Reconstructing Judaism's organizational headquarters in Wyncote, Pennsylvania
Torah reading at the Congregation Dorshei Emet, Montreal

Reconstructionist Judaism[a][b] is a Jewish movement based on the concepts developed by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983) that views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization rather than just a religion.[2][3][4] The movement originated as a semi-organized stream within Conservative Judaism, developed between the late 1920s and the 1940s before seceding in 1955,[5][6] and established a rabbinical college in 1967.[7] Reconstructionist Judaism is recognized by many scholars as one of the five major streams of Judaism in America alongside Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Humanistic.[8][9][10][11][12]

There is substantial theological diversity within the movement. Halakha (Jewish law) is not considered normative and binding but is instead seen as the basis for the ongoing evolution of meaningful Jewish practice. In contrast with the Reform movement's stance during the time he was writing, Kaplan believed that "Jewish life [is] meaningless without Jewish law" and one of the planks he wrote for the proto-Reconstructionist Society for the Jewish Renaissance stated, "We accept the halakha, which is rooted in the Talmud, as the norm of Jewish life, availing ourselves, at the same time, of the method implicit therein to interpret and develop the body of Jewish Law by the actual conditions and spiritual needs of modern life."[13] The movement also emphasizes positive views toward modernity and has an approach to Jewish customs that aims toward communal decision-making through a process of education and distillation of values from traditional Jewish sources.[14][15]

The movement's 2011 A Guide to Jewish Practice describes a Reconstructionist approach to Jewish practice as "post-halakhic" because the modern world is one in which Jewish law cannot be enforced. Obligation and spiritual discipline exist without the enforcement of a functioning legal system. Thus, Reconstructionist Jews take Jewish law seriously as a source and resource that can shape expectations while not necessarily seeing themselves as bound by inherited claims of obligation. Therefore, the practices in the guide are not monolithic, and commentators provide further insights, arguments, and alternative approaches that span the broad range of views that Reconstructionist rabbis and scholars advocate. The guide states that it "assumes that thoughtful individuals and committed communities can handle diversity and will of necessity reach their own conclusions".[16]


Reconstructionism was developed by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983) and his son-in-law, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein (1906–2001), over a period of time from the late 1920s to the 1940s. After being rejected by Orthodox rabbis for his focus on issues in the community and the sociopolitical environment, Kaplan and a group of followers founded the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) in 1922. Its goal was to give rabbis the opportunity to form new outlooks on Judaism in a more progressive manner. Kaplan was the leader of the SAJ until Eisenstein succeeded him in 1945. In 1935, Kaplan published his book, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American Jewish Life. It was this book that Kaplan claimed was the beginning of the Reconstructionist movement. Judaism as a Civilization suggested that historical Judaism be given a "revaluation... in terms of present-day thought."[17] Reconstructionism was able to spread with several other forms of literature—most notably, the New Haggadah (1941), which for the first time blended Kaplan's ideologies in Jewish ceremonial literature.

Although Kaplan did not want Reconstructionism to branch into another Jewish denomination, it became apparent that such an outcome was inevitable. At the Montreal conference in 1967, Reconstructionist leaders called for a rabbinical school in which rabbis could be ordained under the Reconstructionist ideology and lead Reconstructionist congregations.[18] By the fall of 1968, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was opened in Philadelphia. Along with the establishment of the college, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association formed, which gave rabbis a strong network in the religious leadership of Reconstructionism.[19] The founding of these institutions were great strides in its becoming the fourth movement in North American Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform being the other three).

Reconstructionist Judaism is the first major movement of Judaism to originate in North America; the second is the Humanistic Judaism movement founded in 1963 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine.


Kaplan believed that, in light of advances in philosophy, science, and history, it would be impossible for modern Jews to continue to adhere to many of Judaism's traditional theological claims.[20] Kaplan affirmed that God is not anthropomorphic in any way, a position articulated by prominent medieval Jewish thinkers like Maimonides and in agreement with the rest of Rabbinic Judaism. All anthropomorphic descriptions of God are understood to be metaphorical.[21]

Kaplan's theology went further to claim that God is neither a personal nor conscious being; God cannot relate to or communicate with humanity in any way.[22] Kaplan's theology defines God as the sum of all natural processes that allow people to become self-fulfilled.[23]

To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man's destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.[24]

Most "classical" Reconstructionist Jews (i.e., those agreeing with Kaplan) reject traditional forms of theism, though this is by no means universal.[25] Many Reconstructionist Jews are deists, but the movement also includes Jews who hold Kabbalistic, pantheistic, personal, and/or panentheistic views of God.[25][26]

Kaplan's theology, as he explicitly stated, does not represent the only Reconstructionist understanding of theology and theology is not the cornerstone of the Reconstructionist movement. Much more central is the idea that Judaism is a civilization, and that the Jewish people must take an active role in ensuring its future by participating in its ongoing evolution.

Consequently, a strain of Reconstructionism exists which is distinctly non-Kaplanian. In this view, Kaplan's assertions concerning belief and practice are largely rejected, while the tenets of an "evolving religious civilization" are supported. The basis for this approach is that Kaplan spoke for his generation; he also wrote that every generation would need to define itself and its civilization for itself. In the thinking of these Reconstructionists, what Kaplan said concerning belief and practice is not applicable today. This approach may include a belief in a personal God, acceptance of the concept of "chosenness", a belief in some form of resurrection or continued existence of the dead, and the existence of an obligatory form of halakha. In the latter, in particular, there has developed a broader concept of halakha wherein concepts such as "Eco-Kashrut" are incorporated.[citation needed]

Jewish law and tradition

Reconstructionist Judaism holds that the traditional halakhic system is incapable of producing a code of conduct that is meaningful for, and acceptable to, the vast majority of contemporary Jews, and thus must be reinterpreted in each new time period.[13] Unlike classical Reform Judaism, Reconstructionism holds that a person's default position should be to incorporate Jewish laws and tradition into their lives, unless they have a specific reason to do otherwise. However some Reconstructionists believe that halakha is neither normative, nor binding, but are general guidelines.

Reconstructionism promotes many traditional Jewish practices. Thus, the commandments have been replaced with "folkways", non-binding customs that can be democratically accepted or rejected by the congregations. Folkways that are promoted include keeping Hebrew in the prayer service, studying Torah, daily prayer, wearing kippot (yarmulkes), tallitot and tefillin during prayer, and observance of the Jewish holidays.

Reconstructionists may use distinct prayer books, such as the Kol haneshamah Hebrew/English Reconstructionist prayer book. Marc Shapiro called attention to the Reconstructionist Kol haneshamah taking liberties with the text, sometimes with an English translation "so blatantly inaccurate that we have no choice but to regard it as a conscious alteration."[27]


In practice, Kaplan's books, especially The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion and Judaism as a Civilization are de facto statements of principles. In 1986, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) and the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (FRCH) passed the official "Platform on Reconstructionism". It is not a mandatory statement of principles, but rather a consensus of current beliefs.[28] Major points of the platform state that:

Judaism is the result of natural human development. There is no such thing as divine intervention; Judaism is an evolving religious civilization; Zionism and aliyah (immigration to Israel) are encouraged; Reconstructionist Judaism is based on a democratic community where the laity can make decisions, not just rabbis; The Torah was not inspired by God; it only comes from the social and historical development of Jewish people; The classical view of God is rejected. God is redefined as the sum of natural powers or processes that allows mankind to gain self-fulfillment and moral improvement; The idea that God chose the Jewish people for any purpose, in any way, is "morally untenable", because anyone who has such beliefs "implies the superiority of the elect community and the rejection of others."

Most Reconstructionists do not believe in revelation (the idea that God reveals his will to human beings). This is dismissed as supernaturalism. Kaplan posits that revelation "consists in disengaging from the traditional context those elements in it which answer permanent postulates of human nature, and in integrating them into our own ideology...the rest may be relegated to archaeology".[23]

Many writers have criticized the movement's most widely held theology, religious naturalism. David Ray Griffin and Louis Jacobs have objected to the redefinitions of the terms "revelation" and "God" as being intellectually dishonest, and as being a form of "conversion by definition"; in their critique, these redefinitions take non-theistic beliefs and attach theistic terms to them. Similar critiques have been put forth by Rabbis Neil Gillman,[29] Milton Steinberg,[30] and Michael Samuels.[31]

Reconstructionist Judaism is egalitarian with respect to gender roles. All positions are open to all genders; they are open to lesbians, gay men, and transgender-identifying individuals as well.

Jewish identity

Reconstructionist Judaism allows its rabbis to determine their own policy regarding officiating at intermarriages. Some congregations accept patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent, and children of one Jewish parent, of any gender, are considered Jewish by birth if raised as Jews. This contrasts with the traditional interpretations of Jewish law of both Rabbinical Judaism, in which a child is Jewish by birth if its mother was Jewish; and of Karaite Judaism, in which a child is Jewish by birth if its father was Jewish.

The role of non-Jews in Reconstructionist congregations is a matter of ongoing debate. Practices vary between synagogues. Most congregations strive to strike a balance between inclusivity and integrity of boundaries. The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) has issued a non-binding statement attempting to delineate the process by which congregations set policy on these issues, and sets forth sample recommendations. These issues are ultimately decided by local lay leadership.[32]

In 2015 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College voted to accept rabbinical students in interfaith relationships, making Reconstructionist Judaism the first type of Judaism to officially allow rabbis in relationships with non-Jewish partners.[33] In making the decision, the movement considered that "many younger progressive Jews, including many rabbis and rabbinical students, now perceive restrictions placed on those who are intermarried as reinforcing a tribalism that feels personally alienating and morally troubling in the 21st century."[34] In April 2016 nineteen Reconstructionist rabbis announced they will form an offshoot group in part to protest the decision to allow rabbis to have non-Jewish partners.[35]


Over 100 synagogues and havurot, mostly in the United States and Canada, were affiliated with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. As of June 3, 2012, the Reconstructionist movement has been restructured. A joint institution consisting of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and the congregational organization is now the primary organization of the movement.[36][37]

The movement's new designation was first "Jewish Reconstructionist Communities," and in 2018 became Reconstructing Judaism.[38] Rabbi Deborah Waxman was inaugurated as the president of the RRC and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities on October 26, 2014.[39] As the president of the RRC, she is believed to be the first woman and first lesbian to lead a Jewish congregational union, and the first lesbian to lead a Jewish seminary; the RRC is both a congregational union and a seminary.[40][41] Waxman is a 1999 graduate of RRC.[40][42][43]

The RRC educates rabbis. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association is the professional organization of Reconstructionist rabbis. The Jewish Reconstructionist youth organization is named No'ar Hadash. Camp Havaya (formerly Camp JRF) in South Sterling, Pennsylvania, is the Reconstructionist movement's summer sleep away camp.[44]

As of 2020, the Pew Research Center estimated that Reconstructionist Judaism, along with Humanistic Judaism and other smaller denominations, constituted 4% of the United States's 7.5 million Jews.[45]

Relation to other Jewish movements

Originally an offshoot of Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionism retains warm relations with Reform Judaism; however, Orthodox Judaism considers Reconstructionism, and every other non-Orthodox denomination, to be in violation of proper observance of interpretation of Jewish law.[46] The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation is a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, in which it gained an observer status in 1990.

See also


  1. ^ Hebrew: יהדות רקונסטרוקציוניסטית, romanizedyahadút rekonstruktsyonistit or יהדות מתחדשת yahadút mitkhadéshet
  2. ^ The central organization of the movement renamed itself to Reconstructing Judaism in 2018, but the ideology's name remains unchanged.[1]


  1. ^ Waxman, Deborah. "About Our New Name". Reconstructing Judaism. Retrieved 2020-05-15. (To be clear, we have renamed the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement, but not the movement as a whole.)
  2. ^ Karesh & Hurvitz 2005, p. 416.
  3. ^ "Reconstructionism: Background & Overview". Jewish Virtual Library: A Project of AICE. Retrieved 2020-12-13.
  4. ^ Alpert, Rebecca. "Reconstructionist Judaism in the United States". The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. Retrieved 2020-12-13.
  5. ^ Neusner 1993.
  6. ^ Kaplan 2010, pp. i–viii.
  7. ^ Karesh & Hurvitz 2005, p. 417.
  8. ^ Neusner 1975.
  9. ^ Rudavsky 1979.
  10. ^ Raphael 1984.
  11. ^ Mittleman 1993, p. 169.
  12. ^ Mendes-Flohr, Paul (2005). "Judaism". In Thomas Riggs (ed.). Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Vol. 1. Farmington Hills, Mi: Thomson Gale. ISBN 9780787666118 – via
  13. ^ a b Cedarbaum, Daniel (6 May 2016). "Reconstructing Halakha". Reconstructing Judaism. Retrieved 30 January 2020.
  14. ^ Teutsch, David. "Values-Based Decision Making". Reconstructing Judaism. Reconstructing Judaism. Retrieved 2 March 2020.
  15. ^ Schwartz, Jeremy. "The Torah Process: How Jews Make Decisions". Reconstructing Judaism. Reconstructing Judaism. Retrieved 2 March 2020.
  16. ^ Teutsch, David (2011). Guide to Jewish Practice. Wyncote, Pennsylvania: Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press. pp. xxiv. ISBN 978-0-938945-18-5. Retrieved 2 March 2020.
  17. ^ Raphael 1984, pp. 180–181.
  18. ^ Musher, Deborah Ann (1998). "Reconstructionist Judaism in the Mind of Mordecai Kaplan: The Transformation from a Philosophy into a Religious Denomination". American Jewish History. 86 (4): 397–417. ISSN 0164-0178.
  19. ^ Raphael 1984, pp. 192–193.
  20. ^ Sachar, Abram (August 5, 1934). "Dr. Kaplan Reinterprets Judaism As a Civilization in His 'guide'". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved 2023-05-02.
  21. ^ Scult, Mel (2014). The radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 71–73. ISBN 978-0-253-01711-6. OCLC 907086625.
  22. ^ Kaufman, William (1991). "Mordecai M. Kaplan and Process Theology: Metaphysical and Pragmatic Perspectives". Retrieved 2023-05-02.
  23. ^ a b Kaplan 1994.
  24. ^ Sonsino, Rifat. The Many Faces of God: A Reader of Modern Jewish Theologies. 2004, page 22–23
  25. ^ a b Fuchs, Nancy (2006). "Seventy Years After Judaism as a Civilization: Mordecai Kaplan's Theology and the Reconstructionist Movement". Jewish Social Studies. 12 (2): 127–142. doi:10.1353/jss.2006.0014. ISSN 1527-2028.
  26. ^ "BBC - Religions - Judaism: Reconstructionist Judaism". Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  27. ^ Shapiro, Marc B. (2015). Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites its History. Littman Library Of Jewish Civilization. p. 53. ISBN 9781904113607. In ft. 225 Shapiro provides an example from Kol haneshamah p. 54 which renders Psalms 147:20 as universalist statements as opposed to featuring God's unique connection specifically with the Jews.
  28. ^ See the FRCH Newsletter, Sept. 1986, pages D, E.
  29. ^ Sacred Fragments, p. 200
  30. ^ Milton Steinberg: Portrait of a Rabbi by Simon Noveck, Ktav, 1978, p. 259–260M
  31. ^ The Lord Is My Shepherd: The Theology of a Caring God, 1996
  32. ^ Can Halakha Live? by Rabbi Edward Feld, The Reconstructionist, Vol.59(2), Fall 1994, p. 64-72
  33. ^ Lisa Hostein (October 1, 2015). "Reconstructionists give green light to intermarried rabbinical students". Jweekly. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  34. ^ 7 Reconstructionist Rabbis Quit as Synagogues Debate Intermarried Rabbis The Forward, 8 January 2016
  35. ^ Reconstructionist offshoot forms over intermarried rabbis, BDS JTA, April 8, 2016
  36. ^ "Movement Restructuring FAQs", Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, June 4, 2012
  37. ^ "Do the Jewish Streams Have a Future?". The Jewish Exponent. May 9, 2012. Archived from the original on 2012-05-14. Retrieved 2012-06-05.
  38. ^ "Reconstructionist Rabbinical School Changes Name to Reconstructing Judaism". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 2018-01-30.
  39. ^ "Waxman Inaugurated as Head of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College". Jewish Exponent.
  40. ^ a b "Reconstructionists Pick First Woman, Lesbian As Denominational Leader - The Jewish Week". The Jewish Week. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  41. ^ "RRC Announces New President Elect" (PDF) (Press release). Wyncote, PA (USA): Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. 2013-10-09. Retrieved 2013-10-16.
  42. ^ "Trailblazing Reconstructionist Deborah Waxman Relishes Challenges of Judaism". Retrieved 2013-10-12.
  43. ^ "Change of Top Leadership at Recon Movement" Jewish Exponent. Retrieved 2013-10-30.
  44. ^ "About Us". Camp Havaya. Retrieved 2020-04-28.
  45. ^ "Jewish Americans in 2020". Retrieved 30 May 2022.
  46. ^ Robinson, George (2000). Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals. New York City, NY: Simon & Schuster. p. 232. ISBN 0-671-03480-4.


Primary sources
Secondary sources