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Virtual Talmud

Being Jewish Outside the Box

The Reconstructionist movement was never supposed to be one.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism in the 1920’s, actually considered himself a Conservative Jew and taught at that movement’s seminary for more than fifty years. (He was also a co-founder of the Modern Orthodox Young Israel movement and the inspiration for the secular JCC movement–so much for denominational labels!)

In his thought and writings, Kaplan was not trying to establish a new movement–far from it. Instead, he tried to chart a path to the revitalization of Jewish life in America that was based in a recognition that Judaism was the always-evolving product of the Jewish people in its never-ending quest to live in covenantal relationship with God. All Jews were supposed to recognize this core truth about how Judaism had evolved and must continue to evolve. In other words, Reconstructionism was–-and, in many ways, still is–-first and foremost a framework to describe what Judaism is, and only then a path to discovering what it should be.


For decades Kaplan wrote and lectured, gaining adherents to the approach he (naively) hoped would unify all Jews. It was only in the late 1960’s that Reconstructionism slowly began to take on the institutional elements that would lead to its becoming a movement.

Kaplan’s bold approach still reverberates today. Instead of becoming bogged down in issues of dogma or institution-building, Kaplan tried to focus on the core questions that underlie Jewish life: how has Judaism come to be as it is today? what must happen for it to continue to remain relevant and organic? how do we create meaningful and engaging Jewish communities? how do we write the next chapter in the ongoing sacred story of the relationship between the Jewish people and God?


The fact that so many of these questions have been taken up by other movements-–albeit with differing answers-–is testimony to the wisdom of his approach. We are, after all, Jews first and foremost, and the concept of Klal Yisrael (the unity of the Jewish people) is one that was dear to Kaplan.

While there is no question that real–-and important–-differences exist between Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews, I think the focus on labels often tends to emphasize those differences, focusing us more on what separates us than binds us together.

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posted February 23, 2006 at 4:53 pm

I really like this article. As Jews, we really need to concentrate on how to get people feel a part of the whole, and not separate them by differences of degree. Unfortunately, this happens all to often.

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Rev. Andre R Boulanger

posted February 24, 2006 at 4:21 am

Every organized religion has denominations. This is because of the different needs within different people. One has to use the particular medicine that will heal the wounds.

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posted February 24, 2006 at 4:38 am

I agree with “Klal Yisrael,” and I think most Jews do see themselves as Jews first and some denomination (if any) second. In this sense, it seems like Jews are generally less divided than Christians. Like the Christian “nondenominational” churches, Jewish sects have always been swayed and divided by their reaction to cultural change and people’s relation to their religion. This makes me very optimistic that the current denominations can continue to grow, evolve, and allow themselves to be influenced by independent minyanim and other “fringe” movements in American Jewish culture. Although I am excited by the growth in “post-denominationalism” and the unity it seems capable of bringing, I also think that denominations do have value. They have different perspectives and beliefs about halakha and God, and I don’t think that’s a minor thing. At this point, I see myself largely in the Modern Orthodox camp. I believe in the traditional prayer service, and have never felt comfortable in a Reform setting. I don’t want everything to be up for experimentation and overhaul, especially if it means discarding tradition and re-writing ideas about God in the course of one generation.

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posted March 1, 2006 at 2:19 pm

I think this happens to every great leader. Pretty much no matter what they say, people try to cannonize their teachings — even if they say not to. It’s human nature. If we see something that looks like a good path to follow, it’s easier to do that than to blaze our own trail. It’s easier to follow than to be inspired to find our own way.

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posted March 3, 2006 at 4:47 pm

See “Neudel’s law” in “The Official Rules”: Any group formed to unite a proliferation of splinter groups inevitably becomes another splinter group.

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posted March 10, 2006 at 8:42 pm

I am pleased to read this article specifically as a Christian who is seeking to learn more about Judaism. I believe attempting to understand others way of truth will help us grow to a deeper understanding of how God is at work in us all. Your questions should be our questions too. If we do not ask the questions and seek out where God is calling us to be; we fail.We blame secularism on all the problems our churches face instead of looking at ourselves and our willingness to be molded by Yahweh into something new.

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