What is Reconstructionism?

So the one question I pretty consistently get from my friends back home in Oklahoma when I tell them I’m studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is, “What the heck is a Reconstructionist?” And really I can’t fault anybody for asking because, as all the little red lines peppering what I’ve written so far helpfully illustrate, not even my spellchecker recognizes the word Reconstructionism. Therefore, to set my mind at ease that I’m doing justice to the truly awesome place where I spend most of my time studying I intend to spend my next several blog posts talking about Reconstructionist Judaism and what it stands. In this first post, my plan is to talk in the most general terms about the movement and how it differs from the other jewish denominations. Then I’ll go into more detail about the history of Reconstructionism and some of the ideas behind it in later posts.

To begin with, Reconstructionism is a rather small denomination of liberal Judaism active almost entirely in the United States. There are a few Reconstructionist synagogues sprinkled here and there outside of the U.S. (for a list of Reconstructionist synagogues, see here), but the movement was born in America and many of the ideas the movement is based on are reactions to the unique situation of the Jewish community in the U.S., where Jews have in general enjoyed an almost unparalleled freedom to live as a minority community within an overwhelmingly Christian majority without having to choose between participation in the public life of their country on the one hand and their Jewish identity on the other. The fancy phrase we have for what this is like is “living in two civilizations,” and we’ll be taking a closer look at what that means in another post.

When you’re talking about something as big and complicated as a religious organization it’s sometimes hard to figure out where to begin. I happen to be seriously interested in questions of religious practice, so for my money the main feature that distinguishes a Reconstructionist synagogue from congregations affiliated with other liberal movements is the heavy emphasis placed on democratic decision making. Whereas the Reform movement places a great deal of weight on the right of the individual to establish his or her own level of religious observance according to the dictates of his or her conscience, and the Conservative movement adheres to traditional models of decision making whereby the rabbi of a particular community sets standards in accordance with halakhic precedent, Reconstructionism maintains that at least in principle communal standards of religious observance should be established collectively by the community with the assistance of the rabbi as a kind of facilitator and educational resource.

In theory this provides for the kind of group cohesion found in more traditional strains of Judaism while avoiding the  kind of top-down hierarchical model inherent in a legal tradition based largely on precedent and argument from authority. In practice, I find that Reconstructionist synagogues encounter the same issues as many other congregations do in working out a shared sense of  jewish practice that would be both rigorous enough to feel “authentic” and open enough to feel comfortable to less observant members. Then again, living in a community is always a compromise, and there really isn’t any way around that. Certainly “values-based decision making” presumes and therefore encourages a high level of jewish education and investment in the community, and that’s never a bad thing.

I think I’ll wrap this post up for now. I think it got a little more technical than I was intending, but at least I’ve made a start. I’ll finish by asking anyone who happens to be reading this to post a comment to let me know what you think, whether you’re finding it helpful and if you have any questions you’d like me to tackle in further posts.


One thought on “What is Reconstructionism?

  1. Hi Colin: First, thanks for the hyperlink (always helpful). I appreciate how you balance the theoretical benefits of a Reconstructionist approach to decisionmaking with the challenges of practical implementation. I think this is both accurate and non-judgmental.

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