The Spirit of Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism is described as a movement “inspired by the writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who proposed that we should think of Judaism as a Civilization, a culture with a history, a land, a religion, a literature and arts. Over the centuries it has been highly adaptable, reconstructing itself to meet changing needs. In ancient times it adapted to the needs of a settled agricultural society, found a way of understanding the Jewish people’s relationship to God that saw it through exile and return, developed rabbinic Judaism as a way of carrying on after the destruction of the Temple. Today, Judaism faces another challenge: after centuries of living in restricted, hierarchical societies, how do we make Judaism meaningful in an open, democratic environment? ”

Rabbi Lester Bronstein, a Reconstructionist Jew, provides a crash course. He begins by trying “to show people how Reconstructionist Jews (and, truth be told, a myriad of Jews around the world) view these matters in a way that is different from traditional Judaism, but surprisingly close to the spirit of that tradition.”

Let’s see how surprisingly close the reconstruction is to the original. Rabbi Bronstein deals with the four topics of Torah, prayer, ritual, and mitzvot (commands). The parts in quotation marks belong to Rabbi Bronstein.

Torah “Tradition tells us that the Torah was dictated by God to Moses, and then transmitted through the generations. Reconstructionist Jews see the Torah as the Jewish people’s response to God’s presence in the world (and not God’s gift to us). That is to say, the Jews wrote the Torah.”

If the tradition tells us that the Torah was dictated by God to Moses –  the Torah tells us that too – and the reconstructed version tells us that this didn’t happen, how close is the reconstucted view similar in spirit to the original tradition? The Torah says God spoke to Moses, and Moses (and arguably a few others) wrote down what God commanded. Rabbi Bronstein, in contrast, says, the tradition – and the Torah itself – got it the wrong way round. It wasn’t God who spoke to Moses, it was Moses who responded to “God’s presence in the world”.How did Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and so many others experience God’s presence without first experiencing God speaking to them? I can’t imagine.

The Rabbi continues:

But that is not to say that the Torah is merely a human creation. It is a response to the sacred. It is an attempt to convince an entire people to view everyday life in a sacred way.”

If I understand the above, the Torah is more than a human creation because it is sacred, that is, it attempts to convince the Jews to value the profane as sacred, that is, holy; “profane” shouldn’t even be in a Reconstructionist Jew’s vocabulary. How does this view of the holiness of everyday life, of every day resonate with traditional Judaism? Consider this passage from Exodus:

Now Moses . . . came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.” So when the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:1-5).

Moses, obviously, knew that something strange was happening unless he had seen a burning bush that didn’t burn before. But he had to be told that the everyday place that he was standing on next to this strange sight was holy ground. Holy? What’s that? The Torah – and the rest of the Tanakh is a commentary on what “Holy” means – in substance and action.

There are many other examples in the Torah of the clear distinction between the sacred and the “everyday”. I mentioned a sacred space – holy ground. And a sacred time? That’s an easy one – Shabbat, the many Shabbats, which the Torah commanded be treated as days sacred to the Lord. What about clothing and all the other accoutrements of Temple worship and daily worship; the talit and the tefillin, for example.

The idea that every day should be sacred is not a Torah idea at all. It is, though, a good idea to regard every day as precious, but that is not the same as KADOSH “holy”, which punctuates the whole of Leviticus – body and soul.

For I [am] the LORD that brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy (KEDOSHIM קְדֹשִׁים), for I [am] holy (KADOSH קָדֹוש). (Leviticus 11:5)

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה הַֽמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לִהְיֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדֹושׁ אָֽנִי׃

According to the Torah, holiness for God’s people goes together with the departure from Egypt – on a real historical journey, that is, from a real historical place, at a real historical time. This holiness is a sham, of course, if it does not bear fruit in the form of moral obligations to all strangers – Jew and Gentile. “We might say (says Mel Scult) that certain moral obligations naturally flow from the historical experience of the Jewish people. This line of thinking begins in the Torah, which commands us to be concerned for the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. Because we were strangers we should identify with the uprooted and the exiled everywhere” (Reconstrucionist Journal, Fall, 2005, p. 25). And: “No matter the breadth or depth of our knowledge, it is incumbent on us to retell, to relive, the story of our journey from slavery to freedom. In retelling the story, the goal is for each of us to feel as though we ourselves actually had gone forth from Egypt” (Hineini xvii).

On the face of it, these two reconstructionists are referring to (real) history. But after a little more prodding into reconstructionist literature (Reconstrucionist Journal, Fall, 2005 and other issues of the Journal) it soon becomes clear that Mordecai Kaplan’s view of Torah history holds sway, which is summarised as:

The Reconstructionist approach to Judaism actually commences with Mordecai Kaplan’s realization that ‘as long as Jews adhered to the traditional concept of Torah as supernaturally revealed, they would not be amenable to any constructive adjustment of Judaism that was needed to render it viable in a non-Jewish environment’ (Mordecai M. Kaplan: An Evaluation). These words still ring true for many of the most religiously sophisticated among us. Jacob Agus, in his discussion (in The Evolution of Jewish Thought) of Maimonides’ attitude to the idea that God spoke in an audible voice at Sinai, or that the revelation there actually took place as described in the Torah, reminds us that “when the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments recited by Moses, they were so deeply moved that in their imagination they heard voices and beheld wondrous sights. But the account of the revelation must not be taken literally . . . according to Maimonides, the account of the Sinaitic revelation in the Book of Exodus should be read as a parable (mashal) . . . in general, ‘the inner meanings of the words of the Torah are the gems while the literal parables are no more than illustrations.’” (Rabbi Emmanuel Goldsmith).

The above view seems to be also Rabbi Lester Bronstein’s view. I would think that with regard to the non-historicity of most of the Torah events, reconstructionists all seem to share the same animus. Rabbi Lester Bronstein, however, seems to root for the “historical and natural context” of the Torah.” But it doesn’t turn out to be really so. He says:

Yes, it is intriguing to apply the tools of history, science and chronology to the Torah. These vehicles give us the historical and natural contextof the Torah. But they don’t give us the essence of the Torah. The essential Torah is neither the tidal explanation for the parting of the sea, nor the geological definition of the primordial flood nor the cosmological identification of “let there be light.” The essential Torah consists in the truth deep within these stories, a truth that radiates a picture of a society based on courts of justice and on social empathy. God didn’t write that Torah, since God does not write per se. But God is everywhere in the details of it” (Bronstein’s italics, my bold).

In other words, faithful to Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstuctionism, Bronstein dismisses the Torah as divine revelation. That dismissal dismisses any notion that Reconstructionism has any spiritual truck with traditional Judaism. But I don’t want to be so dismissive – and merciful to the long-suffering reader – that I put down my “pen”.

If Bronstein means that history without its meaning (its “essence”) is meaningless, no one except an atheist, a Darwinian evolutionist, or a post-modernist would disagree (if you’re one of these, you’re probably one of the others as well). What is the quintessence of Torah? The first five words of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created.” What is a close second? After He (they??) created the formless void, Elohim said:“Let there be light” (Genesis, 1:3). That is very much – pace Bronstein – the “essential Torah”. Of course, the light is not merely physical light; the physical light was created by the spiritual light – not only in the sense that “God is everywhere in the details”, for if you say that God is not in the stories of the parting of the red (reed) sea nor the “primordial flood”, but only in the “truth that radiates a picture of a society based on courts of justice and on social empathy”, God then becomes a folkloric (Mordecai Kaplan) je ne sais quoi, a “force” (Kaplan again) that binds a community together. If this is Bronstein’s “spirit of the Torah”, it is not only the (de)tail wagging the head, but a tail without a head, wagging itself. You may reconstruct however you wish – that is the luxury of living in a democratic country like the US – but this does not mean that democratic Reconstructionism has anything to do with theocratic Judaism, which is traditional Judaism. I’m talking religion not politics.

Rabbi Bronstein then deals with Prayer and Ritual:

On the face of it, the text of the siddur suggests that our prayers are direct recitations and petitions to a God who is “other” and who, we hope is listening and contemplating a favorable response. Reconstructionist Jews retain the traditional language of Jewish prayer, but not the obvious understanding of its meaning and function” (My emphasis).

Yes, God is “Other” (transcendent) but He is also a Father which is a core Torah concept, the essence of Judaism, and not merely “on the face of it” (Bronstein, previous paragraph). Here are some relevant verses:

“Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and unwise people? Is not He your Father who has bought you? He has made you and established you. (Deuteronomy 32:6).

“He will cry to Me, ‘Thou art my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation’” (Psalm 89:26).

For Thou art our Father, though Abraham does not know us, And Israel does not recognize us. Thou, O LORD, art our Father, Our Redeemer from of old is Thy name” (Isaiah 63:16).

“Have you not just now called to Me, ‘My Father, Thou art the friend of my youth? (Jeremiah 3:4)

“Then I said, ‘How I would set you among My sons, And give you a pleasant land, The most beautiful inheritance of the nations!’ And I said, ‘You shall call Me, My Father, And not turn away from following Me’”(Jeremiah 3:19).

Everyone who believes in God, believes must believe that He is listening, which is another way of saying: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believes that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). Although it is not put this way in the Torah, the Hebrews verse is totally in the Spirit of Torah, unlike Reconstructionism.

Sometimes, we feel as if God is not listening, and disillusionment and sometimes despair take hold of us where we might even wonder whether we really believe in God; that is human nature, but I get the impression that what Bronstein means by “we hope is listening” is not a temporary fluctuation in how a believer feels about God (Bronstein’s “traditional language of Jewish prayer”?) but rather a scepticism of whether God is really “there” to hear us at all (Bronstein’s “obvious understanding of its meaning and function”?).

Bronstein says that reconstructionists look deeper than the “obvious meaning”, (that is, “literal meaning”). I would think that looking for something beyond the sense of a passage is nonsense. A metaphorical meaning is obviously not literal meaning. When God asks his children to call Him Father, he doesn’t mean mother, and certainly not that we should go beyond the “obvious” meaning of father to the deeper meaning of “force”, or – to come down to the human level – “social empathy” (Bronstein above). Not that the way people feel about one another is not important – the horizontal level; but, more important, from a religious point of view, is surely the vertical level. And even on this vertical level, what’s primordial is not that we love God, but that He (first) loves us. If this were not so, we would have no odea what love was – Torah love, that is.

Let me say more about prayer, the kaddish for example. I replace Bronstein’s word “prayer” with “kaddish” in his following paragraph:

Rather, we understand prayer (Kaddish) to help us perform the task of awakening. We need to awaken ourselves to the miracle that is life and to the obligations that inhere in that life. We believe that we are the primary respondents to our own prayers, and that we need prayer to remind us of the Godly values behind our benevolent actions in the world. We also understand prayer as a way of calling out to others in the world, in the hope that they, too, would sign on to the Godly enterprise of healing, caring, and righting injustice.”

Before I comment, here is what another reconstructionist Rabbi, Rosalind Glazer, says about Kaddish:

“the underlying power of is not merely in the instant of remembrance, but in the building and preservation of community.”Glazer give two reasons here for Kaddish: remembering the dead and sustaining the community. Rabbi Bronstein (above) says: firstly, “we are the primary respondents of our prayers” and secondly, “we need prayer to remind us of the Godly values behind our benevolent actions in the world.”The gist of both Glazer and Bronstein is that we pray to ourselves, but we must do it in a “Godly” manner (Bronstein). Surely that is not the spirit of Shma Yisroel or of the Kaddish prayer:

First part of the Shma:

Enlarged Ayin and Dalet

The Ayin and Dalet are enlarged. Together, these two letters form the word ‘ed, which means “witness.” Witness to what? The sovereignty of God, who is a living, breathing (ruakh) Person, who loves, judges – and jealous: “I will have no other gods before me” – which includes gods fashioned out of human flesh.

Beginning of Kaddish:

Mourner: Magnified and sanctified be His great name. (Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmai raba).

(The greatness and holiness of God is the introduction to prayer. This is the theme of the whole Kaddish).

But no, Rabbi Bronstein disagrees with this “obvious” and “on the face of it” view. Consider what he says about the Mitzvot ( commandments). What we expect we get:

“As you would expect, Reconstructionist Judaism teaches that the mitzvot are our own invention.

Reconstructionism invents the brokhe (blessing) of Judaism on the back of the people that Shlomo Sand says invented themselves (and Judaism to boot) in the backside of the desert:

“Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, [even] to Horeb” (Exodus 3:1).

וּמֹשֶׁה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת־צֹאן יִתְרֹו חֹתְנֹו כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן וַיִּנְהַג אֶת־הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר וַיָּבֹא אֶל־הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵֽבָה׃

“Mitzvot (says Bronstein, as a faithful representative of Reconstruction) are our particularly Jewish ways of responding to the universal God,” which cannot be the God of the Torah – at all. The commands are the decrees of God, which all traditional Jews, like King David, cannot praise enough. “I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.” David doesn’t seek himself – even in an unselfish way through others, through the community; He seeks his saviour, His Lord. Psalm 119 – the longest Psalm by far – cannot stop praising “your statutes/laws/precepts/decrees. God is not in our response, even though it is God who makes our response possible. Our (all human beings) neshamos (souls) are not holy and pure because we are “a piece of G-d,” as another Reconstructionist Rabbi, Tani Burton asserts. This not a Judaic understanding; for one thing, our souls are not holy and pure, as the Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, all the Prophets, relentlessly hammer home. And there’s the famous verse from the Psalm where David (not an invented King, says traditional Judaism): “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity (Hebrew: avon; and in sin (Hebrew: chet) did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5; 51:7 in the Hebrew text). Avon denotes an incipient corruption in one’s character. David writes that he had this depraved condition from birth, thus before he could do anything. Some Jewish commentators go beyond the obvious meaning to the deep? (gnostic, Manichean ) meaning, namely, all babies are born through the sinful act of sex. Here is the “traditional” English translation of the Psalm 51:7:

51:7 in the Hebrew text

הֵן־בְּעָוֹון חֹולָלְתִּי וּבְחֵטְא יֶֽחֱמַתְנִי אִמִּֽי׃

51:5 in the English text

Look! In iniquity was I born
Sinful was my mother’s heated passion
The implication in this translation is that because David’s mother had sex (perverted sex?) with Jesse his father – just look at all the children she had! – David was born in iniquity, the iniquity of a depraved mother..Is this what Rabbi Bronstein means by going beyond the obvious (translation) to the deeper meaning. The “deeper” meaning in this case, and many others, is the cheaper meaning – not only extremely impoverished but perverse, more so than cheap sex, or heated sex. The length that the human heart will go to to avoid “original sin”. I’m not a traditional sycophant. When I think traditional Judaism is wrong, I say so. What else do you expect from onedaringjew?

David’s verse above (Psalm 51:5) reminds me of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “… this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls” (Romans, 9:9-11; my emphasis). This is sound ultra-Orthodox Judaic theology: “It is not because you are numerous that God chose you, indeed you are the smallest of people” (Deuteronomy 7:7). God chose the Jews, according to Orthodox Judaism, not because they had done mighty or good works, but because he wanted to. He elected the seed of Isaac to be his bride not because he found he beautiful but for reasons only known to Him. Who are we to argue with God on his choices? asks a Judaic Jew like Moses, Rambam and Paul of Tarsus. What does Bronstein say about election/chosenness?

“In this system, God does not choose the Jews to be performers of the commandments. Rather, the Jews choose to be called by God by means of a vast network of sacred acts (mitzvot) ranging from balancing work and rest (Shabbat), to establishing courts and laws, to sexual fidelity, filial respect, medical ethics and the rhythms of the seasons. (Hence, asher ker’vanu la’avodato, “who has called us to your service.”) Paradoxically, it is the mitzvot that keep us Jewish, but which simultaneously attune us to the greater universe of which we are a tiny part.”

In Reconstructionism, God is not the supernatural personal being of the Torah, with a mind, a will, who loves, who judges, and so forth, but is a transcendent power, which evolves. Mordecai Kaplan claimed a continuity between traditional Judaism (where the Torah is a historical document that records the relationship between God and His people). I don’t see such a continuity between the personal God of Moses and the transcendent process of Kaplan or what Rabbi Bronstein has described as Reconstructionism, which I am pretty sure is a faithful description of it.

From what I have read on Reconstructionist Judaism, there is much Reconstructionism but little Judaism. There is hardly anything in less-than-a-century-old reconstructionist Judaism that represents Judaism that has existed for more than 3000 years, and continues to exist among those who have been set apart (for God) from the myriads of Jews that make up the bulk of everyday Jews. And reconstructionist Rabbis know that “set apart” (Kadash) is a synonym for holy. The Torah is set apart from the world; it is in the world, but not of the world. Where have I come across this before?

“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17). Yeshua, is of course, talking about a different shtetl of fish.

What does the Rabbi mean that the Jews choose to be called by God. He means, God didn’t choose the Jews; the Jews chose God. Why did they choose God. Simple – it seems. They chose Him because they wanted Him to choose (“call”) them. What do they want from God, in other words, from themselves. Nothing much different from the quest of “social constructivism.”:

“to create a better society and worldwide democracy. Reconstructionist educators focus on a curriculum that highlights social reform as the aim of education. [We have] the potential for either human annihilation through technology and human cruelty or the capacity to create a beneficent society using technology and human compassion… [and] preparing people for creating this new social order.

Only the Jews have the right mix of genius, hubris and chutzpa to attempt to pull it off. A far cry from the voice crying in the wilderness, “repent.” “Through  deceit, they refuse to know me” says the Lord” (Jeremiah, 9:6).

“I meet all kinds of ethical and moral (Jewish) people (says Art Katz in his “Confrontation with the living God”), really sensitive about life, loving nature and love and human relationships. You’ld think they would be the first candidates to receive the living God. When someone would come and say, ‘brother, I can show you the way unto life. I know Him who is life, and I can show you the way unto salvation.” But you know what the strangest thing is, the very people who you’d think would be the candidates to receive this truth are the very ones who draw themselves up and begin to bite their lips, and actually gnash their teeth at you and what you represent.”

Katz is talking about receiving Yeshua, but the principle applies to all Jews who have rejected the Holy One of Israel and His Torah and will only accept Him (it?) on their own terms – and in so doing use all their genius, hubris and chutzpa to get the Holy One of Israel out of their face.

3 thoughts on “The Spirit of Reconstructionist Judaism

  1. Pingback: The Torah: shared myths and other stories in Reconstructionist Judaism « OneDaringJew
    • Rabbi, you thanked me for reading you. It’s nice when someone does, what with the many millions of posts teeming the blogosphere. You also said, you don’t know who is reading you. In your case, I had a pretty good idea. I’m not surprised that you had a look in – in fact I was hoping you would – seeing that I quoted you. You probably got a ping back when I posted your URL on my site. What bloggers do like most about comments to their blogs – I think you are no exception – is when something is said about the content of their post, whether positive or negative. When are you most likely to get a response (a reaction?) from those you quote? When they feel that you have misrepresented them. They will then make time to post a comment. I am thankful for this small consideration. But to the business. Why did I call you a Reconstructionist? I’d like to give you a comprehensive response, for two reasons: 1. I am very interested in how you incorporate Logotherapy into your Judaism, and 2. (which is pertinent to your question) in your “About” on your site you don’t come across as a Reconstructionist Jew, but in much of what you say in your “Disillusionment” post you do come across as one, and in one instance as a mirror image of one. For now, let me explain why you are a mirror image of a Reconstructionist. I will give you a more comprehensive reply in my next post or two.

      A Reconstructionist Jew proper (“pure”) – as Derrida, another Jew, a Deconstructionist one, might have said – believes that God is a piece of our souls, whereas you, in your “Disillusionment”, believe that our souls (neshamos) are “a piece of G-d Above”.

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