Reconstructionist Judaism in the United States
Unlike other branches of American Judaism, Reconstructionism originated in the philosophy of one individual, Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1982). Kaplan is renowned for his definition of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization. The term “Reconstructionism” comes from his notion that Judaism should neither be reformed nor conserved, but reconstructed. Reconstructionists use the foundation and building blocks they have inherited from the past, reordering and adding to them so that they fit the needs, values, and tastes of current generations, but without altering them in ways that would make them unrecognizable or sap their richness. As part of his program for reconstruction, Kaplan rejected a supernatural theology and repudiated the concept of the chosen people.
Kaplan was a controversial figure in American Jewish history because of his willingness to confront difficult issues. Among his bold new ideas was advocacy for changes in women’s roles in Jewish life. Kaplan was a principal architect of women’s equality in Judaism. While the philosophy of Reconstructionism has undergone significant changes since Kaplan’s death, the equality of women remains a central tenet and hallmark of the newest movement in Judaism.
The concepts and teachings of Mordecai Kaplan form the basis for understanding Reconstructionism’s pioneering role in the struggle for women’s equality in Judaism. Kaplan’s commitment to the equality of women was an essential part of his life and thought. Born in Lithuania, he was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who immigrated to the United States to assist Rabbi Jacob Joseph (1848–1902) in his work as chief rabbi of New York. As a young man, Kaplan served an Orthodox congregation, the Jewish Center in New York City, as rabbi. He left this position to found the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) in New York City in 1922. Part of Kaplan’s motivation for founding the SAJ was the insistence of the Jewish Center’s membership on retaining the traditional practice of separate seating for women and men, and its refusal to set up a women’s organization in the synagogue. Those who joined the SAJ did so to follow Kaplan’s leadership. Yet he had to struggle with the new congregation over the mixed seating issue. For the first High Holiday services at the SAJ, he demanded mixed seating, achieving his goal despite opposition from congregants and members of his own family, male and female. Also that spring, Kaplan orchestrated the now famous first Bat Mitzvah, during which his twelve-year-old daughter Judith Kaplan (Eisenstein) recited the blessings and read from the Torah at Sabbath morning services. Until that event, there had been no puberty ceremony for girls in American Judaism comparable to the bar mitzvah.
In the 1920s, Kaplan frequently sermonized in support of women’s recently gained political emancipation, using biblical texts to prove his point. In 1936, Kaplan’s blueprint for women’s equality in Judaism, including ordination, was published in The Reconstructionist Papers. Perhaps his most insightful comment in that essay was that equality could come about only through woman’s “own efforts and initiative. Whatever liberal-minded men do in her behalf is bound to remain but a futile and meaningless gesture. The Jewish woman must demand the equality due her as a right to which she is fully entitled.” Kaplan went on to present his critique of the status of women in Jewish life. He argued that the Jewish community would drive women out if it did not provide vehicles for their self-fulfillment. Cautioning women not to be fooled by those who argued that they already had an elevated role in Judaism, he made reference to the many negative comments in rabbinic literature about women’s intelligence and abilities. He ridiculed “The Woman of Valor,” the verses in Proverbs that extol women’s domestic virtues, as “the flattery of a parasitic husband.”
The essay goes on to discuss the ways Jewish law defines women as of inferior status to men and chronicles the religious and juridical disabilities inherent in that status: the exemption from the performance of mitzvot and the denial of the rights of women to lead prayer services, act as witnesses, inherit property, and initiate divorce. Kaplan concluded that Jewish law had to be changed to rid Judaism of these inequities. It is remarkable that he made these suggestions more than thirty years before the movement for the equality of women in Judaism put them on the Jewish agenda.
In addition to Kaplan’s commitment to the equality of women in Judaism, several other elements of his philosophy play a significant role in Reconstructionism’s leadership on this issue. Reconstructionism is distinguished from other branches of Judaism by its base in Kaplan’s theology. Influenced by the popular religious naturalism of his time, Kaplan did not accept the concept of God as person but understood God as the Power in the universe that makes for righteousness and salvation. Kaplan understood God as a process inherent in nature and humanity that brings about good in the world. Kaplan’s God is not an actor, controlling history, but rather can be perceived in the world through the best endeavors of human beings, acting b’zelem Elohim (in the image of God). Kaplan’s theology is therefore a useful tool in dealing with the problem feminists confront when they face a prayer service replete with male God language. Although Kaplan himself never removed male references to God—such as the pronouns He or Him, or masculine concepts like King or Lord—his theology renders God “gender-neutral” and suggests that the use of male God language reflects human perceptions, not divine reality.
Kaplan believed that to function effectively, American Jews need to live in what he called two civilizations, the Jewish and the American. He was convinced that Jewish life would flourish if immigrant Jews understood that they did not have to give up their heritage and traditions to consider themselves fully American. In this regard, Kaplan became an early proponent of cultural pluralism. He was able to look back on Jewish history and see the continuous interpenetration of the ideas and norms of the larger civilizations in which Jews dwelled and the accommodations that Judaism made to these realities. He taught that Judaism is a continuously evolving civilization, not a static, immutable religious system. It was this understanding that allowed Kaplan to make innovations in women’s roles and to embrace philosophies, like democracy, that had not previously been dominant in the Jewish experience. To Kaplan’s way of thinking, democratic principles required universal suffrage, including equality for women in Judaism.
Kaplan understood halakhah as a component of the nonbinding, but sacred, inherited traditions of the Jewish people. Kaplan was himself observant of traditional ritual practices, but he also held Jewish law accountable to contemporary ethical standards. It was on this basis that Kaplan had no problem calling for the full equality of women, despite the obvious difficulties reconciling this stance with traditional halakhah and norms of Jewish practice. He also vigorously supported creative approaches to ritual. Because of Kaplan’s affinity for Jewish tradition, however, the changes he made in his own congregation and recommended in his writings were much less radical than those of the Reform Jewish thinkers of his era, who usually dismissed halakhic considerations. Even so, his attitude eventually proved too flexible even for the denomination that would come to be called Conservative, into which he had moved after his early years in Orthodoxy.
By far, the most significant element in Kaplan’s thought in relation to feminist principles was his passionate opposition to hierarchy. This was most boldly expressed in Kaplan’s decision to remove the chosen people doctrine from Jewish liturgy. Kaplan maintained that such a claim to divine election was inseparable from a claim to superiority. He advocated the recognition that all peoples have unique and important destinies, which inherently invalidates the idea of one particular chosen people. This antihierarchical orientation is part of a larger worldview that does not give advantage to one group of people over another. It lends support to feminist endeavors in Judaism, for just as the Jewish people cannot claim a superior status over other nations, men cannot claim a superior status over women.
Kaplan himself saw no need to start a separate movement to achieve his goals. In fact, he opposed the idea of creating a Reconstructionist movement to carry out his philosophy. His goal was to create a unified American Judaism without denominational factionalism. Yet it became clear to his followers that if Kaplan’s visions were to be realized, a separate movement was needed. The debate over becoming a movement lasted for several decades, during which time more and more small groups around the United States and Canada began to develop and label themselves Reconstructionists. In the 1950s, these groups began including women in the minyan and allowing them to come up to the Torah for aliyot, as had been the case at the SAJ since the mid 1940s. They also continued the practice of bat mitzvah. But other changes in the role of women that Kaplan had endorsed in his writings, such as serving as witnesses, leading services, public Torah reading, and wearing ritual prayer garments like kippot (skullcaps) and tallitot (prayer shawls) did not come about until the late 1960s when women themselves began demanding changes, as Kaplan had predicted would be necessary back in 1936. Another major step took place in 1967 when a convention of Reconstructionists took the bold step of deciding to open a college for training rabbis in Philadelphia.
The question of the ordination of women to the rabbinate certainly was in the public consciousness at the time the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was founded in 1968. The women’s liberation movement was asking questions about women’s complete equality that had not seriously been considered previously. Although none was yet ordained, several women candidates were then studying at the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College. Despite the open discussion of this issue, the founders of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College decided not to create added controversy by recruiting women for its first class. In its second year, however, when the founders advertised for students, they received one inquiry from a woman. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was accepted without debate or subsequent controversy. For the next several years, only a few women applied, and all were accepted. Women comprised half the class that entered in 1974, the year of Sandy Sasso’s graduation, and that trend has continued ever since. By 2005, twenty-four out of the movement’s 106 synagogues in the United States had women as senior or assistant rabbis. Women lead four of the country’s twelve largest Reconstructionist congregations, which range in size from 237 to one thousand members. The rabbinical college too has had women as part of upper-level administration and full-time faculty since the mid-1970s. It currently houses Kolot: the Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies, a resource center for curricular and liturgical materials.
Based on Kaplan’s passion for democracy and his antipathy toward hierarchy, Reconstructionism encourages new and diverse models for the rabbinate. The Reconstructionist rabbi is not prepared to be the distant “father figure” or authoritarian leader. Reconstructionist rabbis are trained to see themselves as facilitators in Jewish life. The Reconstructionist rabbi is still “the teacher,” but one who understands the importance of learning from and listening to students. The goal is to promote the growth of others as knowledgeable Jews, to empower them, to engage fully in Jewish life, and to bring ideas from the secular world into creative and productive encounter with Judaism. Many Reconstructionist innovations around women’s issues in Judaism have been facilitated by women in the Reconstructionist rabbinate, in concert with other women Reconstructionists.
Reconstructionist women rabbis have been instrumental in the creation of rituals, stories, music, and theologies that have begun to give women’s experience a voice in Judaism. Most of the focus has been on rituals for life-cycle events. New ceremonies have been created for births, heterosexual weddings and lesbian commitment ceremonies, divorces, conversions, weaning, and the onset of menarche and menopause. The movement as a whole has been committed to creating liturgy that is in consonance with feminist ideas and practices and that reflects a new role for women’s celebration and creativity. This is reflected in the prayer books and rabbinic manuals that have been published. Kaplan himself took bold steps at mid-century to publish prayer books that reflected his philosophy. Under the leadership of David Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, this liturgy is now being reconceptualized for a new generation. Gender-neutral language and the presence of women’s commentaries and poetic visions are central to this effort.
Another central focus of the Reconstructionist movement has been on the arts, and contemporary Jewish women’s music in particular. Kaplan’s eldest daughter, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, a leading musicologist and teacher of Jewish music, made a considerable contribution in this area.
Reconstructionist women rabbis have also found their voices through raising consciousness in their congregations and schools about issues related to women’s lives. Some have focused on issues like domestic violence or reproductive rights as these affect the Jewish community. Others have devoted energy to helping Orthodox women to gain the right of divorce in traditional communities in Israel. Many have spoken out for the right of Jewish women to pray aloud and read from the Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
By far, the most difficult problem facing women in the Reconstructionist rabbinate today is finding a balance between their professional and personal commitments. Some women have found the rabbinate congenial because motherhood is expected of Jewish women and, for the most part, the community accommodates. But what for some is a positive synthesis of their professional and private lives is for others an experience of living without healthy limits between work and family life. Most experience the dilemmas common among women who have taken on professional commitment while at the same time attempting to raise children, run a household, care for elderly relatives, or have a meaningful life outside of work. The problems of balancing career and home life are particularly acute in a calling such as the rabbinate, which is still defined and experienced as much as a personal commitment as it is a professional commitment.
Even Kaplan’s forward-looking philosophy did not encompass an analysis of the family that would be helpful to this generation of women. The majority of Reconstructionist women rabbis are in heterosexual marriages and have children. There are several single parents and lesbian couples with children as well. For those who have remained single or childless, their choices have been complicated by pressure from the Jewish community to “be fruitful and multiply.” Although the technical commandment to continue the survival of the Jewish people is addressed to men, women in the rabbinate feel the responsibility as heavily incumbent upon them. While accepting their choices, or lack of them in some cases, most have internalized the sense that to be complete as Jewish women they must have children. There is little support for the idea that they are in fact building up the Jewish people through their contributions as teachers of children rather than necessarily as biological parents.
Another focus of Reconstructionist concern in the current era has been an interest in rethinking ethics from a Jewish perspective. A focus on sexual and reproductive ethics has been a major part of this trend. In 1987, in an article on women in the rabbinate, Anne Lapidus Lerner credited the Reconstructionist Movement with being the first to champion egalitarianism as an underlying principle. The main issue for Reconstructionism, she asserted, was that the movement also “openly espoused non-heterosexuality” and would have to come to terms with the presence of lesbians in the rabbinate. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has been admitting lesbians and gay men to the rabbinate since 1984. The Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot has also developed educational programs that lead toward the full acceptance of lesbian rabbis and teachers, as well as rituals that affirm lesbian relationships. But this full acceptance has yet to be attained, even for lesbian rabbis who fulfill the obligation of motherhood.
The logical result of women’s demand for changes in Judaism must include thinking about changed roles for men as well. With their advocacy of patrilineal descent in the 1970s, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association supported the principle that a man who takes responsibility for raising a Jewish child can pass Judaism on to the next generation as well as a woman. This policy statement is part of a larger understanding within Reconstructionist Judaism that the real message of feminism for the Jewish people is a reassessment of how we structure our lives to provide opportunities for all human beings to flourish, personally and professionally.
The Reconstructionist Movement has played a significant role in creating an environment of equality for women in Judaism. Predicated on Kaplan’s vision of a reconstructed Jewish community, his followers have made equality for women in all aspects of Jewish religious and juridical life an absolute value. The Reconstructionist Movement has moved beyond Kaplan’s original vision of equality toward a reconceptualization of Judaism through a feminist lens. The movement has been a home for Jewish women’s creativity and celebration through music, creation of resources for curricula and liturgy, the development of pioneering questions on feminist ethics, a home for gay and lesbian Jews, and a place where men’s roles are also being redefined. Mordecai Kaplan’s legacy of finding bold responses to difficult questions has remained alive in the Reconstructionist Movement.
Alpert, Rebecca T. “A Feminist Takes Stock of Reconstructionism.” Reconstructionist 54 (1989): 17–22; Alpert, Rebecca T., and Goldie Milgram. “Women in the Reconstructionist Rabbinate.” In Religious Institutions and Women’s Leadership: New Roles Inside the Mainstream, edited by Catherine Wessinger (1996); Alpert, Rebecca T., and Jacob Staub. Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach (1985); Kaplan, Mordecai. “The Status of Woman in Jewish Law.” In The Reconstructionist Papers (1936), and in The Future of the American Jew (1948), and The Kaplan Journal. Archives, JTS (1922); Kessner, Carole. “Kaplan and the Role of Women in Judaism.” In The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan, edited by Emanuel S. Goldsmith, Mel Scult, and Robert M. Seltzer (1990); Scult, Mel. Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan (1993); Tigay, Chanan. JTA, March 10, 2005.