Religion & Beliefs

Shul Hopping: Reconstructing Ideas About Reconstructionist Judaism

Of all the shul hopping adventures, my foray into the world of Reconstructionist Judaism felt the most foreign. Read More

By / September 12, 2011
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Of all the shul hopping adventures, my foray into the world of Reconstructionist Judaism felt the most foreign. Growing up I knew less about Reconstructionist Jews than I did about the economy, and I still know nothing about the economy. If Conservative Jews represented first cousins, then Reconstructionist Jews represented long lost cousins through marriage, once removed. They did not even bleep on my radar of Judaism, and if they did we bestowed upon them heretical status. Consequently, reading up on the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), the first Reconstructionist shul, I grew more and more excited for my initiatory experience into their service.

Going into the service, after consulting all my Internet sources, I still could not pin down the tenets of Reconstructionist Judaism. I believe this added to my excitement. They felt, new, fresh, avant garde, open to real creativity. I could relate to them the way Maimonides related to God: through understanding what they were not. I understood their non-belief in certain dogmas of other denominations of Judaism, or at least their comfort with doubt towards these otherwise foundational principles, and I intuited their religious purpose in life, one more focused on human actualization, the global situation, and the environment. However, I could not pin down bullet points. I find it hard to explain, even after the service and a few discussions, because words crumble as I try to explain it to myself. But it does not mitigate my excitement because no one ever died from the need to learn and experience more.

On Sabbath morning, 45 minutes before the beginning of their prayer service, SAJ engages in a tisch (literally table in yiddish), essentially a round table discussion on a range of controversial topics. Most recently the conversation centered on overlapping passages from the Torah and the Koran. On Sabbath morning, I woke up early, excited for the tisch, only to arrive at their locked wooden doors. I banged on the door to no avail and surmised that the synagogue pushed off their tischs until the fall. A little crestfallen, I decided to bide my time in the nearby Modern Orthodox synagogue, the Jewish Center. I walked into the middle of their services, sat in the back, and felt unexcited. The man next to me, a nice man who welcomed me warmly, repeated the same joke to every person who passed by.

“So,” he said to each passerby in a complicit manner, “We should say a mi’she’berach (a prayer for the sick) for the Dow Jones, huh?”

Most people smiled politely, rolled their eyes, and moved on. The jokester persisted until he elicited a chuckle from a nice younger person who clearly understood the need to laugh sometimes as a form of charity. I felt restless and decided to go to SAJ early.

Their doors now open, I took a scarf-like tallis and sat down. At the beginning of the service about 22 people filled the sanctuary, by the end about 50 people partook in the kiddush. (Yes. Still egg salad and tuna fish.) I was the youngest of the congregants by a good 40 years. I still don’t know where my generation prays. The sanctuary, in contrast to the previous Conservative shuls, chose a modern subtle motif: A small single tiered room, with chairs set up in a semicircle around the bimah. The chairs, plain light wood with brown velvet cushions filled the carpeted room. The ark, a simple wooden home for the valued scrolls, sported a faint design of branches. The only ornate aspects of the sanctuary hung from the ceiling in the form of five chandeliers with a velvet covering surrounding their wiring, and a Ner Tamid hanging from the top of the Ark. To the left of the seats stood a memoriam to all those who died from this congregation, a quiet, understated memorial to those who passed through the darkness of death. The whole sanctuary exuded a silent calm, balanced with an understanding of the utter humanness and complexity of life.

The congregation and service only continued this theme. I think they found an antidote to the boredom of the long Sabbath day service: abridgement. They abridged the prayer service, seemingly choosing which prayers to say at random. The Torah reading encompassed only one chapter, and the Haftorah took up a meager 4 sentences. Despite the brevity of the service, or perhaps because of the brevity, I found each congregant evincing real genuine worship and a desire to connect to something. Each worshiper closed their eyes during private prayers and one woman behind me, a woman with a saint like appearance, meditated during the silent prayers in a way I imagine Father Zossima from the Brothers Karamazov would pray. The singing, led by a cantor with a booming, pretty voice, guided the worshipers instead of entrancing them. The cantor stayed away from instruments except for the procession of walking the Torah around the synagogue in which she pulled out a guitar to accompany the Torah on its march through the aisles. Additionally, the saint-like woman pulled out a maraca in the shape of an egg from her pocketbook to accompany the Torah and the guitar. No one spoke during the service, everyone prayed with the Chazzan, and everyone read along during the Torah reading. No one made jokes about the stock exchange, or spoke cynically about the length of the service or the inefficacy of prayer. The Chazzan, a woman who smiled pleasantly for most of the service, before the Amidah turned around and exhorted us “To pray as your heart desires.” I do not know of such public displays of genuine sentiment. I find it wholly ironic that within this denomination that receives the brunt of Jewish apathy I found some of the most dedicated, genuine, passionate people I’ve ever encountered.

Besides the spiritual beauty of the worshipers, the Reconstructionist prayer book captured my fascination. I expected the insertions and deletions in the Conservative prayer book, but these Reconstructionist deletions and insertions piqued my curiosity. I still find it hard to pin down the theology, or lack thereof in Reconstructionist Judaism, but if the prayer book manifests your beliefs, then the deletions and insertions spoke volumes. In the introduction to this prayer book I read that people burned, actually burned the first edition of this siddur, a story covered by the New York Times. To the best of their abilities the creators of the siddur excised all mentions of certain, what I thought were, essential tenets of a Jewish faith: belief in resurrection, belief in the divinity of the Torah, and belief in reward and punishment. Their definition of God still eludes me. For example, in the second blessing of the Amidah, instead of praising God’s ability to resuscitate the dead, this prayer book praises God for providing life to all living beings. Additionally, Reconstructionist Jews do not say the Musaf service because it rejects the messianic vision that looks forward to a return of animal sacrifices. Besides these changes, the prayer book includes a paragraph entitled Kavanah on each page that mixes together insights from Chasidic Rabbis, poets, artists, and other theologians that actually aided my prayer service. While I did not necessarily feel comfortable with each incision and graft, I respected their honesty, their openness to the doubt that pervaded their lives, their willingness to live based on their beliefs and these doubts.

I felt this respect most acutely in the Rabbi’s sermon that served less as a lecture and more as a discussion. The regular rabbi had the week off, but a different rabbi opened a discussion on the nature of the desert in the Bible and the nature of the idea of a desert in our singular and communal lives. To this effect he quoted from the Bible, rabbinic commentators, biblical critics, Robert Frost, Buddhism, and Yehuda Amichai. No one flinched at the eclectic group of sources. To say that the discussion felt like one of the livelier intellectual conversations of my life would not do justice to the conversation because it fails to capture the spirituality of the conversation. The Rabbi explained that Buddhism teaches that clarity comes only after the chaos, other members described the desert as freedom, as a means to self-confrontation and growth. One person defined faith, in this context, as the disposition to be open to the next moment. Not your standard congregant fare.

The group discussion was part spiritual exploration, part intellectual analysis and part group therapy. Some of the participants spoke about the desert periods in their lives with such acute and humane analysis that I felt humbled by the insight and wisdom of this group. I spoke, just to partake in the conversation, but my attempts at wisdom, unearned wisdom, faltered at these real experiences. The Rabbi spoke of his experiences with Darfur, with Sudan, as poverty as the true desert of our world. Another woman explained that we would forever stay in the desert of our lives until people ceased spending 3,000 dollars on shoes instead of charity. I expected a clap, but none came so I lowered my hands.

At first, because of my experience, I felt that this intellectual adventure veered from the earlier spirituality of the prayer service. However, as the conversation continued I felt wholeness between the different parts of the service. In prayer, we poured out our innermost desires to the Divine, and in this conversation, we poured out our innermost fears and needs to a warm, welcoming, loving community. I did notice though, that certain components were left out of the conversation, especially the mention of God, of mitzvoth, of revelation as true, of obligations, a fact that distanced me from this lovely congregation. Besides these qualms, and besides a creeping sense of discomfort towards their ambiguous, almost completely open ended definition of Judaism, I never experienced such an honest, open, tolerant, humane exploration of what it means to be human in a world in which the Divine consistently hides from our view, a world in which we all live alone in our own deserts seeking other travelers on the path towards transcendence.