“The Civilizational Approach”

Well finals week is somehow finally over and after spending four or five hours alone in a dark room I’m beginning to feel somewhat more human again. And I find that what I feel like doing to celebrate (other than sharing a stiff drink with a few friends) is…write another post about Reconstructionism!!! There’s something wrong with me, I know. What I wanted to tackle is an important aspect both of Mordecai Kaplan’s work and of the structure of the curriculum here at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, so this may be helpful to those of you who, like me last year, were trying to decide if the RRC is the right place for you to do your rabbinical training. I am, of course, talking about the “civilizational approach” to Judaism.

In 1934 (thank you Wikipedia, you were missed), Mordecai Kaplan published a book intended to present in systematic form some of his thinking about the future of Judaism in America and abroad. That book was called Judaism As A Civilization, and it is probably his best-known work by a large margin. In it he examined the various models for understanding what kind of a thing Judaism is that existed at the time and criticized them for being too narrow in scope. Judaism, he argued, cannot be understood simply as a religion, because it incorporates aspects of identity and behavior outside of what we normally include under the rubric of “religion,” including language, ethnic identity, art, literature, food and a host of other things. At the same time, it can’t be considered a nationality, because nationality presumes definition based on defined geographical borders and, as important as Eretz Yisrael is to the self-definition of many Jews, a purely national understanding of Judaism would tend to invalidate large chunks of Jewish experience past and present due to the experience of diaspora and the flowering of Jewish culture in various places throughout the world. Furthermore, many (in Kaplan’s time, most) Jews are simultaneously Jewish and citizens of non-Jewish states, and do not regard their American-ness, for example, to interfere in any way with their Jewishness.

The term Kaplan ultimately chose, obviously, was “civilization,” with all the vagueness and complexity this word implies. By choosing to regard Judaism as a civilization, Kaplan was saying a number of very important things about what it meant to be Jewish, among them:

  1. That cultural, linguistic and historical factors can be just as determinative for your sense of identification with the Jewish people as religious factors.
  2. That the many forms of Jewish social organization existing outside the synagogue–such as the Zionist movement, Jewish community centers, associations for political and social action, etc.–were extremely important and needed to be strengthened and supported as well as connected and reconciled with Jewish religious practice.
  3. That, like all civilizations, Judaism is in a constant process of evolution; the Judaism of centuries of past was different from the Judaism of today, and this difference is a natural result of the continuing historical experience of Jews in many communities throughout the world and should not be understood as decay or lessening but as growth.

This last point is extremely important and had a huge impact on the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism. In many respects, it represents a natural development of the “positive-historical Judaism” of Zecharias Frankel, which had such a great influence on the development of Conservative Judaism. Throughout his work Kaplan argues that Jewish civilization, including its religious aspects, has evolved significantly throughout the thousands of years of its existence. The tendency of earlier generations had been to downplay this evolution by means of a kind of retro-historical projection that presented innovation, sometimes radical innovation, as an expression of tradition. An example of this process in action was the rabbis of the Talmud, who attempt to justify their re-working of the Jewish tradition to meet the needs of the radically different circumstances after the destruction of the second Temple with reference to an oral tradition of legal interpretation extending all the way back to Moses at Mount Sinai. Kaplan’s point was that while it may have been possible for Jewish thinkers of those times to present their innovations in such a way, the advent of modernity, with its more advanced tools of historical inquiry and stricter rules of evidence, did not permit us to do likewise. What was necessary for our own time was a more self-conscious “reconstruction” of Jewish traditions to adapt them to the needs and concerns of our own day–a process that had been going on since the beginning, but in an unconscious way.

The first requirement of such a self-conscious reworking of the tradition was that we really understand our own history and the resources it provides for our task. The reconstruction of Judaism does not imply the rejection of history, but rather the refusal to take our own attitudes and understanding of the world and project them into the past. Part of this approach involves making use of the best historical and archaeological resources we have at our disposal to develop as accurate a picture as possible of what life was really like in the various periods of our history. Another aspect is the need of regarding Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, as historical records written by people living in a certain place and time and reflecting the knowledge and concerns of the day.

The way this all works at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School can be seen in the educational model known as “the civilizational approach.” According to this model, the five years of the program are divided up by “civilization,” beginning with Biblical Civilization and ending up with Contemporary Civilization, with the curriculum in each year focusing on the texts and historical experience of that stage of the Jewish historical experience. What this means is that while I am in Biblical year (which I am), I study biblical texts alongside the works of historians and archaeologists attempting to develop as clear a picture as possible of what life in ancient Israel was actually like. Rabbinic materials interpreting the biblical text are saved for next year, when we will be studying Rabbinic civilization. So in other words, I spend a lot of time reading Exodus in Hebrew in Biblical Text class while also reading works like William Dever’s Who Were the Ancient Israelites and Where Did They Come From? in Biblical Civilization (for an interesting and well-done take on some of this stuff, you could do much worse than to check out the NOVA documentary The Bible’s Buried Secrets, which you can watch for free on the PBS website). For people used to dealing with the Biblical text in a more traditional way, filtered through the lens of rabbinic interpretation (I’ll include myself in this category), this can sometimes be extremely jarring, especially when studying, for example, the archaeological evidence that points to the ancient Israelites originating indigenously in Canaan rather than invading from the outside. At the same time, it can be extremely liberating, opening the door to new understandings of the text that have the potential for new approaches to Jewish life. As an example of this, one of the projects assigned to us in Biblical Civilization this year was to design an alternative second-night Seder incorporating one of the alternate understandings of Israelite origins we’d studied in class. I found this incredibly challenging, but also rewarding in ways I wasn’t expecting, and I’d definitely like to try out some of my classmates’ rituals!

So that’s my take on “the civilizational approach” on one foot. This may be my last post in the “What is Reconstructionism” series for a while, unless I get a request from anyone to tackle something specific. I do, however, hope to keep up the frequency of new posts, now that I’m back in the habit. So stay tuned, folks!

God In Reconstructionism

One of the accusations most frequently leveled against Reconstructionist Judaism is that “Reconstructionists don’t believe in God.” The Reconstructionist idea of God is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of the movement, and that isn’t entirely the fault of its critics. The fact is that, like so many of his ideas, Kaplan’s understanding of God was rather complicated and difficult to grasp, he was constantly fine-tuning it throughout his life in order to meet the challenges of his critics, and the movement as a whole has shifted somewhat since his death.

It’s true that classical Reconstructionism makes some major adjustments to the idea of God that do not sit well with the more traditional theology of some of the other movements. In a nutshell, the problem Kaplan was trying to deal with in his theology was similar to the one he was trying to deal with in his approach to Jewish peoplehood: that of reconciling two worlds with different values and priorities which both have a legitimate claim on the hearts and minds of American Jews. In this case, the two worlds in question were the religious tradition of Judaism and the findings and methodology of modern science. Most Jews alive today, felt Kaplan, were too invested in the scientific worldview to be able to accept the idea of a supernatural God who dispenses reward and punishment, miraculously circumvents the laws of nature and directs history to a predetermined end. Furthermore, contemporary developments in the critical analysis of the Hebrew Bible make it difficult to maintain the thesis that the Torah is a unified text handed down to Moses by God at Sinai, rather than a collection of texts composed at different times in response to various historical and political circumstances and edited together at a later date.

These factors would seem to render what most would consider the “traditional” Jewish conception of God problematic at best. Certainly others in Kaplan’s generation were perfectly willing to reject the idea of God entirely in favor of “ethical culture” founded on purely humanistic principles. Kaplan, however, felt that the idea of God was still necessary to Judaism, albeit in a “reconstructed” form. His solution was to reject those aspects of the traditional conception of God that were incompatible with a modern, scientific worldview while subjecting “the God idea” to a careful functional analysis. An avid student of American pragmatist philosophers such as William James, Kaplan started with the question, “What is the practical difference the God idea makes in the lives of those for whom it is important?” and built up from there.

In practice, this meant abandoning the idea of a personal God who behaves like a more perfect version of a human being and regarding God instead as more like a force or process at work in the world. Kaplan’s God does not transcend nature, looming above and outside the world of our experience, but rather manifests in and through the natural world. At the same time, God is not simply identified with the sum total of what is, as in a pantheistic philosophy, but rather is regarded as the sum total of all the forces at work in the universe which tend toward wholeness, unity and goodness. The classic formation of this principle is that “God is the power in the universe that makes for salvation.” One consequence of this theological stance is that, just as God is not fundamentally separate from nature, so to God is not separate from humanity. Humans contain within themselves some aspect of divinity which becomes manifest when we come together  for constructive rather than destructive ends. The proper role of humanity is to act as partners with the Divine in bringing about a more just and peaceful world.

The criticism leveled at Kaplan’s formulation of the God idea came from two directions. On the one hand, Jews coming from a more traditional theological perspective (which included many Reform as well as Orthodox Jews), argued that Kaplan’s conception of God was too anemic and abstract. In removing the personal and supernatural aspects of God, they claimed, he had also removed everything that made God an important and vital force in peoples’ lives. What was the point of a God who does not hear or answer prayer? On the other hand, many atheists, secular humanists and proponents of “ethical culture” were uncomfortable with Kaplan’s insistence on clinging to God language, feeling that the use of the term God, no matter how it is re-interpreted, inevitably leaves the door open to the fundamentalist conception of a supernatural being who issues arbitrary decrees from on high and favors one group of people over another.

By all accounts Kaplan did not consider himself to be primarily a theologian. In talking about God, he was more concerned with developing an idea of  the Divine that would resonate with Jews who otherwise might be driven away by the supernatural theology of traditional Judaism than in making dogmatic statements about ultimate reality. He made it clear that his preference would be for people to develop a God idea that worked for them rather than expecting a single theological system to be universally applicable. Nevertheless, he frequently found himself walking a precarious line between the competing worldviews of critics from various denominations for whom his naturalistic theology was off-putting at best. Modern Reconstructionism has evolved in response to the changing cultural and spiritual life of the times, and today there are probably few Reconstructionist rabbis who would agree with everything Kaplan wrote about God. At the same time, there are aspects of his theology that I think hold up very well, and are definitely worth a second look. For more about Kaplan’s ideas on God, I highly recommend The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, which also contains an extended treatment of his approach to the various holidays and festivals of the Jewish calendar.

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. Ritualwell.org: 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. Ritualwell.org 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 ritualwell.org 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!

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.

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.