Get Email Updates!

The Evolving Face of Reconstructionism

IN TRAVELING THE CONTINENT over the past several years to help Jewish communities develop and to conduct JRF leadership workshops, I have participated in numerous conversations about our mission and goals as a movement. I have heard, from self-described "classical Kaplanians" through to "neo-Hasidic" Reconstructionists, many interpretations of Reconstructionist theology, philosophy and practice. Some "classical" voices decry the new spiritual explorations occurring in some corners of the movement and claim that Kaplan, were he to reappear, would bemoan how far afield our individualistic spiritual journeying and experimentation have taken us. On the other hand, I have heard a newer generation of Reconstructionists criticize what they perceive as "nostalgia" for an intellectual approach to Jewish life that, they believe, leaves the body and spirit at the door and ignores the needs of spiritual seekers.


Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan at age 100
Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan at age 100, June, 1981.
I believe that if Mordecai Kaplan were, in fact, beamed into a Reconstructionist havurah's Shabbat service at one of the many Quaker, Unitarian or other church settings that often house us -- or at one of the stellar, state-of-the-art synagogue buildings that more than 25 percent of our affiliates have constructed or acquired during the past decade -- he would be disappointed if he saw an exact replica of Reconstructionist services and style from his time. If you read the inspiring first volume of Kaplan¡'s diaries (Communings of the Spirit, edited by Mel Scult), you will perceive a man concerned not only with the clear, accessible articulation of his key ideas, but with a commitment to God-wrestling and a striving for authenticity and meaning. Such a soul, it seems to me, would be disappointed by a static replication of his formulae and would feel that he had failed to transmit his ideas about reconstructing Jewish life to subsequent generations.


We need more than replications of Reconstructionism's past formulations. It is through innovation that we stay true to Kaplan's drive for authenticity and for a contemporary, relevant Judaism rooted in tradition and peoplehood. By studying Kaplan's thought on the reconstruction of the Jewish people, as well as other past and present Reconstructionist perspectives, we can keep our innovation grounded in the principles that have helped us evolve and grow to this point. Using the term "Reconstructionist" to support a personal preference without study, valuesclarification and willingness to see the needs of the community as on a par with our individual needs is not the democracy Kaplan had in mind.

Yet for all of the diversity of personality and practice within our 100-plus affiliates, Mordecai Kaplan's core ideas of religious naturalism, Evolving . . . ( from the cover) ¡æ Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit is JRF Director of Outreach and Congregational Services. His new CD, Sanctuary, will be released in June. egalitarianism, democratic decision-making, and an empowered rabbinate and membership have produced dynamic, creative communities. These communities share many important characteristics: gender equality, shared leadership, a welcoming atmosphere, lifelong educational practices, liturgical and ritual creativity, a serious embrace of tradition, a commitment to tikkun olam and mutual support, and a conscious search for meaningful, sustainable lives as Jews and as human beings on the planet.

The theme for this year's JRF leadership workshop, "Exploring Reconstructionism: A Leadership Approach," grew out of a number of discussions the JRF has had with rabbis and lay leaders across North America, who felt a need for a movement wide exploration of the foundational ideas of Reconstructionism and how they inform our communities and our decision-making. Increasingly, our expanding membership and leadership have been struggling to articulate what the "it" is that produces the warm, inclusive, participatory, egalitarian communities that we have come to value so dearly. Our movement has a whole new generation of members who are not well versed in Kaplanian thought or Reconstructionist principles, even as they are proud and active participants in the movement. So the workshop and its accompanying 500- page resource book were developed in response to this need. The new edition of Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach, by Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub, was the required text. Over 200 lay leaders, rabbis, staff and members of JRF communities participated in the workshops and regional shabbatonim that explored these themes.

After the Palo Alto workshop (the first in this year's series), hosted by Keddem Congregation, many participants also had the opportunity to continue their learning at a three-day academic conference at Stanford. Organized by Professor Arnold Eisen, a leading Kaplan scholar, the conference featured speakers delivering papers inspired by the 70th anniversary of the publication of Kaplan's groundbreaking Judaism as a Civilization. Speakers included scholars, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and both new to and familiar with Kaplan's writings. Mel Scult, Kaplan's biographer, and Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College were the two scholars representing our movement. In his opening remarks, Arnie Eisen described the mission of the conference as engagement "in a lively discussion with Kaplan's ideas and their relevance to us today." The thematic overlap between the conference and our workshop series made for a very stimulating experience.

The diversity of opinions about Kaplan's thought, like the diversity within our movement, was noted by Professor Deborah Dash Moore of Vassar College at the close of the conference. Diversity, she said, is a sign of creativity, and Kaplan considered creativity to be "a function of God's presence in the world." Kaplan's notion of creativity includes a call for the reaffirmation of Jewish peoplehood and the transformation of Judaism. Thus we have entered, she said, into the "second century of Mordecai Kaplan."

Professor Eisen noted that Kaplan was insistent on a "maximalist Judaism," with Torah, interpreted in a contemporary light, providing a way of life. This maximalist approach remains central to Reconstructionism, particularly in our approach to Jewish "values-based decision-making," which has increasingly become a trademark of our congregations. Its paradigmatic model consists of:

  • Study of Jewish sources, traditions and practices.
  • Study of current information from the social and natural sciences.
  • Reflection on personal and communal values.
  • Analysis of the impact of each possible decision on each affected party.
  • Democratic and inclusive processes that maximize the number of participants along the way to a final decision.

In our workshop, we invited participants to examine decision-making within their congregations in one of the following areas: religious services, board governance, operating practices, money and financial resources, the rabbi-congregational relationship, education, sense of community, and the larger world within which our congregations live.

We also looked at some leading models of values-based decision-making that already exist in our movement. The “Community Covenant” of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston, Illinois, for example, is a set of twelve individual and communal mutual expectations that the entire community signed onto after a lengthy communal process. New members are now presented with this covenant to help them understand and commit to the community. Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, Massachusetts, as another example, developed an approach to dues after a long study of Jewish values about money as a spiritual tool. We looked at the many enriching guidelines for communal practice at Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Maryland; at the capital campaign of Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; at the new kashrut policy at Agudas Achim in Attleboro, Massachusetts; at the approach to compassionate, respectful discussion of Israel practiced at Darchei Noam in Toronto, Ontario; and at the variety of excellent educational and community-development resources available through JRF.

Kaplan spoke of God as the Process that makes for the fulfillment of our human potential. When we enter into discussion of an important issue in our community, therefore, we are entering The Process — we are on sacred ground. Godliness can manifest through the approach and content of our decision-making. This Process makes for “salvation,” in Kaplan’s terms, as we move towards an agreed-upon outcome that ideally brings us and our communities into greater selfrealization. We are, in short, striving for a Process that contains Godly values and yields an outcome that fulfills the mission of our community and the spiritual growth of the participants.

Of course, we can misuse the idea of democratic participatory process to block needed action and consign decision-making to an endless process of processing. We may overuse Jewish values-based decision-making by applying it to every issue instead of saving it for key issues of community identity and policy. We can also hide behind anti-authoritarian tendencies to undermine rabbis and leaders by insisting that everyone needs to approve every decision or that consensus is required at every turn. The disempowering of leadership simply allows for influence to be exerted subtly and often implicitly, without evaluation and discussion.

That said, our movement’s core Reconstructionist values and decision-making processes have very much produced dynamic and creative communities that, for all of their diversity, share a generally cohesive and familiar set of norms and policies. Our point has not been to build a Judaism where “anything goes,” but one in which much is possible.

Yale University’s Jon Butler made the following observation at the Kaplan conference: that Kaplan viewed religion as “an active process that must be continually reengaged.” Truth, said Butler, is not fixed, but always in flux. One of Kaplan’s goals in reconstructing Jewish life was to create social ethics through “a process of engagement with action by men and women now,” through moral action and creativity in the present, rather than through mere obedience to the past. (Butler observed, however, that supernaturally “revealed” religions have actually prospered in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in defiance of Kaplan’s critique of traditional religion as unable to navigate modernity.)

In the world of 21st century Reconstructionism, “truth” is certainly in flux. For example, as the new Exploring Judaism suggests, we are more questioning of the authority of the sciences than Kaplan was, even as we contend with staggering new scientific and technological advances. We are more questioning than Kaplan of the values of American society, and we feel ourselves being shaped by a multiplicity of identities and civilizations beyond the “living in two civilizations” credo. In light of the Holocaust and the neverending eruption of brutal wars around the world, we question more vigorously than Kaplan the human capability of achieving peace and “salvation” through politics, education and technology.

The hunger for meaning and purpose in our increasingly globalized world and Hubbleenhanced universe has moved us beyond the discussion of Kaplan’s day about theism and atheism to a discussion about how to live more Godly and religiously authentic lives in a culture that champions individualism and personal happiness over communal commitment and peoplehood. (The “sovereign self,” said Arnie Eisen in his closing remarks at the conference, “is not compatible with the future of the Jewish people,” unless that sovereign self voluntarily commits to a community and a Source greater than the self. This means, he concluded, sacrificing some sovereignty for the sake of gaining a greater Self and peoplehood.)

Our embrace of egalitarianism since the founding of our movement has meant not only inclusion of women’s voices and feminist concerns, but a need for Jewish men to find a meaningful role in con-temporary congregations, and a striving to support gay and lesbian Jews, interfaith families, non-Jews committed to Reconstructionist communities, and Jews of multicultural heritage, among others.

Finally, in our modern “global village,” many Reconstructionist communities are responding creatively to the influence and challenges of Eastern religions and “human potential” movements. Examining how our concepts of God affect our concepts of leadership and our behavior as community-builders was a very enriching learning experience in our leadership workshops.

“When religion is grounded in supernaturalism,” said Sheila Devaney of the Iliff Theological Seminary at the Kaplan conference, “special processes and intermediaries” are needed to access the inac-cessible. This sets up hierarchies and beliefs such as “chosenness” and miraculous Divine intervention. Mordecai Kaplan, said Devaney, rejected authori-tarianism and embraced participatory democracy. Such democracy has been a hallmark of Recon-structionist communities and continues to walk hand-inhand with our bottom-line values of egalitariansm, rabbinic freedom of expression, commitment to lifelong learning and deep wrestling with the Jewish tradition, to produce a cornucopia of sacred communities.

As we enter “the second century of Mordecai Kaplan,” intellectual rigor, emotional honesty and spiritual creativity will enable us to continue to evolve with a deep relationship to our Jewish tradition, to our movement’s foundational ideas, and to global issues of environmental, political, economic and spiritual sustainability. In my years serving JRF, I have been ever more inspired by our movement-wide commitment of time, resources and spirit to the ongoing creation of an authentic and meaningful Judaism that can be central to our lives and to the generations that follow us.


Type: RT Article

This is the archival site for It is no longer updated.

For the new site, please visit