This series of questions addresses Reconstructionist approaches to Jewish ideas and practices. As a movement that values democratic process and full community participation, we do not issue rules and regulations top-down. Even our recommendations come from commissions that may take two or more years to study, discuss and formulate guidelines. It is up to our member communities and their leadership, in consultation with movement leaders, to come to their own standards and ritual practices. We see our rituals, customs, laws, sacred texts and practices coming out of the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people in its ongoing relationship with God. We seek practices that reveal holiness and godliness in the world. We see the tradition as having a vote, not a veto in Jewish practice and try to balance tradition with contemporary sensibilities and innovations.
1. "How do Reconstructionists approach sacred texts?
We consider our sacred texts to be the product of inspired experience in the human search for God and holiness in our world. To us, they are neither literal transcriptions from a supernatural being nor anachronisms that are mere constructs and fictions. We value our dialogue with the voices of our sacred texts because of the passion, values, aspirations and wisdom they express and how they inform and shape our current Jewish lives.
Torah study, or talmud torah, has been an integral part of Reconstructionism since its inception. To some degree, this is due to the fact that we study in order to understand the history and the values inherent in the ritual practices under consideration by the community. Hence, many communities form regular, ongoing havurot (study groups) as an essential component of adult education programming. In addition, we regard the study of our sacred texts as one path in the search for holiness in our world, inspiring many of our congregations to offer ongoing study groups "lishma"—simply for the sake of learning.
2. How does Reconstructionism regard Halakah/Jewish law and Jewish tradition?
Halakhah—literally 'the path' or 'the way'—serves to guide the manner in which the individual and community lives its Jewish life. In so doing, halakhah relies upon our rich cultural heritage. We see halakhah as informing Jewish practice because of its contribution to the moral and spiritual life of the Jewish people. Our decision making process reflects Mordecai Kaplan's founding philosophy that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. Therefore, our decision making process embodies both past and present by infusing our 'path' with the ethics and values that are our legacy as well as the realities of our present cultural lives. Decision making is a dynamic, community-driven and, perhaps most important, self-conscious process that reflects our philosophy of living in two civilizations.
3. How do Reconstructionists approach God?
Reconstructionism, which proposes a religious humanist theology, sees God as a power or process working through nature and human beings. It is therefore incumbent upon us to bring divinity into the world through our actions, thereby increasing God's presence in our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual lives, as individuals and as faith-based communities. For example, instead of speaking of a just, kind, compassionate God, we might state that justice, kindness and compassion are godly and we commit to self-consciously live according to these values. Approaching God in this manner enables us to perceive the holy in our daily lives and to infuse our interactions with an element of the Divine. This communal understanding of God co-exists with a wide variety of personally held beliefs.
4. What is the Reconstructionist approach to the idea of the Chosen People?
Rather than view ourselves as God's chosen people, we understand ourselves as being called upon to do God's work. We follow this unique path of doing God's work because the Jewish story, civilization, and culture belong to us. Part of our journey includes the formation of a special covenant, a brit between God and Israel. Our covenant is a holy relationship grounded in Jewish ethics and values. This also means respecting the diversity of each religion and culture for its unique contribution to the global community.
5. What is the role of the rabbi in the community?
Reconstructionist rabbis function as community leaders, teachers, counselors and authorities. However while the rabbi bears these as well as other functions, the rabbi is not the sole authority in a congregation's decision making. While the rabbi may be the leader, decision making is a collaborative effort. It is, however, the rabbi's role as an authority to infuse decision making with Jewish values.
6. What are Reconstructionist approaches to kashrut?
Our philosophy values kashrut as part of the spiritual and cultural legacy of the Jewish people and as one aspect of the Jewish search to welcome the divine presence to our tables and into our communities. We therefore embrace kashrut as more than an issue of appropriate foods and instead view kashrut as a tool for sanctifying our public and private lives within the context of Jewish civilization. We have a host of options upon which to base a decision—ranging from traditional Jewish legal guidelines to ethical and ecological considerations, and most Reconstructionist communities agree on a kashrut policy. Whatever a community's specific guidelines may be, the overriding value is the recognition that our communities' relationship to practicing kashrut is premised upon our rich cultural heritage rather than upon obeying a divine commandment.
It should therefore not be surprising that in a recent movement-wide survey, more than 30% of our member households kept some form of kashrut by choice for a variety of spiritual, cultural, ecological and ethical reasons. In addition, most feel strongly that no matter what their personal household practices may be, kashrut would not act as a barrier to eating with others.
7. How does Reconstructionism view interfaith marriages?
We pride ourselves on having welcoming communities, and often non-Jewish spouses are active in our communities; they support and/or are committed to maintaining Jewish households. While we do not encourage interfaith marriages, we are committed to inclusivity and we certainly welcome all members of interfaith families. Some of our rabbis will officiate at interfaith unions as long as non-Jewish clergy do not co-officiate. We leave this up to the conscience of each rabbi. We have a report on the role of non-Jewish members of our community called Boundaries and Opportunities, which provides background information and insights to assist communities in reaching their own conclusions and developing their own standards.
8. How do Reconstructionist communities involve non-Jewish family members?
Since 1968, our movement has recognized the Jewishness of a child born to a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father. Our communities are dedicated to creating an environment in which all family members feel welcome. Acknowledging the current reality that an increasingly large number of families will be intermarried, Reconstructionist communities often offer "Introduction to Judaism" courses, facilitate peer group discussions and develop community practices for Jewish lifecycle events that include non-Jewish family members. Our aim is to bring the richness of Jewish civilization into the public and private lives of our communities and not necessarily to formally convert the non-Jewish family member. The 1996 Boundaries and Opportunities Report referred to above offers suggestions and recommendations for individual communities.
9. How do Reconstructionists view conversion?
We value the symbolism of the conversion ritual and encourage those who were not born of Jewish parents and who wish to convert to undergo this rite of passage. The course of study for a prospective convert, which is determined by the rabbi and congregation the individual is working with, includes history, observance and beliefs, and learning how to make educated choices. The completion of the process is marked by ritual immersion for men and women; circumcision or hatafat dam brit (symbolic drop of blood) for men (unless there exists an extraordinary physical or emotional hazard); a Bet Din (a dialogue with three knowledgeable Jews, at least one of whom is a rabbi), and often a public welcoming ceremony.
10. Where does Reconstructionism stand regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage?
We were the first movement to publicly address this issue in our 1988 report on homosexuality. In addition the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was the first Jewish seminary to accept openly gay and lesbian students. We retain an unwavering commitment to forming inclusive communities, welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews as well as multicultural families, Jews of color, and other groups traditionally excluded from full participation in Jewish communal life. Material about gay and lesbian families is included in religious school curricula. Our rabbis are free to perform same-sex commitment or marriage ceremonies if it is their practice to do so.
11. How do Reconstructionist communities approach life cycle passages?
We begin by affirming traditional life-cycle rituals and strive to discover personal meaning within these rituals and the values they represent. We reconstruct traditional rituals to conform to a current idiom and develop new life cycle-events and liturgy to mark a meaningful passage with a uniquely Jewish stamp. For example, Reconstructionist communities have created rituals for retirement, leaving home for college, weaning, and menopause. The power of a life-cycle ritual inheres as much from the ritual itself as from the support of the community that joins together to embrace the occasion.
12. What do Reconstructionist services look like?
Reconstructionist services are fully egalitarian, inclusive and participatory. The Kol Haneshamah prayer book series offers a full and creative liturgy, giving communities the option of using more or less Hebrew during services. For the vast majority of Reconstructionist Jews, wearing tallit and kippah is common practice for both men and women. Integrating music into the spoken service is not uncommon, encourages participation and enhances the spirit of the day. In so doing, we sanctify all forms of Jewish expression and art.
We recognize a wide range of community practices and approaches to prayer. On a practical level, some congregations focus on Friday night services while others stress Shabbat morning community worship and learning. Still others regularly hold both. Congregations often hold family services and services designed for those just entering Jewish prayer.
13. What is the movement stance on women's role in services?
We have always been dedicated to being fully and consistently egalitarian. We pride ourselves in being the only movement that has always ordained women and the first Jewish community to hold a formal bat mitzvah ceremony in synagogue over 70 years ago. All our prayerbooks are gender neutral. In all areas of ritual, hiring and governance, our member communities must demonstrate a full commitment to egalitarian principles.
14. What place does Israel have in Reconstructionism?
Mordecai Kaplan believed that nowhere else could Jews live so complete a Jewish life as in Israel. However, because not all Jews intend or even desire to emigrate to Israel—nor did Kaplan believe that there is an imperative to do so—he envisioned that Jewish communities around the world ought to be interdependent. Such a relationship to Israel and to Jewish communities around the world maintains Israel as central to our historical self definition and affirms our identity as a nation within the global family.
One of the core principles for a Reconstructionist community is the support of Israel's right to exist as an independent nation, which includes both advocating on behalf of policies and needs in Israel, as well as challenging policies if they contradict other sacred values.
Over the past several years there has been an overall movement among Israelis for a more progressive approach to Judaism, which has led to a grass roots interest in articulating a non-orthodox paradigm of Jewish practice and ritual. RRC students, who study and train in Israel, are contributing to the growth of a progressive Jewish community there.