What Makes Reconstructionism Special

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

You’ve probably all heard the jokes before – “the Reconstructionism version of the Shema should be: shema yisrael, I don’t know elohaynu, I don’t know ehad.” Or perhaps my wife’s favorite line: “Everyone is so confused about Reconstructionism that even the anti-Semites don’t understand it – they burnt a question mark on our lawn.”

So let me start by talking for a moment about what it means to be a “religious Reconstructionist?”

I must have had a thousand conversations with people that began with the words, “I’m not really very religious rabbi…” and then they go on to describe an attitude toward life that to me is exactly what I think being religious is really all about. Most people seem to think that being “religious” refers to observing traditional rituals, attending services, and having a traditional belief about God as a supernatural being who answers prayer and intervenes in the daily life of the world.

That’s not what I mean by “religious” at all. For me, being religious as a modern Reconstructionist Jew refers to an attitude about life, an approach to the world and relationships that validates the highest, noblest, loftiest ideas and ideals of the Jewish people and the process whereby one gives those ideals a voice in one’s everyday life.

As I use the term, people are “religious” not because they observe certain rituals or have a particular belief in God, but if they see the world as filled with the opportunity to discover blessings, love, caring, compassion, justice, and righteousness. In fact, I believe that this understanding of “religious” refers to most people who are members of KI. I see it every day in those who are formally Jewish and those I call “Jews by Association” who are married to or partnered with someone Jewish and are participating in the Jewish community as part of the KI family.

A Reconstructionist understanding of the term religious refers to all those who search for higher meaning in life, who believe that human beings are fundamentally created good, endowed with the ability to choose life and joy, wholeness and peace, as participants in a caring community.

When I see people who recognize that the most important things in life aren’t things at all; when I see parents patiently teaching their children how to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad, caring from neglect, sensitivity from callousness, I see individuals who are exactly my definition of religious, even if they might not use the same term for themselves.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that if the sunset occurred only once every ten years, we would be so awed by it that it would certainly appear to be a miracle, but since it happens every day, we hardly even notice the miracle for what it is. The soul of a religious person is the one with the vision to remain awed by the sunsets, enchanted by the rain, overjoyed by the laughter of an infant – in short, able to see those daily miracles that surround us.

As a Reconstructionist, “Religious” is a broad category that includes the striving to make sense out of the difficult moments of life and the struggle to pass on values that will move the world closer to our collective dreams. Being religious isn’t dependent solely on the rituals, services, ceremonies, holidays, or customs that you celebrate. It is an all-encompassing approach to life, to people, to family, to relationship, and to the future that is available to anyone, and that is part and parcel of the essence of what it means to embrace the challenges of a life-long search for meaning and purpose in life itself.

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein – architect of the Reconstructionist Movement, son-in-law of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founding president of the RRC, wrote the following in 1982 about what he considered to be the best features of Reconstructionism: intellectual integrity; talking sense to people; openness; lack of ecclesiastical pomposity; respect for the intelligence of the laity; the fact that the rabbi does not have to seem infallible; equality of women; an affirmative attitude towards life; stress on the arts; and the willingness to experiment.

Here is the simplest way I know to capture what makes Reconstructionism and KI as a Reconstructionist congregation special. “Kehillat Israel believes in the equality of men and women, sees God as the power that inspires us to strive for human fulfillment as loving and caring people, and acknowledges both the rational foundation of the Universe and the spirituality inherent in all human life. We believe that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization that reflects peoplehood, community, history, the arts and ethics. Our doors are open to all, gay and straight, same faith or interfaith. We reject the idea that Jews were “chosen” by a divine Being, and instead recognize that every people and every culture has its own unique and valuable contribution to make to the progress of humanity. We discover God in the everyday miracles of our lives, and use that experience of Godliness to help bring meaning into the world.

What makes Reconstructionism special, is also our openness to innovation and change. After all, it was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, Reconstructionism’s founder who invented Bat Mitzvah in 1922 with his own daughter, Judith. It was the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (then known as the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot) which was the first movement back in 1968 to adopt the principle of Patrilineal descent whereby a child is considered fully Jewish if either parent is Jewish, whether mother or father, followed by the Reform movement 15 years later in 1983.

It was the Reconstructionist movement through the RRC that first openly accepted gay and lesbian students to study for the rabbinate, and the Reconstructionist movement that has lead the Jewish world by creating “KOLOT – the Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies thirteen years ago, and Ritualwell.org a unique resource of creative Jewish rituals that transcends all movements and streams of Jewish life. The RRC also was the birth place of the Center for Jewish Ethics, and Hiddur: the Center for Judaism and Aging. A child comes home from his first day at school and his mother asks, “What did you learn?” The child responds, “Not enough, they want me to come back tomorrow.” To be a Reconstructionism means to constantly say, “Not enough.” Not enough learning, not enough innovation, not enough wrestling with the fundamental questions of life, not enough God-wrestling, not enough reaching out to those who have in the past felt left out of the Jewish mainstream, denied their own authentic Jewish identity, whether because of who they love or who they are.

All this and more is what makes Reconstructionism special, and KI a special place to belong.