Thursday, September 27, 2007

  Part of a series of articles on Jews and Judaism
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Reconstructionist Judaism is a modern American-based Jewish movement, based on the ideas of the late Mordecai Kaplan, that views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization. It originated as the radical left branch of Conservative Judaism before it splintered. There is substantial theological diversity within the movement. Halakha is not considered binding, but is treated as a valuable cultural remnant that should be upheld unless there is reason for the contrary. The movement emphasizes positive views towards modernism, and considers religious custom to be subservient to personal autonomy.

As in Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism holds that contemporary Western secular morality has precedence over Jewish law and theology. It does not ask that its adherents hold to any particular beliefs, nor does it ask that Jewish law be accepted as normative. Unlike classical Reform Judaism, Reconstructionism holds that a person's default position should be to incorporate Jewish laws and tradition into their lives, unless they have a specific reason to do otherwise. The most important distinction between Reconstructionist Judaism and traditional Judaism is that Reconstructionism feels that all of halakha should be categorized as "folkways", and not as law.
Reconstructionism promotes many traditional Jewish practices, while holding that contemporary Western secular morality has precedence over Jewish law. Thus, mitzvot (commandments) have been replaced with "folkways", non-binding customs that can be democratically accepted or rejected by the congregations. Folkways that are promoted include keeping Hebrew in the prayer service, studying Torah, daily prayer, wearing kipot (yarmulkas), tallisim and tefillin during prayer, and observance of the Jewish holidays.

Jewish law and tradition
In practice, Rabbi Kaplan's books, especially The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion and Judaism as a Civilization are de facto statements of principles. In 1986, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) and the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (FRCH) passed the official Platform on Reconstructionism (2 pages). It is not a mandatory statement of principles, but rather a consensus of current beliefs. [See the FRCH Newsletter, Sept. 1986, pages D, E.] Major points of the platform state that:
"Judaism is the result of natural human development. There is no such thing as divine intervention; Judaism is an evolving religious civilization; Zionism and aliyah (immigration to Israel) are encouraged; Reconstructionist Judaism is based on a democratic community where the laity can make decisions, not just rabbis; The Torah was not inspired by God; it only comes from the social and historical development of Jewish people; The classical view of God is rejected. God is redefined as the sum of natural powers or processes that allows mankind to gain self-fulfillment and moral improvement; The idea that God chose the Jewish people for any purpose, in any way, is "morally untenable", because anyone who has such beliefs "implies the superiority of the elect community and the rejection of others".
Most Reconstructionists do not believe in revelation (the idea that God can reveal His will to human beings). This is dismissed as supernaturalism. Kaplan posits that revelation "consists in disengaging from the traditional context those elements in it which answer permanent postulates of human nature, and in integrating them into our own ideology ... the rest may be relegated to archaeology." (The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion).
Many writers have criticized the movement's most widely held theology, religious naturalism. David Ray Griffin and Louis Jacobs have objected to the redefinitions of the terms "revelation" and "God" as being intellectually dishonest, and as being a form of "conversion by definition"; in their critique, these redefinitions take non-theistic beliefs and attach theistic terms to them.
Similar critiques have been put forth by Rabbis Neil Gillman (Sacred Fragments, p.200); Milton Steinberg (Milton Steinberg: Portrait of a Rabbi) by Simon Noveck, Ktav, 1978, p.259-260; and Michael Samuels (The Lord is My Shepherd: The Theology of a Caring God 1996).
Reconstructionist Judaism is egalitarian with respect to gender roles. All positions are open to both genders; they are open to lesbians and gay men as well.

Principles of belief
Reconstructionist Judaism allows its rabbis to determine their own policy regarding officiation at intermarriages; about two-thirds will do so. It accepts patrilineal descent as well as matrilineal, i.e., children of one Jewish parent, of either sex, are considered Jewish if raised as Jews, by some congregations. This is less restrictive than the traditional standard that only considers children with Jewish mothers to be considered Jewish, regardless of how they were raised. Reconstructionist Jews may be less restrictive in this sense because of the emphasis on personal morality rather than stated, necessary rituals; in other words, it's more important to Reconstructionist Judaism to be a good person than to pray daily, because the prayers are only meant to enhance your goodness as a person.
The role of non-Jews in Reconstructionist congregations is a matter of ongoing debate. Practices vary widely between synagogues. Most congregations strive to strike a balance between inclusivity and integrity of boundaries. The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) has issued a non-binding statement attempting to delineate the process by which congregations set policy on these issues, and sets forth sample recommendations. These issues are ultimately decided by local lay leadership. [Can Halakha Live? by Rabbi Edward Feld, The Reconstructionist, Vol.59(2), Fall 1994, p.64-72]

Relation to other Jewish movements

Platform on Reconstructionism, FRCH Newsletter, Sept. 1986, pages D, E
Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach, Rebecca T. Alpert and Jacob J. Staub, The Reconstructionist Press, 1988
David Griffin's article in Jewish Theology and Process Thought, Ed. Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin, State University of New York Press, 1996
Louis Jacobs God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1990;
Judaism As a Civilization Mordecai Kaplan, The Jewish Publications Society, 1994
Mordecai Kaplan "The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion", 1962

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