What is Reconstructionism? with Rabbi David

LOL @ no one reading my last post. You guys are bad Catholics.

Here is an interview with Rabbi David Katz of our Recon synagogue here in Williamsburg. He didn’t want me to publish it in the school paper, because he thought he sounded bad, but I think it sounds perfectly fine. This is verbatim, by the way. I think it gives it a spontaneous air.

What is Reconstructionism?

There are two answers. Answer one: It’s somewhere between Reform and Conservative. Answer #2 is generally speaking it’s where practice level is closer to Conservative but social-political attitudes are generally more Reform and progressive. It’s generally sociopolitically progressive. Usually progressive people who are interested in holding on to practice and finding ways to revalue traditional Jewish practice. Instead of saying, “These things are alien to me as an American, so let’s just not do these things,” so that makes services shorter, because too much is too much. Right, instead it’s prioritizing particularism as something that makes you unique. “Let’s do all this stuff because it’s neat and it’s part of our heritage.” And the things that bother us or we have a conflict with, let’s see if we can understand it. And if we can’t, let’s see if we can change it.

Originally Mordechai Kaplan was working for a lot of people for whom intellectual integrity was something they needed. They didn’t want to say “King of the universe” if that wasn’t a concept that worked for them spiritually. It’s something about the divine presence, I’m not looking for monarchy. That would have been more relevant language 200 years ago.

Would you say change is an internal demand or something external like “This isn’t convenient”?

It depends. I don’t know if I would have accepted that answer 20 years ago. Part of me would have said, “How come there can’t be absolutes?” What are the limits? The truth is, you kind of know them more as you get older. You can sense this is too far or this is too much. But that’s hard to structure communally. In the original Reconstructionism High Holy Days prayer book, he got rid of Kol Nidre, and it didn’t stick, people didn’t like it, so he put it back in. It’s a balance of intellectual integrity and tradition.

One of the things Kaplan said, ultimately, “Judaism is what Jews do.” And this is truth; this is what happens whether it’s something that is good, bad, or indifferent; and that’s why Judaism has survived this long. It’s why a relative minority continues to thrive and exist, where other cultures haven’t. Judaism isn’t inherently inflexible. It isn’t inherently monolithic.

There have always been different movements and different ways of experiencing it. So this has always been done. So it ends up being a balance of internal and external. One of the things Reconstructionism also does is emphasize community, and it emphasizes working together with community. It de-emphasizes some of the autonomy, like Reform does, like “Eh, do what you want.” The Reconstructionist practical reality is “You do what you want, but I’m assuming you’ll have a reason and you thought it through.” I eat poultry and dairy together, and I can tell you why, and it’s really simple. I have my own version of kashrut and I can explain why I do it that way; and all of that together makes my life better, and other stuff didn’t.

Kaplan had this thing about behaving, believing, and belonging. This was kind of a sociological analysis of religion. These are the different ways you can connect with religion. Behaving is what Conservative Judaism emphasizes. The meaning comes from having a boundary like that that you’re strict about, 6:23 [candle-lighting] you know, hechsher or no hechsher. Intellectually, I understand the value of the boundaried life, it doesn’t work for me. Reform in its purest form emphasizes believing. Ethical monotheism, you know, the world should be a better place. It emphasizes the prophets; be better, do better. Reconstructionism emphasizes belonging. Here’s the community, you’re drawn to Judaism, and ultimately it’s so much about community.

Judaism doesn’t sustain itself at the very least. Trying to live a Jewish life alone doesn’t work. At some point you give up., because it’s about community. So belonging comes first in the Reconstructionist vision. And you give of yourself into the community. You’re gonna give your idea and your vision, and your expertise and your interest. This is where you get communities where some people are into tzedaka or social action, and some people are into prayer and some are into study, because human nature actually is that we express spirituality in a number of ways. If ‘King of the world’ turns you off, you might want something else.

About these ads

4 thoughts on “What is Reconstructionism? with Rabbi David

  1. Answer one: It’s somewhere between Reform and Conservative.

    This isn’t true on all issues; in many cases, Recon is to the “left” of Reform. E.g., the Reconstructionist movement had full equality for LGBT people before the Reform movement did.

    It de-emphasizes some of the autonomy, like Reform does, like “Eh, do what you want.” The Reconstructionist practical reality is “You do what you want, but I’m assuming you’ll have a reason and you thought it through.” I eat poultry and dairy together, and I can tell you why, and it’s really simple. I have my own version of kashrut and I can explain why I do it that way; and all of that together makes my life better, and other stuff didn’t.

    So basically what he’s saying is that “the Reconstructionist practical reality” = the Reform ideal. (“Eh, do what you want” is not what Reform is supposed to be on paper!)

  2. Ha. I always like to hear what rabbis have to say about rival denominations. I had a Reform rabbi who said that Recon is (IIRC) “secular” and “overly intellectualized.” The story is that Recon is supposed to “look more Conservative,” but to me it seems very close to Reform in practice. And yeah, I would agree that it seems to be the “Reform ideal,” which is kind of an interesting coincidence.

  3. BZ, the rabbi interviewed here is my rabbi, and when he refers to his reason for his version of kashrut he can refer back to a minority opinion in the Talmud. Recon has been influenced historically by philosophical pragmatism, so the rationale is (or at least was) also different. (Reform seems to be coming closer and closer to Recon in this regard?)

    There are many superficial similarities between Recon and Reform, but there are still many differences philosophically. Hence, “Answer #2 is generally speaking it’s where practice level is closer to Conservative but social-political attitudes are generally more Reform and progressive.”

    Laura, I think one of the big misunderstands with regard to Recon is that people on the outside tend to associate the entire movement with a specific Kaplanian approach itself closely associated with historical positivism, which was taken much more seriously in the 30s and 40s than it is today. This leads to the view that contemporary Recon is “secular”, by which I assume that rabbi probably meant “naturalistic” (as religions are not secular by definition, and secular =/= atheistic). This is pretty obviously not the case, as evidenced by the major influence of neo-Hasidic thought on contemporary Recon. The fact is that Kaplan himself, as a man of his time in the Hegelian sense, could probably be accurately described as an historical positivist; Recon as a movement has long since recognized the flaws in this mode of thinking, yet it hasn’t adopted a relativist approach in response. It seems that the contemporary Recon approach could perhaps be called a critical realist approach to Judaism. (hence it’s compatibility with so much contemporary Marxist philosophy)

  4. And we only seem “over intellectualized” because we reject so many of the paradigms which seem natural to contemporary human thought, e.g. binary distinctions. Yet in the future it is possible that said paradigms will shift and the roles will reverse, such that it requires more effort for people to understand the rationale behind what seems like “common sense” to us today. The difference between main street and ivory tower is only a revolution away. ;)

WRITE SOMETHING

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s