaplan was infamous for his blistering criticisms of practically every sermon that his students gave.

So, as the story goes, one week an enterprising student copied Kaplan’s sermon down word for word on Monday, and when Friday came and it was his time to present his own sermon, he simply delivered Kaplan’s sermon exactly as Kaplan himself had written it. When he finished, Kaplan stood up and thundered, “That was terrible!” To which the student replied, “But Dr. Kaplan, that was the sermon that you gave on Monday.” At which point Mordecai Kaplan looked back at the student and said, “Yes, but I have grown since then.”

Mordecai M. Kaplan, born June 11, 1881 in Lithuania to Rabbi Israel and Haya Kaplan. He came to New York with his mother at the age of 8 to join his father who was working with the Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox community. He grew up living in two worlds – the world of strict Orthodox practice (and it was assumed throughout his childhood that he would grow up to take his father’s place as an Orthodox rabbi), and the world of early 20th century rationalist, scientific thinking. He studied philosophy and science, sociology and anthropology at City College of New York, and then Columbia University, and as a young man was dauntingly brilliant and perpetually questioning.

He started his career as an Orthodox rabbi and helped create the Young Israel movement of modern orthodoxy, but he soon realized that when, in spite of his Orthodox life he rejected the idea that God was a supernatural “Being” who acted on the world and directed the lives of human beings, he felt compelled to fashion a philosophy and theology of Judaism that would help Jews to reconcile the richness of Jewish tradition with the modern scientific understandings of how the world really worked.

The result of his own intellectual struggles was the creation of the basic principles of Reconstructionist Judaism and the transformation of American Judaism for all time. What Mordecai Kaplan did for American Judaism first was to resolve one of the great intellectual questions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – namely was Judaism a religion, a race, or a culture? Today no one even thinks about such questions, but at the turn of the 20th century it was perhaps the sociological issue of the Jewish world. Kaplan’s solution was to define Judaism as “The evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people,” and in so doing change the way we have understood Judaism and the centrality of the Jewish people ever since.

He recognized that Judaism is not simply a “religion” in the traditional sense of the word – meaning a system of beliefs. In his brilliant explanation of the origins and nature of religious identity, he was the first to recognize that all religious identity is formed from the three “B’s” of “Believing, Belonging, and Behaving.” He explained in simple language that in the western world we understand religious identity primarily through the Christian lens, for obvious reasons. So most people in America think that the foundation of religious identity begins with “Belief.”

As an expression of that belief (which for a Christian would include such ideas as belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, Heaven and Hell, and personal salvation through the acceptance of Jesus as one’s savior), there are certain “behaviors” in which one would engage: go to church on Sunday, celebrate Christmas, Easter and other holidays, recite certain prayers, baptize one’s children and whatever other rituals and customs would be the appropriate expressions of Christian belief.

Then, if, for example, you were doing these behaviors like going to church on Sundays next door at the Palisades Lutheran Church, you might feel that you “belong” to the Palisades Lutheran Church. And so your religious identity as a Christian would begin with your belief, find expression in your behavior and encourage you to belong to a particular church or parish to give expression to those beliefs.

Jewish identity Kaplan realized is formed from the same three “B’s” of “Believing, Belonging, and Behaving,” but for us the order and importance is totally reversed. What Kaplan recognized and used as part of the basis of Reconstructionist thought, is that what gives Jews our identity is not primarily “belief,” but rather “BELONGING.” It is our sense of belonging to the Jewish people, belonging to the Jewish family that is the ground of being for Jewish identity.

In fact, we Jews literally trace ourselves back to an alleged real family – the Biblical family of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah (and Bilha and Zilpah). Since Jacob’s name is changed to “Israel,” it is essentially Jacob’s sons (along with his two grandsons Ephraim and Menashe) who become the “Children of Israel”, and then “the twelve tribes” of Israel and ultimately with the passing of thousands of years, all of us the Jewish people.

So our identity is grounded in a profound and powerful sense of belonging to the same physical and spiritual family. The ”behaviors” of Judaism – our rituals, customs and traditions – like what we are doing right now in celebrating Shabbat, or Jewish holidays, having a bar or bat mitzvah, giving our children Hebrew names, putting a mezuzah on the door, or eating bagels and lox, function primarily as a way to reinforce our sense of belonging. Simply put, when we do Jewish we feel Jewish.

“Believing” is a distant third in our hierarchy of religious identity. Most of us can’t even list Jewish beliefs no matter how Jewish we are other than “monotheism,” that we believe in One God. Of course we also believe that human beings are created in the image of God, although what exactly that means is also a matter of interpretation. Belief is not the driving cornerstone of Jewish identity, as it is for other religions. For Christianity the belief in Jesus as the savior; for Islam the belief that there is one God Allah to which we must submit and Mohammad is his Prophet.

Reconstructionism differs in that it isn’t a religion like most others at all – it is, as Kaplan correctly recognized an evolving religious civilization, with language, literature, art, culture, music, food, common history, family roots, a common historical homeland and more. It has been organically evolving for over 4,000 years and continues to do so because we, the Jewish people are constantly involved with adding, subtracting, transforming, innovating, creating and recreating our traditions and rituals, our customs and religious way of life.

Reconstructionism differs as well in that it is the original “power to the people” movement. Since the central core of Judaism revolves around the idea of belonging, the focus of power and authority for what is acceptable as Jewish tradition, practice and values lies with the community itself. In all other movements of Jewish life – from Reform to Orthodox, the ultimate power for resolving questions of Jewish ritual, tradition, or behavior lies with Rabbis.

For the Orthodox it is a recognized Rabbinical authority of any given era or generation; for the Conservative movement it is the rabbinical law committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, and for the Reform movement it is the individual rabbi within a given congregation. Although Reform Judaism, which originated in Germany in the 19th Century, grew out of the central notion of individual autonomy from traditional rabbinical authority, in practice in America it is the individual rabbi of any given congregation who is vested with the authority to make ritual decisions regarding what is proper within his or her individual congregation.

In a Reconstructionist congregation, the power and authority for what we do lies with the congregation itself. That is why we have a religious practices committee, and why our governance is truly a lay-professional partnership. For example, if you look on our website you will find a description of our “Kashrut policy.” This policy was not decided upon by me alone as the Senior Rabbi, or by the clergy of KI by pronouncement. It was the result of the deliberations of our religious practices committee, informed by the teaching of our clergy, informed by the traditions handed down by our past, but created and voted upon in normal Reconstructionist process by the lay-professional collaboration of the committee itself, then brought to the Board of Trustees for their vote and agreement.

In Kaplan’s famous phrase, “The past has a vote but not a veto.” Reconstructionism differs in that we are challenged to engage in a process that we call, “values based decision making,” whereby we first are challenged to identify the values that form the foundation of our community, then to examine how the Jewish people responded to any given issue or challenge in the past, and finally to adopt our own contemporary decision regarding how we are to act, the rituals we are to adopt and the way we choose to practice the Judaism of today.

Perhaps were we differ the most, is that once Kaplan rejected the idea of God as a supernatural being, the traditional notion of “exclusive chosenness of the Jewish people” suddenly no longer made sense. If you don’t have a “chooser” you can’t be “chosen” in the traditional understanding of the word. Of course both Kaplan and Reconstructionism itself recognizes the uniqueness of the Jewish people, the uniqueness of Jewish history, the singular contributions that the Jewish people have made to the world in so many different ways – from our insistence that there are ethical demands of human behavior that apply to all people, to our contributions to society in so many different fields.

But having a unique history and making unique contributions to society is not the same as asserting that the power that created the universe, that separated the darkness from the light and the sea from the land, chose this planet from all the planets of the universe and the Jewish people from among all peoples of the earth to bestow His gift of sacred wisdom alone (yes it always seems to be a “Him.”).

That notion we rejected and instead Reconstructionism teaches that all people choose their own unique answers to the same fundamental questions of life. That no one religion is the “right” religion and chosen by God. That human beings are, in fact, fundamentally the same, with the same hopes and dreams and longings to feel that who they are matters and their lives can have meaning and purpose.

So yes, Reconstructionism differs – it challenges us to live lives of justice and compassion, grounded in the thousands of years of authentic Jewish tradition while continuing to be part of the evolving nature of Jewish civilization, championing the equality of men and women, Jews and non-Jews alike as part of an inclusive, spiritual community of belonging.

There was once a Peanuts cartoon where Linus is talking to Charlie Brown about Halloween. “And then on Halloween Night the “Great Pumpkin” rises up out of the Pumpkin Patch and he brings toys to all the good little children in the world,” he says. “You’re crazy!” replies Charlie Brown. “All right,” says Linus, “so you believe in Santa Claus, and I’ll believe in the “Great Pumpkin.” The way I see it, it doesn’t matter what you believe just so you’re sincere.”

Believing, Belonging, Behaving – a new way to understand the foundations of modern religious identity, and just one of the many intellectual gifts that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and through him Reconstructionist Judaism gave to the modern Jewish world. Mordecai Kaplan was my teacher in Jerusalem, my first year of rabbinic school in 1971 at the age of 90, and died, November 8, 1983 at the age of 102. Zichrono livraha – through his genius the difference of Reconstructionism has been a blessing ever since.