Reconstructionists

I said I was going to post on Thursday and here we are and it is Sunday already. Sorry.

I returned to the Reconstructionist synagogue for the day of Rosh Hashanah. (As an aside, this community observes two days of RH, but I only go for one). As previously mentioned, I was offered a ride to synagogue in the morning from Michael, the sister in law of John, who drove me home on Erev RH. We arrived about a half hour late, missing the morning blessings, which is always disappointing to me; the first part of shacharit is my favorite.

This congregation has break points in the service at which point people are asked to either remain where they are or go to the library for a discussion session. The first was during the Torah service where we discussed how Israel is portrayed in American, Israeli, and international media. The discussion was led by a congregant who happens to be a NY Times editor. It was quite interesting. The second discussion, which I did not go to, was during musaf.

After services I was given a ride to a nearby park where the congregation picnicked and observed tashlich with a creek that runs through the park.

Now for some observations I jotted down on my HH program:
• The congregation is currently going through some turmoil deciding whether to have religious school on Shabat or on Sunday. I think it is great that they are even considering the idea. More congregations should.
• They are also in an ongoing debate about whether the congregation should keep strictly kosher or not.
• Liturgically speaking, the congregation was all over the map. The structure was for more traditional than a Reform service would ever be. For example, we did musaf. The way in which the parts of the service were done was all over the place though. Sometimes we read quietly to ourselves. Other times there was an English reading from the sidur, Kol Haneshamah. On other occasions, they went for the whole NFTY style by having congregants give their own sappy-as-hell poetic-creative-kind-of-on-topic readings.
• We did the Shma sitting down, which I suppose is the true norm, but it still always throws me when it happens.
• I have found the source of the dreaded “Moshe Umiryam” that has migrated into our esteemed Reform sidur.
• Any time that a prayer beseeches God to bless the people of Israel, a new line is inserted to make sure that God blesses all of the other peoples in the world as well. Though I am not a huge fan of many of the Reconstructionist alterations to liturgy, I can say one good thing: They are consistent. This is rather unlike Mishkan, which changes some things in some places, and not in other places.
• The immediate past President of Hadassah is a member of this congregation. She is also the current President of the Conference of Presidents of Major North American Jewish Organizations.
• They were not all crunchy granola types as I had expected.
• I have never met so many gay people in a two day span before. Probably half of the couples I was introduced to were same-sex couples.

My overall impression of the congregation is positive. They were welcoming and helpful and all around good people. They seemed on average more intellectually engaged by the tradition than I think of the average Reform congregant being.

My overall impression of Reconstructionism is not positive. The program included a page of explanation about the movement. I agreed with much of it. Their approach to halachah is like mine, as is their approach to God. “Reconstructionists define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Each generation of Jews has subtly reshaped our faith and traditions and this generation continues that process. We believe that ‘the past has a vote, but not a veto,’” read part of the explanation. I have no big beef with these ideas, except that I have no idea what it means for Judaism to be the “evolving religious civilization of the Jews.” I do not even know how to comment on that idea because I do not have any idea what they mean by it.

“When after study and examination, a particular Jewish value or custom is found wanting, Reconstructionists believe that it is our obligation as Jews to find a means to ‘reconstruct’ it—to find new meaning in old forms blah blah blah.” Okay, I am with them on this one. The program then quotes Mordechai Kaplan to death, which bothers the hell out of me. He got mentioned not just here, but on a regular basis throughout services on RH. The Recons have elevated this guy to an unhealthy status , in my opinion. You do not hear Reform Jews mention Isaac Mayer Wise like this, do you?

“Examples of this ‘re-evaluation’ of halachah include our views on the role of women.” Okay. “The acceptance of gays and lesbians.” Great. “And the concept of Chosenness.” Hold the phone. Is this concept not a tad central to just go tossing out the window? I do not believe that God picked us out and said, “Here have a correct religion.” I do believe in a sort of Chosenness by way of Jews being an exceptional people. We have survived thousands of years in exile, revived a dead language and a dead state. We write, film, bank, practice medicine and law, receive Nobel prizes, and get elected to office at disproportionate rates, no matter where we go. All of that, and the Recons want to do away with the idea of Chosenness. That is where they and I part ways.

Even though I do not agree with their position in Chosenness, I see their point and I will not say it is any more wrong than anything any other movement claims. My main critique, however, is the same as my main critique of their parent movement, the Conservative movement, as well as my main critique of my own movement. No one I met is doing what they say they are doing. There is no reconstructing going on. There is a claim put forward by the Recons that they are being ritually creative, but if that creativity goes not further than slipping a new line in here and there in the liturgy and composing childish poetry, I see nothing special here.

2 Responses to Reconstructionists

  1. Frank Castronova October 20, 2009 at 5:55 pm #

    Great observations, David. My wife and I belonged to a small Reconstructionist shul for a two years or so. Much of what you experienced was true for me. “Shema Reconstructionists, Kaplan Rabeinu, Kaplan Gadol.” (I hope this sarcasm isn’t too offensive. If so, “al chet shechatani.”) But ask any one of them anything that required thought beyond a few standard Recon quotes–nothing.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 20, 2009 at 10:18 pm #

      You’re far less charitable to them than I am. I find a lot of reconsructionism compelling, but there’s plenty I find distasteful. I also think the way the good ideas have played out for them in real life has been disappointing.