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Rabbi David A. Teutsch

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(Mis)understanding Reconstructionist Judaism

Posted: 08/10/11 01:36 PM ET

When I first became a leader of the Reconstructionist movement in 1980, several of the lay leaders lamented that it was the best-kept secret in the Jewish community. While the movement has grown fivefold in the intervening decades, it is still largely misunderstood by most American Jews. A recent article that appeared in Jewish Ideas Daily serves to perpetuate untruths about Reconstructionist Judaism.

Written by Joseph Siev, the article makes two points that are totally incorrect. The first is his assertion that while Reconstructionism has long been allied with Zionism, that is no longer true. In truth, the Reconstructionist movement has been strongly Zionist from its inception through the present moment. Following its founder Mordecai Kaplan, Reconstructionists have understood that a key to Zionism is ethical nationhood -- a commitment to justice for every person regardless of ethnicity or religion. In his book "A New Zionism," Kaplan argued that open and dynamic democracy, adequate resources devoted to ensuring that society's have-nots live in dignity and the ardent pursuit of peace are elements of ethical nationhood. At a time when the settlements on the West Bank being expanded by the government of Israel are one of the impediments to peace, Reconstructionists envision a Zionism built upon standards of ethical nationhood.

Siev's evidence for the alleged loss of Zionist fervor within my movement is the fact that some Reconstructionist rabbis are affiliated with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which calls for, among other things, a boycott on goods from the West Bank. The reality that these rabbis represent a small faction within the Reconstructionist rabbinate is a detail Siev did not bother to include; perhaps he did not investigate enough to be aware of it.

Like most Reconstructionist Jews, I do not approve of any boycotts imposed on Israel and am therefore not a supporter of JVP. But in his article, Siev misrepresents JVP's position, falsely implying that JVP supports a wholesale boycott of Israel.

Immediately after the 1967 Six Day War, Rabbi Jack Cohen -- a leading Reconstructionist leader who served for decades as the director of the Hillel of Hebrew University and who has lived in Israel for the last 50 years -- wrote an essay calling for Israel to immediately withdraw from the West Bank. His reasoning was based on the belief that by not doing so, Israel's ideals would be compromised because such an occupation could only lead to a painfully problematic relationship to the inhabitants of the occupied area. As someone deeply committed to Israel as an ethical nation, I lament that no one listened to Rabbi Cohen in 1967. In expanding settlements, the Netanyahu government is making things worse. This is a painful reality that all of us concerned with peace must face up to, but this point of view hardly belongs exclusively to the Reconstructionist movement. Indeed, it is being expounded by many religious leaders across the denominational spectrum. Again, while I do not identify with JVP, those within our movement who do are generally motivated by their deep love and concern for Israel and her future. At a time when so many American Jews have walked away from the issue, the Reconstructionist movement has consistently remained passionately engaged with Israel and Zionism.

It seems that Siev would like to see the Jewish community treat as traitors anyone who shares the view that Zionism involves a profound commitment to the values embodied in Israel's Declaration of Independence and its Basic Laws, values that Reconstructionism affirms. These include human freedom, democracy, dignity for all and equal treatment of every citizen. Those committed to such values ought to be able to argue about goals, strategy and tactics without name-calling or misrepresentation.

Siev's second misstatement is so far off the mark that it is almost laughable. He writes that "neither Kaplan nor his thought features prominently in Reconstructionist self-understanding." Nothing could be further from the truth. Every Reconstructionist rabbinical student extensively studies Kaplan's work while at RRC. The current basic introduction to Reconstructionism, "Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach" by Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub, returns over and again to Kaplan's thought.

As a past executive director of the Reconstructionist movement's congregational body, a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a current faculty member, I am a dedicated exponent of democratic communitarianism. To be effective, that approach has to shape the day-to-day life of Jewish communities. In September the RRC Press will publish "A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living," which provides guidance in exactly how to do that. The book details how to apply Jewish values-based decision making to every aspect of daily Jewish life, from business ethics to daily prayer, from tzedaka to bioethics, from community-building to sex ethics. Its connection to Kaplan's understanding of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization will be obvious to every reader. The book's main author, I am joined by more than 70 other rabbis and Jewish leaders who contribute their insights and commentary to the work. I believe that the publication of this work constitutes a major contribution to contemporary Jewish life.

It is often said that Judaism is a way of life. That will be no more than an empty slogan for liberal Jews unless Jewish leaders show the way by the manner in which they live and by the resources they place in people's hands. "A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living" provides a tool for thoughtful Jews to make decisions that can shape passionate and engaged Jewish living. I sincerely hope that Siev will read the book, particularly its section on the ethics of speech and the written word. There he will find an excerpt from the Talmud, Arakhin 15a: "God says of one who speaks l'shon hara (bad speech) 'we cannot dwell together in the world.'" Let us aspire to dwell together in mutual respect and strive to understand each other's perspectives.

Rabbi David A. Teutsch is the Director of the Levin-Lieber Program in Jewish Ethics and the Louis and Myra Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The writer of numerous books and articles, his newest work, 'A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living,' is forthcoming from RRC Press in September.