Judaism as the Culture of the Jewish People
For Reconstructionists, Judaism is more than Jewish religion; Judaism is the entire cultural legacy of the Jewish people. Religion is central; Jewish spiritual insights and religious teachings give meaning and purpose to our lives. Yet our creativity as expressed through art, music and drama, languages and literature, and our relationship with the land of Israel itself are also integral parts of Jewish culture. Each of these aspects provides a gateway into the Jewish experience that can enrich and inspire us.
Community as Cornerstone
While deeply connected to the historical experience of the Jewish people, we find a profound sense of belonging in our contemporary communities as well. This connection often leads to increased ritual observance and experimentation with the ritual rhythms of Jewish life. We find meaning in rediscovering the richness of traditional ritual and creating new observances which respond to our contemporary communal and personal cycles.
Reconstructionist communities are characterized by their respect for such core values as democratic process, pluralism, and accessibility. In this way, they create participatory, inclusive, egalitarian communities committed to exploring Jewish life with dedication, warmth and enthusiasm.
Reconstructionists hold diverse ideas about God, but we share an emphasis on Godliness --those hopes, beliefs, and values within us that impel us to work for a better world, that give us strength and solace in times of need, that challenge us to grow, and that deepen our joy in moments of celebration.
Reconstructionist prayerbooks speak of God beyond the gender concepts of male/female, and beyond the traditional metaphor of "king of the universe." For example, in our prayerbooks God is addressed as, among other things, "The Healer," "The Teacher," "The Comforter," and "The Presence." We are engaged in the spiritual adventure of discovering the many attributes of the one God.
Ethics and Values
Reconstructionist communities emphasize acts of social justice alongside prayer and study as an essential part of their spiritual practice. Reconstructionist Judaism affirms that religion can and must be a powerful force for promoting communal discussion about ethics and values. The Torah tradition itself is a deep and wide resource for this project. Yet we know that generations of Jews have sharpened and distilled the ethical insights of Judaism as a result of their encounter with other cultures and traditions, and so it is in our time.
Patterns of Practice
"Torah" means "teaching." In Jewish tradition, talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is a life-long obligation and opportunity. Reconstructionists are committed to a serious engagement with the texts and teachings, as well as the art, literature and music of tradition. But we are not passive recipients; we are instead challenged to enter the conversation of the generations and to hear voices other than our own, but to add our own voices as well.
Reconstructionist Judaism is respectful of traditional Jewish observances but also open to new interpretations and forms of religious expression. As Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionism, taught, tradition has "a vote, but not a veto." Reconstructionists share a commitment to making Judaism their own by finding in it joy, meaning, and ideas they can believe. Unlike Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionism does not view inherited Jewish law (halahah) as binding. We continue to turn to Jewish law for guidance, if not always for governance. We recognize that in the contemporary world, individuals and communities make their own choices with regard to religious practice and ritual observance.
But where Reform Judaism emphasizes individual autonomy, Reconstructionism emphasizes the importance of religious community in shaping individual patterns of observance. Belonging to a community leads us to take the patterns of observance within that community seriously; our choices do not exist independently, but are made in response to our community as part of our participating in it. Reconstructionism thus retains a warmly traditional (and fully egalitarian) approach to Jewish religious practice.
The Elevator Speech
You venture forth: "We belong to the Reconstructionist synagogue." And then it happens, the moment so many Reconstructionists dread: "Oh! What is Reconstructionism anyway?" Don't push the emergency button!
While not every Reconstructionist should be responsible for parsing the fine points of the philosophy and program of Mordecai Kaplan, we should all be able to offer a brief, fundamental explanation of our own movement. Here is what I have come to call my "elevator answer."
— Rabbi Richard Hirsch