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The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Web site (2008) states, "Reconstructionist Judaism is a progressive, contemporary approach to Jewish life which integrates a deep respect for traditional Judaism with the insights and ideas of contemporary social, intellectual and spiritual life." In this paper, the author will discuss the traditions and practices of traditional Judaism. She will also discuss what makes Reconstructionist Judaism different. The author will compare and contrast Judaism with Islam.
There is no single founder of Judaism, nor is there one single leader or group who makes the theological decisions. Judaism is a tradition associated with the Jewish people. The term "Jewish" can be defined as either a religion or an ethnic group. Jews experience their history as a continuing dialogue with God. The term "Israel" refers to all those who answer God’s call and strive to obey the one God through the Torah or "teaching" that was given to the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets (Fisher, 2005).
Both Judaism and Islam trace their roots back to Abraham. Hagar, Abraham’s servant, bore him a son, Ishmael. Later, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who was thought to be barren, gave birth to their son, Isaac. Sarah was jealous of Ishmael, so Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael to the desert and left them there. Islam stems from the Ishmael “branch” of Abraham.
The Holy Qur’an is the sacred book of Islam. The Qur’an was received, “as a series of revelations to Muhammad,” (Fisher, 2005). The Hebrew Bible is what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. The first five books are referred to as the “Torah” or “Pentateuch” and are the books of Moses. The stories contained in these books start with the creation of heaven and earth in six days. They also discuss a covenant, which is a “promise” between God and the people. In a covenant, both sides are accountable. The stories also tell of the Israelites’ bondage and exodus from Egypt. Moses was chosen to lead the Israelites out of bondage. “The redemption from bondage by the special protection of the Lord has served ever since as a central theme in Judaism,” (Fisher, 2005).
The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is made up of three parts: the Torah or Pentateuch; Nevi’im or the Prophets; and Kethuvim or the Writings.
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One of the central beliefs of Judaism is that Jews have a special covenantal relationship with God. Another central belief is that a Messiah will come to bring evil to an end and establish a reign of peace. Allah (God) is the focus in Islam. Muslims believe that unity applies to every aspect of life; every thought and action should come from a heart and mind intimately integrated with the divine. Muslims also believe there is no one “chosen people” (Fisher, 2005). Both Jews and Muslims recognize Jesus Christ as a prophet, but do not believe he is the Messiah.
Modern day Judaism has several sects that differ from one another. In Rabbinic Judaism, rabbis are the teachers, religious decision-makers, and creators of liturgical prayer. Hasidism emphasizes the importance of tzaddik or enlightened saint and teacher whose prayers and wisdom are more powerful than one’s own. Non-Hasidic leaders believe that each Jew should be his or her own tzaddik. Reconstructionist Jews see the law and tradition as a response of the Jewish people to God, living in a world infused with Godliness, (Choper, 2008).
Orthodox Judaism strictly determines the laws set forth in the Tanakh. Conservative Jews believe the texts are a mixture of divine revelation and interpret them liberally. Reconstructionist Jews view the texts as a response to God and believe this response needs to continue. Therefore, Reconstructionists believe the law and tradition are “guides” to be followed (Choper, 2008).
Reconstructionist Judaism was founded by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983). Rabbi Kaplan taught, “tradition has ‘a vote, but not a veto,’” (Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Web site, 2008). As with Jewish tradition, Reconstructionists view the study of Torah a lifelong obligation and opportunity. However, they are not passive recipients. The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Web site (2008) states, “Reconstructionist Judaism is respectful of traditional Jewish observances but also open to new interpretations and forms of religious expression.”
In a personal interview with Rabbi Carl Choper, he told this author that, “The people need to continue listening and responding as a community; so there is a lot of Torah wrestling and studying in order to weigh tradition against modern insights and weigh modern insights against tradition.” Rabbi Choper also stated that Reconstructionists believe Jewish law is an important guide, but not the very last word. Reconstructionist Judaism emphasizes the relationship of individuals through community, living with the text—not by the text.
According to the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Web site (2008), “The Reconstructionist movement has three components: a synagogue arm—the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF); a rabbinical college—the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC); and an association of rabbis—the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA).”
The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation was founded in 1955, and offers “consultation on all key areas of congregational life...leadership development, outreach and community-building initiatives...musical, liturgical and other resources,” (Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Web site, 2008).
The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was founded in 1968. The college’s mission is to “train rabbis, cantors and other Jewish leaders to teach Torah in its broadest terms and strengthen leadership in congregations and other settings,” (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Web site, 2008).
The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association was founded in 1974. This association has three primary missions. First, the association serves as a collegial community, in which resources and support are provided to rabbis. Second, it represents the rabbinical voice within the Reconstructionist movement. Third, through participation in commissions, programs and other activities, it represents Reconstructionist rabbis in the larger Jewish and general communities (Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association Web site, 2008).
Reconstructionist congregation members are active participants at the center of Jewish communal life; they are not mere observers. The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Web site (2008) states, “The essence of Reconstructionist Judaism is community building through learning, revitalization of prayer and mutual help.” These communities welcome members from various backgrounds, life situations, religious and political perspectives. Members actively help each other in practical ways during times of personal crisis.
“Communal prayer is a central activity of Reconstructionist congregations,” (Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Web site, 2008). Through prayer a connection is made with the past and with other Jews. Through prayer, Reconstructionists also discover that the perspectives of their ancestors “can enhance the quality of contemporary life,” (Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Web site, 2008). The liturgies in a Reconstructionist synagogue differ from traditional Jewish liturgies in that they are enriched by music, art, contemporary poetry and personally written prayers.
When attending a service at Temple Beth Shalom in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, this author discovered as a Christian she felt very lost when attempting to follow the liturgy. Although English translation is provided, approximately 50% of the service was conducted in Hebrew. Jews consider Hebrew an important part of their liturgy because it is the language of the Jews. When attending a service anywhere in the world, Hebrew is spoken. Therefore, even in a foreign country where one is not familiar with the language, a Jew would be able to participate and understand what is happening in the service.
In a personal interview, Rabbi Carl Choper stated that only approximately 1% or about 50,000 American Jews are Reconstructionists. Temple Beth Shalom in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania has a membership of 80 households. Since this is a relatively small congregation, this author noted that most of the worshipers seemed to know one another. They were, however, very friendly and receptive to this author, who was an outsider.
As with almost every religion, there are some challenges faced by its followers. For Jews in America, one challenge is that Judaism goes by a different calendar. The religious holidays recognized by the government are Christian holidays. For example, many stores and restaurants are closed on Christmas, which is a Christian holiday. For Jews wanting to shop or dine out on this day, they would have a difficult time finding open establishments. As Rabbi Choper stated, even the weekly calendar is different, which causes it to bump up against the community calendar. Jews celebrate Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. Most Christians celebrate Sabbath on Sunday.
Another challenge faced by Jews in America is that Judaism is very communal in orientation and Americans tend to be individualistic (Choper, 2008). In the United States, Hebrew is typically not spoken, but every Jew is taught Hebrew and all the traditional prayers are in Hebrew. A challenge that faces Reconstructionist Jews in particular is that in order to weigh tradition and modern insights, it takes much study time. Reconstructionism is a very intellectual approach, and it requires that one process things and deliberate in order to get to the answers (Choper, 2008). Rabbi Carl Choper, 2008 stated that many people do not have the patience to be a Reconstructionist Jew.
Reconstructionist Jews believe in the acceptance of variety. The broadening of women’s roles in the synagogue was first started by Reconstructionists. They were also the first to admit women and homosexuals to rabbinical school. Some other sects of Judaism have followed the lead of Reconstructionists and have begun to accept these changes to tradition.
Because of the more forward-thinking beliefs of Reconstructionist Jews, many Orthodox or conservative Jews do not approve of them. Rabbi Carl Choper, 2008, stated that traditional Jews would see Reconstructionism as a diversion from the God-given path because they believe Torah as it has come down through rabbinic codes of law, and it is a very clear and direct reflection of what God commanded of the Jews at Mount Sinai.
Some of the sacred practices of Jews and Muslims are similar. For example, daily prayers are recited by people of both religions. Jews recite prayers upon waking and at bedtime. Muslims pray five times a day. Some Jews only eat kosher or ritually acceptable meats. There are many rules about what are acceptable meats. These instructions are laid out in the Book of Leviticus. Some Muslims only eat halal meats. Halal is meat that has been slaughtered in the manner prescribed by the shari’a.
Rabbi Carl Choper stated that he is a vegetarian partly because of what it means by eating only kosher foods. He stated that religion has also shaped his political views. He believes we have a communal responsibility. When poverty exists, we all bear some responsibility. He believes that, “Ultimately a community that does not have proper sanitation or health facilities or a means of supporting the poor is a community that is not fit for a scholar of Torah to live; it is a scandalous community,” (Choper, 2008).
Rosh Hashanah is New Year’s Day for Jews. This is a time of spiritual renewal. For 30 days prior to Rosh Hashanah, the shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown at each morning synagogue service to remind people that they stand before God. The ten Days of Awe follow Rosh Hashanah. People are encouraged to repent and change themselves inwardly by looking at what mistakes they have made over the past year. Yom Kippur completes the High Holy Days. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and cleansing. This holy day renews the sacred covenant with God. Hanukkah is a celebration of the victory of the Maccabean Rebellion against the attempt to force non-Jewish practices on Jewish people. Hanukkah lasts for eight days. A Seder dinner is carried out in remembrance of the freedom from bondage in Egypt. Shavuot is celebrated in remembrance of the giving of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai.
Reconstructionist Jews celebrate these holidays much in the same manner as traditional Jews. For Orthodox Jews, the prayer services are entirely in Hebrew and there is a strictly detailed order of prayers that has developed over the past 2000 years. Reconstructionists use this as a skeletal outline and will substitute English readings that have similar themes (Choper, 2008). The prayer book is an ongoing developing book of prayers to Reconstructionists, but Orthodox Jews will see prayers as set and fixed. Reconstructionists celebrate Bat Mitzvah which is the coming of age celebration for girls. However, Orthodox Jews only celebrate Bar Mitzvah which is for boys only. Another difference is that not all Reconstructionist Jews keep kosher.
Although Orthodox Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism are closely related, there are differences that will always set them apart. Orthodox Jews are traditional believers. They stand by the Hebrew Bible as the word of God revealed and the Talmud as the legitimate oral law. They believe they are bound by the traditional rabbinical halakhah as a way of achieving closeness to God. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who founded the Reconstructionist movement believed that the traditions exist for the people and not the other way around. Kaplan denied that Jewish people were specially chosen by God and believed this was needed to render Judaism viable in a non-Jewish environment. Orthodox Jews believe the old way of teaching is the correct way, while Reconstructionists believe Judaism needs to adapt to modern thinking in order to survive. These differences in thinking will probably always cause a division between these two sects of Judaism.
Choper, Carl (2008). Rabbi of Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg, Chair of Interfaith Alliance of PA, Executive Director of Religion and Society Center, Former Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, personal communication, March 10, 2008.
Fisher, M.P. (2005). Living Religions (6th ed). Prentice Hall.
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (2008), Retrieved February 22, 2008, from: http://www.jrf.org/
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (2008), Retrieved February 22, 2008, from: www.therra.org
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (2008), Retrieved February 22, 2008, from: www.rrc.edu