Reconstructionism Reconciles Rationalism and Revelation
One of the many reasons why I am drawn to a Reconstructionist approach to Judaism is because of how Reconstructionism reframes and ultimately answers the question of how to reconcile rationalism and an academic approach with religion, including the concept of divine revelation.
Reconstructionist thinkers draw on insights of Wissenschaft des Judentums, the academic study of Judaism, to understand the Torah as the record of a transformational encounter with the divine that was written down by authors deeply shaped (and limited) by their cultural context. The heirs of these authors sought to further or deepen divine revelation in their efforts to weave those sources together into a comprehensive text to guide Jewish community in our path toward holiness.
With this understanding, I can believe that the Israelites encountered God at Sinai and had a profoundly transformative experience that they recorded in a human, and thus necessarily limited way, and that later scribes refined and furthered as part of an unfolding revelation.
In short, Reconstructionism understands Judaism to be the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people, a definition developed by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, the movement’s founding thinker, in the first part of the 20th century. The capacity for evolution, which was unconscious in our ancestors’ days and, since the modern era, has been something we can self-consciously study and even introduce, has enabled Judaism to survive. Jewish evolution has been due both to such external developments as the destruction of the Second Temple and exposure to medieval Islamic philosophy and such internal ones as the origins of rabbinic Judaism or the gradual development of the siddur.
Jewish peoplehood has been significantly defined by the ways we have sought to create holy community in relationship to the divine. What this quest has looked like has always evolved, building on previous iterations and shaped by the cultural inspirations and limitations of the current moment. The Torah is the bedrock text that forged the foundation of the Jewish people and our understanding of why we are here and what we are supposed to do while we are here. It is built around experience of revelation.
Such an approach allows me to set aside the challenge of resolving the tension between academia and revelation, and instead revel in it. Reconstructionists constantly ask how can we retain the power of the Torah in this postmodern era? How do we stay in conversation with our ancestors in ways that can be meaningful and full of integrity for us, and compelling to our children? We ask again and again because we presume that the answers will change, are always changing. We understand that we are empowered to make certain these changing answers—and thus the Torah and its contemporary significance—are substantive and relevant.
It is our work, as Reconstructionist Jews, to discern revelation and enact the covenant between God and the Jewish people in ways that are meaningful for today’s world. We do this work always remembering our own personal and social limitations, always seeking to recapture the foundational Jewish experience of revelation and relationship.
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January 18, 2022
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Dr. Rabbi Deborah Waxman has been President and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism since 2014 and is the first woman to head a Jewish congregational union and seminary. Since 2002, she has lectured at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she is the Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor. Waxman holds degrees from Columbia College, Columbia University (cum laude), the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, a Ph.D. in American Jewish History from Temple University, and serves on the American Jewish Historical Society’s Academic Council. She has written for the Forward, The Times of Israel, HuffPost, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and is the author of several book chapters, including “‘A Lady Sometimes Blows the Shofar’: Women’s Religious Equality in the Postwar Reconstructionist Movement,” in A Jewish Feminine Mystique?: Jewish Women in Postwar America (Rutgers University Press 2010) and “Multiple Conceptualizations of the Divine,” in Sh’ma (April 2014). Rabbi Waxman is also the creator and host of the podcast Hashivenu: Jewish Teachings on Resilience.
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