Why Reconstructionism?

I get asked this one a lot, particularly in the context of my having chosen to study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College here in Philly as opposed to someplace else. We belonged to a Conservative synagogue in Tulsa, so either the Jewish Theological Seminary or Ziegler might have seemed like a natural choice. I sometimes jokingly refer to a series of magazine advertisements featuring the slogan “Be Historically Significant!” as my reason for not applying to the JTS, but in fact at the time Emily and I were actually making the decision to take the plunge and have me apply to rabbinical school it was close enough to the application deadline that I only felt confident of putting together a single good application package, and by that time the RRC was at the top of my list by a significant margin.

Ironically, Reconstructionist Judaism wasn’t really on my radar until I spent a month in Jerusalem the previous summer studying at the Conservative Yeshiva. Words cannot express how much I love that place. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s the best thing to come out of the Conservative Movement, and I wish there were more places like it in the US where Jews of all genders, denominational affiliations and levels of Jewish education can come together for serious text study with a top-rate faculty. While I was there I got a chance to be exposed to a much broader cross-section of the liberal Jewish community than I’d been able to before, and among the awesome folks I met there were several RRC students doing their year abroad in Israel.

What really got me thinking about Reconstructionism, however, was the discussion that sprang up at the CY during my time there around a series of talks that Rabbi Joel Roth gave  on the ideological foundations of Conservative Judaism. I was tremendously impressed by Rabbi Roth’s clear articulation of his interpretation of the Conservative movement, but to some extent it was the clarity of this articulation that made me seriously re-evaluate some of my positions when it came to the role of halachah and the nature of religious authority in Judaism.

Rabbi Roth’s thesis, as I understood it at the time, was that Conservative Judaism is based on two fundamental pillars:

  1. A commitment to taking seriously the best and most up-to-date academic research in our understanding of the origins and authorship of the Torah, according to which the Hebrew Bible is a compilation of sources with various authors composed at different times and edited together at a later date and not, as tradition would have it, a single, unified text handed down by G-d to Moses at Sinai.
  2. A firmly traditionalist stance toward halachah, according to which the articulated structure of Jewish law as transmitted from antiquity, whatever its historical origins, must be regarded as fundamentally binding and subject to interpretation and adjustment solely by qualified and adequately trained rabbis in accordance with established principles of halachic decision making.

What I found was that no matter how I tried I was basically unable to make these two pillars fit together in a way that worked for me. It seemed to me then (and to an even greater extent now) that a strict adherence to rules of precedence and rabbinic authority was basically incompatible with a worldview that takes seriously the very human origins of the Torah. Once we begin to take seriously the fairly convincing textual and historical evidence that the configuration of the text as it has come down to us is determined as much by contemporary political concerns in ancient Israel as by divine inspiration, it becomes difficult to accept as absolute the authority of a rabbinic elite to serve as the sole gatekeepers of the tradition. If our political models have moved from the strictly authoritarian, top-down structures of ancient monarchies to the more equal citizen-based systems of modern democracies, why should the decision-making apparatus of Jewish communities not follow suit?

As it happened, one of the chief proponents of such a democratic model of Jewish citizenship was Mordecai Kaplan, and the movement he helped to found, Reconstructionism, has been heavily involved in the project of creating Jewish communities in which decisions regarding religious practice are arrived at collectively in dialogue with the Jewish tradition rather than by the rabbi alone as mara d’atra or sole halachic authority of the community.

This was one of the windows through which I began to explore Reconstructionist Judaism. The other was my experience visiting the school itself, which I’ll save for another post.

One thought on “Why Reconstructionism?

  1. Hi Colin: I am more familiar with the writings of the Conservative ideologues of mid-twentieth century than I am with Rabbi Roth’s writings (though I’ve read some of his work). Your description of Roth’s interpretation accurately captures the normative view of the Conservative movement at that time, and your response is identical to the Conservative rabbis and lay leaders gathered around Kaplan. You articulate the challenge concisely. With you, I am deeply intrigued by the Reconstructionist response, which I see as a work-in-progress.

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