Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism (Hebrew: יהדות מתחדשת, yahadut mit'kha'de'shet) is a modern American-based Jewish movement based on the conceptions developed by Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983). The movement views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization. It originated as a semi-organized stream within Conservative Judaism, before it seceded. The movement developed from the late 1920s to 1940s, and it established a rabbinical college in 1968.

There is substantial theological diversity within the movement. Halakha, the collective body of Jewish Law, 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 toward modernity, and has an approach to Jewish custom which aims toward communal decision making through a process of education and distillation of values from traditional Jewish sources.


Reconstructionism was developed by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (18811983) and his son-in-law, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein (19062001), over a period of time spanning from the late 1920s to the 1940s. It made its greatest stride in becoming the fourth movement in North American Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform being the other three) with the founding of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1968.

Reconstructionist Judaism is the first major movement of Judaism to originate in North America; the second is the Humanistic Judaism movement founded in 1963 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine.


Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan believed that, in light of advances in philosophy, science and history, it would be impossible for modern Jews to continue to adhere to many of Judaism's traditional theological claims. In agreement with Orthodox theology (articulated by prominent medieval Jewish thinkers including Maimonides), Kaplan affirmed that God is not anthropomorphic in any way. As such, all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are used metaphorically. Kaplan's theology went beyond this to claim that God is not personal, in that God is not a conscious being nor can God in any way relate to or communicate with humanity. Furthermore, Kaplan's theology defines God as the sum of all natural processes that allow people to become self-fulfilled.

To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man's destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.[1]

Most "classical" Reconstructionist Jews (those agreeing with Kaplan) reject traditional forms of theism, though this is by no means universal. Many are deists, and a small number accept Kabbalistic views of God or the concept of a personal God.

Kaplan's theology, as he explicitly stated, does not represent the only Reconstructionist understanding of theology and theology is not the cornerstone of the Reconstructionist movement. Much more central is the idea that Judaism is a civilization, and that the Jewish people must take an active role in ensuring its future by participating in its ongoing evolution.

Consequently, a strain of Reconstructionism exists which is distinctly non-Kaplanian. In this view, Kaplan's assertions concerning belief and practice are largely rejected, while the tenets of an "evolving religious civilization" are supported. The basis for this approach is that Kaplan spoke for his generation; he also wrote that every generation would need to define itself and its civilization for itself. In the thinking of these Reconstructionists, what Kaplan said concerning belief and practice is not applicable today. This approach may include a belief in a personal God, acceptance of the concept of "chosenness", a belief in some form of resurrection or continued existence of the dead, and the existence of an obligatory form of halakha. In the latter, in particular, there has developed a broader concept of halakhah wherein concepts such as "eco-Kashrut" are incorporated.

Jewish law and tradition

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 concludes that all of halakha should be categorized as "folkways", and not as religious law.

Reconstructionism promotes many traditional Jewish practices. 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), tallitot and tefillin during prayer, and observance of the Jewish holidays.


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". It is not a mandatory statement of principles, but rather a consensus of current beliefs.[2] 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 reveals 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".[3]

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,[4] Milton Steinberg,[5] and Michael Samuels.[6]

Reconstructionist Judaism is egalitarian with respect to gender roles. All positions are open to all genders; they are open to lesbians, gay men, and transgender individuals as well.

Jewish identity

Reconstructionist Judaism allows its rabbis to determine their own policy regarding officiating at intermarriages. Some congregations accept patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent, and children of one Jewish parent, of either sex, are considered Jewish if raised as Jews. This is less restrictive than the traditional standard that only considers children with Jewish mothers to be Jewish, regardless of how they were raised.

The role of non-Jews in Reconstructionist congregations is a matter of ongoing debate. Practices vary 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.[7] Mixed Jewish/Non-Jewish couples, however, are welcome in Reconstructionist congregations.

In 2015 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College voted to accept rabbinical students in interfaith relationships, making Reconstructionist Judaism the first type of Judaism to officially allow rabbis in relationships with non-Jewish partners.[8] In making the decision, the movement considered that “many younger progressive Jews, including many rabbis and rabbinical students, now perceive restrictions placed on those who are intermarried as reinforcing a tribalism that feels personally alienating and morally troubling in the 21st century.”[9] In April 2016 nineteen Reconstructionist rabbis announced they will form an off-shoot group in part to protest the decision to allow rabbis to have non-Jewish partners.[10]


Over 100 synagogues and havurot, mostly in the United States and Canada, were affiliated with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. As of June 3, 2012 the Reconstructionist movement has been restructured. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is now the primary organization of the movement.[11][12] The movement's new designation is simply the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.[13] Rabbi Deborah Waxman was inaugurated as the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities on October 26, 2014.[14] As the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she is believed to be the first woman and first lesbian to lead a Jewish congregational union, and the first lesbian to lead a Jewish seminary; the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is both a congregational union and a seminary.[15][16] Waxman is a 1999 graduate of RRC.[17][18] [19]

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College educates rabbis. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association is the professional organization of Reconstructionist rabbis.

Relation to other Jewish movements

Originally an offshoot of Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionism retains warm relations with both the Conservative movement and Reform Judaism. Orthodox Judaism, however, considers Reconstructionism to be in violation of proper observance of interpretation of Jewish law.[20] The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation is a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, in which it gained an observer status in 1990.


  1. Sonsino, Rifat. The Many Faces of God: A Reader of Modern Jewish Theologies. 2004, page 22–23
  2. See the FRCH Newsletter, Sept. 1986, pages D, E.
  3. The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion
  4. Sacred Fragments, p. 200
  5. Milton Steinberg: Portrait of a Rabbi by Simon Noveck, Ktav, 1978, p. 259–260M
  6. The Lord Is My Shepherd: The Theology of a Caring God, 1996
  7. Can Halakha Live? by Rabbi Edward Feld, The Reconstructionist, Vol.59(2), Fall 1994, p. 64-72
  8. Lisa Hostein (October 1, 2015). "Reconstructionists give green light to intermarried rabbinical students". Jweekly. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  9. 7 Reconstructionist Rabbis Quit as Synagogues Debate Intermarried Rabbis The Forward, 8 January 2016
  10. Reconstructionist offshoot forms over intermarried rabbis, BDS JTA, April 8, 2016
  11., "Movement Restructuring FAQs", Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, June 4, 2012
  12., "Do the Jewish Streams Have a Future?", The Jewish Exponent,May 09, 2012
  13. "Jewish Reconstructionist Community".
  14. "Waxman Inaugurated as Head of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College". Jewish Exponent.
  15. "Reconstructionists Pick First Woman, Lesbian As Denominational Leader - The Jewish Week". The Jewish Week. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  16. "RRC Announces New President Elect" (PDF) (Press release). Wyncote, PA (USA): Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. 2013-10-09. Retrieved 2013-10-16.
  17. "Reconstructionists Pick First Woman, Lesbian As Denominational Leader". The Jewish Week.Retrieved 2013-10-12.
  18. "Trailblazing Reconstructionist Deborah Waxman Relishes Challenges of Judaism –". Retrieved 2013-10-12.
  19. "Change of Top Leadership at Recon Movement" Jewish Exponent. Retrieved 2013-10-30.
  20. Robinson, George. Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. ISBN 0-671-03480-4, pgs 232


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