Reconstructionist Contributions to Jewish Life

So in the spirit of “Rah! Rah! Rah!” I thought I’d do a post on some of the many contributions Reconstructionist Judaism has made to the communal Jewish meme-pool. Being a small movement, Reconstructionism doesn’t necessarily spend a lot of time in the limelight, but ideas central to the movement have frequently had an effect on the wider Jewish world beyond all proportion to the number of Reconstructionist synagogues. So without further ado, here’s a short list of influential Reconstructionist ideas:

  1. The Bat Mitzvah: This one gets pride of place, because it’s probably one of Mordecai Kaplan’s better-known innovations. It’s no secret that Kaplan developed the Bat Mitzvah ceremony for his daughter Judith. In 1921 Kaplan resigned as rabbi of the Jewish Center in Manhattan, the famous “Shul With A Pool” that had been one of the earliest testing grounds for his ideas about developing a kind of Jewish comunal center that would address all its members needs, physical and social as well as spiritual. He left to help found the Society for Advancement of Judaism, where the next year he held America’s first public Bat Mitzvah for Judith. The original Bat Mitzvah wasn’t exactly as egalitarian as one might like to imagine–Judith didn’t actually read from the Torah. Nevertheless, it was one of the first high-profile examples of a female coming-of-age ceremony  analogous to the Bar Mitzvah to be celebrated in the united states, and serves as a perfect example of the kind of innovations in ritual practice Kaplan and the other early Reconstructionists were arguing for.
  2. Peoplehood“: Lots of people talk about Jewish peoplehood these days, but few realize that “peoplehood” is a term that was invented by the early Reconstructionists. That’s “invented,” as in, “before that, the word did not exist in the English language.” Pretty cool, huh? What happened, you see, was that they were trying to figure out a term that would encompass all the many things Judaism is. Is Judaism a religion? Sure, it involves religious elements, but it also incorporates a culture, an ethnicity (or a group of ethnicities, depending on how you look at it), a language, a shared history, music, literature, you name it. Kaplan had used the term “civilization” to describe this complex web of interrelated factors, but some people felt that “civilization” carried too many nationalistic overtones. What they settled on was “peoplehood,” and the term stuck. The important qualities of peoplehood were that it didn’t necessarily prioritize the religious element over other aspects of Jewish belonging, and there didn’t seem to be any contradiction between being a member of a people and a loyal citizen of one’s home nation. The Reconstructionists were very concerned with adequately addressing the lived situation of Jews living in “two civilizations,” by which they mean both the Jewish world and the broader secular American culture. “Peoplehood” was one way of doing so.
  3. The Havurah Movement: The Havurah movement is widely understood to grow out of the countercultural/protest movement of the 60’s and 70’s. Actually its roots are in the Reconstructionist “fellowship” movement. For a long time (well into the 60’s), Kaplan resisted the idea of establishing a separate Reconstructionist “movement” with its own rabbinical college, network of affiliated synagogues, etc. The idea was that Reconstructionism would be an idea that could influence communities across the spectrum of the American Jewish landscape, from Orthodox to Reform. Central to the Reconstructionist approach was the encouragement of innovation in the areas of ritual practice, creative expression and organizational life, and to this end there was a great reluctance to establish anything resembling a “Reconstructionist way to do things.” Rather, they wanted Jewish communities throughout the country to develop new ideas based on their own situation and concerns and share them with others. To this end, the Reconstructionists encouraged the establishment of “fellowships,” small groups of educated and committed Jews who would come together to pray, study and explore new ways of expressing their Jewishness. The idea was that these groups would report back to Kaplan and his associates at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism and that their insights would be published in the group’s journal, The Reconstructionist for the benefit of others. A lot of the innovations in the Jewish Catalog and havurah movement and Jewish feminism were anticipated by Reconstructionist theory and practice, but this fact tended to be ignored because of Kaplan’s embrace of modernity and Americanism. For Kaplan’s generation, the challenge was to find ways to more fully integrate the Jewish community into the broader cultural life of the United States without losing its distinctive Jewishness. What they couldn’t have anticipated was the cultural shift of the countercultural movement in the 1960’s where separateness was seen as a source of strength rather than weakness.
  4. A lot of the things I’ve been referencing come from the earlier generations of Reconstructionists, but I couldn’t resist putting in a plug for one of the coolest things coming out of the RRC right now. is a projection of Kaplan and his associates’ passion for innovation in Jewish ritual life into the age of social media. It’s a website where people can post new or modified Jewish rituals developed to address the requirements of situations or groups of Jews not covered by the traditional liturgy. From new takes on Shabbat observance to a set of blessings to be said when transitioning gender, you name it: if there isn’t a blessing or ritual in the siddur for it, it’s probably here–and if it isn’t then you should work something up and post it for others to use! I really wish I’d been aware of this site a year or so ago when a friend asked me to help him come up with a ritual to mark the end of a committed relationship he’d been in–as it was, we were able to come up with something that was meaningful for him and the other people who were there to support him, but I feel like we would have benefitted so much from looking at some of the things on about ending relationships. This site is a perfect illustration of practical Reconstruction in action!

I could probably list a lot more if I tried, but I hope that this selection gives an impression of some of the Reconstructionist contributions to American Jewish life, as well as some of the central concerns informing the movement. As always, please post a comment to let me know what you think. More soon!

One thought on “Reconstructionist Contributions to Jewish Life

  1. I love the arc you’ve traced with these four points, and I think you are spot-on in including Ritualwell as the newest development. I think it uses social media to achieve some of the goals of democratic Judaism (that is, not strictly mediated by elite rabbinic authorities) that you wrote about in your last post.

    The peoplehood piece is strong. (I’m in the midst of writing an article that will offer up the evidence for how the Reconstructionists brought the term “peoplehood” to speech.) One missing piece–ah, were they ever complex and ambitious–is that in addition to legitimating living in two civilizations, peoplehood also fostered transnationalism for Jews around the world without raising up questions about loyalty.

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