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The Legacy of Ira Eisenstein


Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, the key figure in
the transformation of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's ideas into a denominational movement, died on June 28th, 2001, at the age of 94.

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein
early 1990s, courtesy of the RRC

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein

The first yahrtzeit of Rabbi Ira Eisenstein was observed on June 16 (6 Tammuz). In recalling his many accomplishments, we often identify the institutions that he shaped and created: The Reconstructionist magazine, the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (FRCH, now known as JRF), and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

But the legacy of Ira Eisenstein lies not only in the institutions of the movement, but in the fundamental ideas to which his long life was devoted. Among these many ideas, three stand out as central.

  • The Place of Reason: Celebrating the Mind

    Ira Eisenstein was a product of the modern world, a world that emerged from the medieval period by way of enlightenment, rationalism, reason and science. His was a world that celebrated the power of the human mind to discover ever more clearly the ways in which the world worked, so as better to shape that world towards a more universal vision of peace, freedom and justice.

    In the second half of the 20th Century, following two world wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, many people — religious leaders among them — engaged in a retreat from reason and rationalism. Disappointment with the failure of humanity to march unimpeded into the future led to disparagement of the mind. Faith, blind or otherwise, was offered as the only way out.

    Ira Eisenstein refused to surrender. He knew as well as anyone that reason had limits, but he refused to return to a faith that condemned human ability, that elevated despair above determination, and that celebrated sin as the essence of the human condition. Ira’s emphasis was not on the salvific nature of reason, but on the indispensable need for reason — and he stood always against the retreat from reason.

  • The Place of the World: Celebrating the Secular

    Mordecai Kaplan’s thesis was that Judaism began as a "this-worldly" religion, evolved in the rabbinic period into an "other-worldly" religion, and, in the modern period, had to be reconstructed again as a "this-worldly" religion.

    Ira Eisenstein was fond of reminding us that the word "secular" derived from the meaning "of this world." He regretted that "secular" was often placed oppositionally to "religious," with the implication that the two were mutually exclusive.

    The contemporary return (escape?) to magic, miracle and myth, such as we see celebrated in the bestseller lists of books dealing with angels and heaven, and as we see in the current craze for "spirituality," often affirms the sense that "religion" can only correlate with "not of this world."

    Ira Eisenstein stubbornly insisted that while speculation about what came before, above, below or beyond this world was a "pleasant occupation," there remained much in this world that needed our attention. He insisted that religion, to be relevant, had to keep us focused on this world, not the heavenly world to come.

  • The Place of Learning: Celebrating the Spirit

    Ira was very aware of the continuum that began with the rational, moved towards the non-rational, and always risked falling into the irrational. His rabbinate was, as Martin Buber might have said, a life of dialogue. The free exchange of ideas, tested, questioned, defended and emended, prodded us not merely to assert but to argue; not merely to emote but to explain; not merely to defend but to demonstrate.

    We are fond of saying: "In Judaism, study is a form of prayer." But few people took this as seriously as did Ira Eisenstein. What is often a rhetorical flourish for many was for Ira an organizing principle for community religious experience. Yes there was a place for a modicum of davenning, singing, and ritual; but there had to be a place for the discussion of ideas as well. For Ira, a spiritual experience was perhaps more likely to happen in the classroom than in the synagogue. Or, to put it differently, the synagogue needed to become more like a classroom.

The Place of a Legacy: Celebrating a Life

As the needs of new generations came to the fore, Ira knew that Reconstructionism would change. He was less concerned about what we would think than he was about how we would think. He insisted that authentic Reconstructionism did not have to mimic Kaplan’s conclusions; but it did have to embrace Kaplan’s assumptions.

Those assumptions included looking at Judaism as a humanly created system rather than a supernaturally revealed one; elevating the power of reason and thought over emotion and sentiment; and holding tenaciously to the responsibility of working in this world for the improvement of social, political and economic conditions so that a better world might continually emerge.

As we observe the first yahrtzeit of Ira Eisenstein, the question before us is whether we will be able to retain his way of thinking even as we reach different conclusions about halakha, liturgy, religion and the nature of Jewish peoplehood.

The answer to that question will tell us whether Ira’s legacy is an ongoing presence in Reconstructionism, or something destined instead to become only a pleasant memory of a time gone by.

 For more Reconstructionism Today essays on Ira Eisenstein,
read Memories (Autumn 2001) and More Memories (Winter 2001-2002). 
Our site also has a Memorial Page created a few days after his death.


Type: RT Article

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