How often have we all been asked: “What Is Reconstructionism?” Although University Synagogue has a wonderful reputation for services, music, Religious School, Pre-School, Adult Education, Tikkun Olam, Women’s Connection and so much more and we continue to attract new members of all ages year after year, sometimes, it’s difficult, in a few minutes, to answer that question.
The very best way to explain what we do and believe is to invite those who are curious to experience our congregation. A website, newsletter or even a philosophical explanation doesn’t do us justice. Still, people want to know: “What Is Reconstructionism?”
So, here’s an answer:
1. God/Godliness/Humanism/Spirituality: We’re a community of diverse philosophies and theologies and we affirm the right and responsibility of everyone to discover what they truly believe. Agnostics and atheists, as well as those who believe in a personal, supernatural God, are all welcome here. Inheriting a theology from parents or Hebrew School long ago is quite different from bringing mind and heart together on your own. We encourage people to be skeptical and to question and to be more inclusive and less dogmatic. We stress awe and wonder more than reward and punishment, affirmations over prohibitions, good questions over bad answers. To know oneself and to love others is Godly. Most of us are religious humanists or naturalists, seeing in self-actualization and ethical behavior the workings of the Divine. We’re not listening for God to speak or do. Godliness works through human consciousness and altruism.
2. Torah/Ethics/Learning/Worship: Study is a form of worship in Judaism and, if we can become lifelong learners in Judaism, ethical improvement and ourselves, we are fulfilling the highest form of worship. Most of us express the Divine within us more through self-awareness, self-reflection and raised conscience and consciousness than through traditional worship, although the words and music of our traditional prayers and the experience of a davening community can prepare us and elevate us. Tradition is entitled to a vote, but not a veto. We have to decide what enhances our Judaism and life, as individuals and as a community. We also know that we have more to learn, so that we need to instruct before we reconstruct.
Prayer, for us, is “quotation” and “affirmation.” Traditional prayers (“quotation”) link us to the past and to present day Jews throughout the world, so we always strive to find meaning in them. We also add prayers of “affirmation” – poetry, expressions of contemporary truth and the insights of our inner voices to our services that express how we feel here and now.
We bond through music and words, warmth and touch, surprise and creativity, so that we might express gratitude for all of the blessings of our lives and find comfort in times of pain. We ask not for supernatural deliverance, but for strength, insight, passion and compassion.
3. Community/Peoplehood/Israel: We are bound to each other and to the world as an international and historic people. We know that belonging precedes behaving, believing and becoming. Religious differences within Judaism should be seen as a source of strength and dynamism, not polarization. But we also believe that truth and facing reality are more important than conformity for conformity is not a virtue, just for the sake of unity. Judaism evolves and grows stronger and truer through diversity and innovation. If we are bold, inclusive, sensitive to human needs, open to science and always searching for the truth, we will attract the most interesting people who are also in search.
The alienation of so many people, of all religions and backgrounds, isn’t a tragedy; it’s an opportunity. It demands that we respond lovingly to intermarried couples, Jews and non-Jews in search, intellectuals, skeptics, gays and lesbians and so many more. Creating a bigger tent and enjoying the diversity of Judaism is the best way to create an open Judaism for the future. We need to continually ask: Is Judaism relevant to contemporary political, social and ethical needs? Our Judaism must be universalistic, so that, through it, we make life better for ourselves and the world.
Reconstructionism has always been daring and dynamic, always in the vanguard of change in Judaism. Now, it is up to us to live Jewish lives of meaning and purpose, to be fearless and to welcome others in.
If not now, when!
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis