Reconstructionist Judaism & Halacha

Reconstructionists see Jewish law as no longer viable, but still a resource to be taken seriously.

By contemporary definitions, one cannot define Reconstructionism as a halachic form of Judaism. If halacha were defined as the Jewish process of transmitting tradition and practice, then we certainly could see ourselves within the framework of halacha. Unfortunately, today the term has taken on the meaning of a rigid body of law, changeable only under rarefied circumstances.

In past generations and other eras of Jewish life, halacha  functioned as we think it should today: Though in theory it was seen as immutable law, in fact it served as a body of tradition that could adapt to the needs of the Jewish people throughout the ages.

Can Halacha Address Contemporary Concerns?

We also question the effectiveness of the halachic method itself for dealing with contemporary concerns. In traditional Judaism as well as contemporary Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, only rabbinic scholars who are experts in the history and development of halacha are empowered to make halachic decisions. The halachic method presumes that all questions are answerable with reference to legal precedent. It ignores the possibility that new issues, while they may be guided by old values, must be discussed with reference to the world in which we now live.

Furthermore, Jewish teachings no longer function for us as law, nor can they be expected to do so. For law to function, it must have an organized structure to create and adjudicate it. There must be sanctions against anyone who disobeys. Nowhere in the world does Jewish law now function in that way.

In tightly woven Orthodox communities, the members choose voluntarily to place themselves “under the yoke of the law” and can choose to leave at any time. Even in Israel, where Jewish law governs issues of personal status, the law can be circumvented. Therefore, thinking of halacha as binding law is misleading in today’s world.

Finally, this change in social circumstances is not accidental. It reflects a basic value of Western democracy–that individuals ought to make religious choices autonomously. Our ancestors believed that the ideal Jew was one who subordinated independent judgment and instead behaved in accordance with the will of God.

Individual Choices, Communal Contexts

By contrast, we believe that moral and spiritual faculties are actualized best when the individual makes conscious choices. Thus, even if there were an opportunity to return to an authoritarian community in which the traditional mitzvot were enforced coercively, we would not choose to do so.

The individual’s choices, however, can and should not be made alone. Our ethical values and ritual propensities are shaped by the culture and community in which we live. Living a Jewish life, according to the Reconstructionist understanding, means belonging to the Jewish people as a whole and to a particular community of Jews, through which our views of life are shaped.

Thus, while Reconstructionist communities are neither authoritarian nor coercive, they aspire to influence the individual’s ethical and ritual choices–through study of Jewish sources, through the sharing of values and experiences, and through the impact of the climate of communal opinion on the individual. Some groups even hold community kallot (study weekends) in which recommendations about ethical or ritual practice are developed for members.

Many members of Reconstructionist communities, for example, have not considered observance of Shabbat as a possibility before they joined; when they become acquainted with Jews for whom Shabbat is a key practice, they often decide to explore Shabbat observance for themselves. No one forces them. They are not judged negatively for what they do or don’t observe. Nevertheless, their perceptions, and hence their choices, are affected by their participation in the community.

Reconstructionism as an Approach

The Reconstructionist movement strongly advocates that Reconstructionist groups consider collectively questions of ethical and ritual behavior, but Reconstructionism ultimately is an approach to Judaism. We learn and appreciate what the tradition has to say, we come to a spectrum of options that reflects that understanding, and the organizations of the movement may even issue a set of guidelines. But ultimately we believe that in all cases, be they questions of ritual or principle, individuals must decide for themselves about the proper Jewish way to proceed in a given situation.

While we may share certain values and life situations, no two sets of circumstances are identical. We hope that the Reconstructionist process works to help people find the right answers for themselves, but we can only assist in helping individuals to ask the right questions so that their choices are made in an informed way within a Jewish context.

To be true to ourselves we must understand the differences in perception between us and those who have gone before, while retaining a reverence for the traditions they fashioned. If we can juxtapose those things, we ensure that the past will have [in the phrase of Reconstructionism’s founder, Mordecai Kaplan,] a vote, but not a veto.

Reprinted from Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach by Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub.

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