Sectors of American Judaism: Reform, Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism

By Jacob Neusner | Go to book overview

23
THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT. RECONSTRUCTIONISM

JACOB B. AGUS

What are the chief ideas characteristic of Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism? What are the claims of each? Rabbi Agus here faces a difficult task, for Conservative Judaism as well as its Reconstructionist off-shoot began not with a theological program but with a practical problem. Conservatism was meant as an effort to make possible the observance of the Tradition with those modifications deemed necessary to accommodate the Tradition to contemporary taste or circumstance. Only later on did the Movement begin to generate intellectual reflection upon the meaning and justification of that accommodation.

That is why Rabbi Agus begins by describing modifications in ritual and only later on introduces such issues as the concept of revelation and "the Positive-Historical Viewpoint." It was only natural that. for a long time, Conservative Judaism claimed to constitute the center of the community, the embodiment of Catholic Israel.

Reconstructionism, beginning in the class-room at The Jewish Theological Seminary of Professor Mordecai Kaplan, similarly stressed the importance of accommodating as large a range as possible of Jewish religious expressions. Instead of "Judaism" or "the Jewish religion," Reconstructionism preferred to speak of "Jewish religion," making place for all religious expressions of Jewish existence. Its stress was upon the peoplehood of Israel, the Jewish group. Religion was understood as "the need for communing with that Power . . . which makes for salvation."

Yet, like Conservative Judaism which gave it birth, Reconstructionism, while emphasizing Jewish Peoplehood and democratic ideals, tended to express only one viewpoint, that of religious naturalism, and indeed only a single formulation of that viewpoint, Mordecai Kaplan's. Its critics saw Reconstructionism as little more than an extension of "Kaplanism." That may be unfair. But it is a fact that, of the major movements in American Judaism, only Reconstructionism so narrowly centers upon, and sees itself as defined by, a single individual. This, to be sure, is a very American mode of the formation of a religion. What

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