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Reconstructing Judaism

 

My synagogue belongs to a small branch of Judaism called Reconstructionism. I think there are something like a hundred Reconstructionist congregations, and three hundred and fifty Reconstructionist rabbis, in North America, so it is a small, but not invisible movement. I’ve never quite considered myself a Reconstructionist Jew, though, the way some people identify as Modern Orthodox or Reform or Conservative. I’ve only belonged to this synagogue for six years now, so it’s more that I like my congregation in particular. I still just consider myself Jewish, without a specifier.

I like that the Reconstructionists emphasize that we can make our own choices, about what to believe and how to practice, instead of having to go to the rabbi for his or her dictum. I like that the Reconstructionist movement ordained one of the first female rabbis (way back when), and celebrated the first official bat mitzvah (even further back), two things that are now common place in liberal Judaism. But I get overwhelmed by the social activism, or Tikun Olam, that is emphasized daily at my synagogue. It’s hard to watch eighty year olds go on protest march after protest march and retain any sense of self-respect when I say that I can’t go, or don’t even want to.

I was not educated by Reconstructionists as a child. I went to a Conservative day school and sleep away camp, and then to a Modern Orthodox junior high and high school. Pressure came from every direction, to fit in, rather than to choose for myself or think for myself. And it took a long time for me to find a synagogue, as an adult, where I felt comfortable just as myself. I like that I can choose to get involved in the things that fit me, like Friday night services and discussions, and avoid the things that don’t fit me, like committees, or getting on a bus to Albany to try to convince politicians to change laws. And really, until they accept dogs on these marches and trips, why would Cricket ever let me go without her?

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“Don’t leave me!”

My graduate program in social work has a (very) activist bent as well, so I get a lot of pressure from certain teachers to pursue societal change, rather than to focus on individual people and hearing their stories (which is my favorite part of social work). The fact is, I don’t want to convince people of things; I want to know them, and I want them to know me. And if that changes something for each of us, so much the better.

All of this came up recently because a couple of speakers from the Reconstructionist movement came to speak to my congregation on a Friday night. I was hoping for some wisdom and inspiration, but instead they talked about branding, and the need for more resources from us (money and time, two things I don’t have). It was exhausting, and alienating, and I had to work very hard not to walk out. Cricket would have been barking her head off if she’d been invited to the service, which may explain why she, and her doggy cohort, was not invited.

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“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mommy. I’m a good girl.”

For legal reasons that I still don’t understand, the leadership of the Reconstructionist movement had to change its official name this year, and they came up with Reconstructing Judaism. One of the speakers told us, defensively (because they’ve heard a lot of pushback), that it’s a great name because it’s a verb and implies action. And I felt like she was saying that being a Reconstructionist is an activity rather than an identity.

We are Jew-ing instead of Jewish.

But, what if I’m not up to Jew-ing one day? What if I’m tired and need a nap, does that mean I lose my identity? I don’t want to be told that my belonging to a community depends on the activities other people want me to do; that’s the same kind of rigidity I experienced growing up with Orthodoxy, just with a new set of rituals.

So maybe I will just remain a Jew, without a specifier. The fact is, I don’t mind doing the daily work of reconstructing my own version of Judaism, at my own pace, and based on my own feelings and beliefs. I just don’t want to be told that we all want, and think, and do, the same things; or that we should, if we want to belong. That’s not reconstructing Judaism, that’s reconstructing me to fit into Judaism. And I’m not okay with that.

Cricket thinks it’s ridiculous too. No one tells Cricket who to be.

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“No one tells me what to do, Mommy. No one.”

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

60 responses »

  1. Every individual who will come to you for help will not want to be seen as a sociological or historical representative, but as a singular human being. Catholics have the same tension between action and contemplation. I am much more a contemplative. Some are designed to march until they drop! Be assured that you are on the right path for your temperament and health.

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  2. Herd mentality. I am so not a fan, Rachel. I say bring Cricket next time. She’ll set ’em straight.

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  3. Yeah, I agree. Bring Cricket.

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  4. Growing up in the suburbs of Brisbane, and then living for a long time in Darwin, I was blind to anything other than Protestant Christianity. It’s wasn’t until I started reading blogs and interacting with people around the world on-line that my eyes have been opened to other ways of thinking and living like Judaism.
    I love that these days I can read about how you live and think where you are as well as so many people on this now very small planet.

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  5. Excellent Rachel. The concept of agency is an individual choice that all of us are free to make.

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  6. Very interesting post. I did not know about Reconstruction Judaism. I was raised Catholic, but have been on a spiritual journey for quite a while struggling to find my place. I relate to your statement about wanting to be a Jew without a specifier.

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  7. An excellent post, Rachel.

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  8. I sometimes drive pass Christian churches with names that make Christianity a verb (Overcoming, Perfecting. etc.), and I have a similar reaction–what if some day I don’t feel like overcoming or perfecting, etc.? Would I get kicked out of the church? Too much pressure!

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  9. Reby havkuk said there is tikun atsmi – we should.fix ourselves.. This is old and ortodox bit even more – there is a quote of him saying I tried to fix the world, fix those around me, then realized i should, and can – only fix mysef. Tikun atsmi comes from ancient jewdaism and the kabalah. If someone bothers you too much you can mention it… I think this is very important – every word you say. Listening to people is a huge part of opening them up, rarher than trying to convince them of something. I can indentfy after working jobs that require you pushing sales etc…we cannot be responsible of other people actions. I do think the world need to hear more of this and calm down, since today every one think they know everything and have to show us how to live. Yes orthodox religion including judaism in orthodix form try to do that too. It is so important to stay alert!

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  10. When things get that confusing I go to my Bible. It’s all really about God after all, isn’t it? Honestly people, whatever they call themselves, can make things so complicated.

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  11. Dear Rachel, I read this post and I wondered… As a fellow Jew, I feel sympathy with what you say, though I’ve no idea, and have never had the opportunity to get to know the Reconstructionists. I’ll admit that I probably wouldn’t be tempted to find consolation or to pray in a synagogue that boasted such a title. Just as I wouldn’t desire to fly in a ‘reconstructed’ airplane. But I would like to share with what I’ve learned about synagogues coming from Jerusalem, which is blessed with more houses of prayer than anyone would care to count. There are big ornate halls and little rooms and shacks. For years I used to pray in a synagogue that looked like an igloo. And the Jews who gather in the many houses of prayer are all kinds of folk, young and old together, but separated by different customs that’ve developed over the years. There are those who prefer certain melodies and others who are moved by specific rituals. Some folks like well built furniture and beautiful curtains, and others like to pray in the open air exposed to nature. What’s most important in my eyes, is that one feels comfortable, and has a sense of community with those who share the same place to pour out their souls.

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  12. Just keep doing your own thing Rachel. You are fine as you are.

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  13. Always fascinating to read about those who have lived (and still live) their lives based on a particular religious upbringing, and the adult continuation of that faith. Having none myself, I see as many downsides as positives; and reading blogs from people of all religions, I find that those who get comfort from their faith are balanced out my many who do not.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  14. What you were describing was a lot like being a Catholic for me – “Catholicing” lool. I don’t fly under any identifier these days. I’m a “no label” kind of gal. It was very interesting to read about your experience with your walk of faith.

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  15. Hi Rachel 🙂 “I want to know them, and I want them to know me.” This is a beautiful reason to do what you do. I am sure those you interactive with now and in the future do and will appreciate this. ❤

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  16. Qualifiers such as “reconstructionist’, “conservative”, “modern” are just words. Obviously you know who you are and are comfortable with that. My own church is undergoing a lot of changes recently too. The death of our leader was filled by a man (it’s always a man, and I’m not quibbling with that, I don’t begin to claim to know God’s mind) whom I find a little creepy to be frank. He has made more changes still, some of them quite disconcerting. Doing away with long established practices and replacing them with a lot of touchy-feely politically correct ones. In my opinion. Some say God has directed this (and perhaps He did), but people like myself, shaky in faith at the best of times, are having trouble complying with things we find ..for lack of a better word, weird. Sometimes, again IMHO, it’s okay to walk out. Maybe you were uncomfortable with their words for good reason. I firmly believe that God talks to all of us, if we’re sharp enough to hear. And sometimes I think He warns us about the ‘false prophets’ among the herd.

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  17. I’m not familiar with Reconstructionism, but I like that it allows people to work out their own beliefs and practices. And your desire to listen to and to know people is beautiful. Maybe the people in your synagogue just need to hear you share about the value of this type of connection. And if they don’t listen, well, like others have said, bring Cricket with you, she will explain things to them! 🙂

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  18. Cricket will choose
    the religion
    that touches
    her heart 🙂

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  19. I really get what you are saying. It took me many years after moving to Tennessee to actually join a church or identify with any Christian denomination, because there were always things in each one that I didn’t believe and some that were actually offensive to me. Now my husband and I have joined a church together that lets us be us, while still within the broad realm of Christianity. I am given ample opportunities to serve God and the church, and never made to feel bad when I say no. It does sound like you have found a good fit for how you are, Rachel. Just don’t internalize guilt when it isn’t really being thrust on you, my friend.

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  20. I’m orthodox because I find it authentic and beautiful, but I don’t dress to “fit in the box” because I believe that religion should be private and personal-between each person and G-d. I’m lucky to have a community where we’re all different in our levels of observance and dress, yet accepting of each other!

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  21. This fascinates me because I read it not as just a religious commentary, but a social commentary. As a conservative leaning person in a very liberal profession – I’m a college professor – I get the same type of “you really should think this way or do this” attitude. I love your statement that you want to get to know people and not try to convince them of things. I wish more people felt this way! Cricket does not judge – we should all be more like Cricket.

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  22. Dear Rachel,
    We have spoken before, within the last few years i turned to the ((Church of England) Christian) and was confirmed into the faith. I am not a cynic, but, i watch so many people who consider themselves actual Christians and they do and say the most despicable things. I get very frustrated and ask to myself why?
    I am far from perfect, quite a pariah to some being Gay and very poorly, i have recieved what one could only describe as abominable behaviour from them, however, i am stronger for it, I know this sounds awful, but, I am now involved within the services held and carry the book of the Gospel and training to offer Chalice, slowly and steadily they are coming around, reconstructionalism is not just happening in your faith, we too as newer individuals are thinking different, but tbh, what matters most? A) to believe and be happy, B) wish not to understand and not be happy or C) to try to understand and always be happy?
    I have a dear elderly friend, she is Jewish, we have amazing discussions about faith and God, we often tend to agree to disagree, but we never fall out over the subject, i use to spend quiet time with her for ages, not speaking a word, but during that three to four hour session, we shared thoughts, very emotional indeed.
    I attend a ‘speak easy’ last evening , and funnily enough, Reconstructionalism was the topic de jour. As im sure you agree, if we lived in a perfect world, we would all understand one another, sadly that is never ever going to happen, but trying to understand that people have different views is somewhat acceptable, as long as one is happy with ones own views, beliefs and actions, then the responsibility and self love and rid of guilt is paramount to that individual alone.
    Much love

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  23. Thought provoking and introspective. It’s quite obvious you can think well for yourself and not have your thinking dictated to you.

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  24. Finding a spiritual home can be tough. My wife was raised Lutheran, and I Catholic. Neither church fit, and we became Quakers for a long time. We eventually figure out that that faith no longer fit, and have opted to join a Presbyterian church. We’ve always reserved the right to disagree with elements of whatever faith we followed, and now look more for kindness and tolerance than doctrinal agreement when choosing a place to worship. All the other stuff is window dressing. Glad that you’re strong about knowing what works for you. I’d hold onto that and ignore other folks’ judging attitudes.

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  25. Yes, too much ‘doing’ in many religious congregations these days, and not enough simply ‘being’. Pip and the boys

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  26. Ahhh…what a precious little fur baby!!!

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  27. Regardless when or where paganism is paganism.

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