Shavua Tov everyone.
A few things on my mind before I get back to the take home midterm. The first is a response to a critique I found on Heimishtown. In my earlier rant on hareidi community I used the phrase “ever so humble self-proclaimed ‘Gedolei Torah.'” Heimishtown rightly points out that in that article the term “Gedolei Yisroel” was used not by the Rabbis themselves, but by the Yated Ne’eman Staff. My understanding is that the term “Gedolei Yisroel” is not just used by the masses to refer to their rabbis. The specific reference was to the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. If the rabbis are not part of the same organization, then I apologize for the incorrect attribution.
On a slighly different note, we had an interesting speaker come to the Hillel this week: Rabbi Dan Aronson, the Dean of Admissions at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). I must compliment him on two things. First, he carried himself like a professional. He was always polite and civil despite some rather obnoxious comments by a particular audience member (not me). Second, I always have a degree of respect for someone who admits when he doesn’t have an answer and he has to think about it some more. While this is an ethic commended in Avot 5:7 (or 5:6 in the Rambam’s version), many Rabbis I’ve met would instead fall in the alternative category of the Golem.
At any rate, there were two major critiques I had of Reconstructionism as he described it. The first is really more of a critique of Mordechai Kaplan, the movement’s founder. Admittedly, I have not read much of Kaplan myself, so for now I will rely on what I heard from R. Aronson. As stated on the RRC website, Reconstructionists “define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” R. Aronson then defined what he meant by “evolving,” “religious,” and “civilization.” However, I noticed he did not define what was meant by “Jewish.” It seems to me that this is a circular definition in that the term “Jewish” is used to define “Judaism.” Kaplan would certainly hold that some people are not considered “Jews,” but I do not know what that precise definition would be. Even resorting to ideas like a “symbol set” or relevant ethics, he would probably not say that a Christian who held these ideas would in fact be Jewish.
The other critique is more fundamental to the purpose of Reconstructionism. As presented to us, Kaplan was trying to stem rampant assimilation. Judaism needed to undergo consious changes in order to survive – the “traditional” model would not be sufficient to maintain the Jewish people. Judaism As a Civilization was published in 1934 (if memory serves). Not being alive then, I cannot possibly know what was the reality of Jewish life in America. However, despite the numerous problems througout the “traditional” world, I would think that it’s still in relatively good shape in that it’s not going anywhere. Yes, assimilation still happens, but I would say that I don’t think that the “traditional” models are going to disappear any time in the near or distant future.
Finally, there was one particularly poignant observation from one of the audience members. Kaplan writes about the need for Judaism to evolve in order for it to survive. However, he does not explan why Judaism ought to survive. What would make the “Jewish” set of understandings significant enough to warrent perpetuating? If it is just to preserve the history, then we could easily set up a museum for it and cease any form of observing it at all. Kaplan’s stated goal of combating assimilation only makes sense if there is something in Judaism that’s worth not only keeping, but keeing vibrant and alive. If there is indeed something inherently significant to Judaism – it cannot be divine by its nature since Reconstructionists do not belive in divine revelation of the Torah – then what would it be?
R. Aronson recommended Exploring Judaism as a good text to understand more about Reconstructionist Judaism. If there are any experts in Reconstructionism out there, feel free to post your comments.