Commentary Magazine


The Truth About Reconstructionism

Both the philosophy and program of reconstructionism have evidently proved challenging. However, the considerable recent discussion of the meaning of Reconstructionism has not been as clarifying as one might have hoped. Even such distinguished writers as Waldo Frank, Ludwig Lewisohn, and most recently, Mordecai Grossman, in the preceding issue of Commentary, have reacted, each in his own way, to this or that formula in the philosophy of Reconstructionism. They may have an adequate understanding of the basic motivation and intention behind the movement and of the relation of the particulars to the total idea, but their strictures fail to convey any such understanding. It is therefore the purpose of this article to put the philosophy of Reconstructionism in its proper prospective. This will reveal the errors in much that has been said about the movement more clearly than if I were simply to refute specific criticisms.

Reconstructionism endeavors to answer the question: What, under conditions of modem life, must Jews do, if they want Jewish life to be an asset to them, an opportunity for growth and happiness, rather than a liability, an impediment to the achievement of their personal ideals?

It is not the first movement to make this attempt, but it is first movement with that objective to originate in America in response to the impact of American democracy on the traditional Jewish way of life.

Jews are today very much concerned with the problem of anti-Semitism. They realize to what extent anti-Semitism is an obstacle to their achieving satisfactory economic and social standing. They therefore engage in efforts to remove this obstacle. When their efforts are intelligently directed, they may at best mitigate the evil somewhat. But since he is not likely to abolish anti-Semitism in the near future, the Jew needs to take measures designed to make his life as a Jew livable and worth-while in the very face of hostility and opposition.

What the Jew has most to fear in anti-Semitism is its demoralizing effect on his personality. It tends to disintegrate his character by undermining his self-respect. It gives him a sense of inferiority as a Jew which disturbs his relation with both his fellow-Jews and his Gentile neighbors. It spoils his relations with his fellow-Jews, for he will tend to shift upon them rather than upon himself the responsibility for anti-Semitism. It spoils his relations with his non-Jewish neighbors by making him either avoid their society for fear of being hurt or seek it in a way that to them seems an intrusion. When he acts Jewishly, he is afraid of appearing “different” to Gentile eyes; when he flouts Jewish standards, he is disturbed by a feeling that he has been disloyal to his own. In countries dominated by anti-Semitism, Jewish self-hate has been so intense as to lead to self-destruction.

Reconstructionism is concerned with this moral deterioration which threatens the lives of Jews. It recognizes that there is but one remedy for it. Since the unhappiness of Jews derives from their being different from the rest of the population, something must be done to make their being different a means to higher self-realization. Only thus can the integrity of Jewish character be preserved against the corrosive influences of anti-Semitism.

That is the problem to which Reconstructionism addresses itself. The Jews do constitute a recognizable minority among the general population. As a minority they are naturally exposed to both the attraction and the repulsion of the larger body. On the one hand, they are attracted by the power and the prestige of the culture about them; on the other, the majority, recognizing in the Jewish group something different from themselves, seek to keep them apart. Jews are therefore bound to live in a state of tension, and, unless that which makes them different can be felt by them to be inherently worthwhile, they are bound to regard themselves as a helpless and inert body buffeted about and torn apart by external forces.

Before we can know how to render those factors that differentiate the Jew from the rest of the population inherently worthwhile, we must clearly understand their nature. We must know what constitutes the Jewishness of the Jews; we must have an adequate conception of what Judaism means. The Reconstructionist movement is not interested in defending some pre-conceived theological or sociological “ism.” Its principal aim is not the conservation of a tradition, but the saving of a people. The Jewish people has to be saved from slow moral suicide. If the Jewish tradition in the form in which it has come down is incapable of putting new life and courage into the soul of the Jew, it should by all means be so revised as to have that effect. Not until Judaism is gladly accepted by the Jew, not until it inspires him with something to live for as a Jew, is it in a state worth maintaining. To bring Judaism to that point is the task of Reconstructionism.

The problem to which Reconstructionism addresses itself began with the emancipation of the Jews from ghetto conditions and their incorporation as citizens into the body politic of the various national states in which they lived. This period of Emancipation coincided with the era of Enlightenment, when human intelligence freed itself from domination by traditional dogma. The new forces to which Judaism had to react and which radically changed the fundamental conditions of Jewish life were nationalism and naturalism.

_____________

 

The Impact of Nationalism

The nationalism of the Western states in which Jews were accepted as citizens destroyed the sense of unity which Jews had been able to maintain throughout the past, despite their dispersion. That sense of unity enabled each local Jewish community to constitute for its members a self-sustaining cell in which the Jew was able to live out his life fully as a social and spiritual being. In accepting citizenship, however, the Jew has cast in his lot with that of the nations which granted him civic rights. With that grant, there apparently ceased to be any longer a need for retaining his communal set-up which, until then, had provided him with all that he needed in order to live as a social being. In addition, the hope for the return of all Jews to Palestine was no longer needed to counteract the suffering of their exile, since as citizens they were at home, and need no longer consider themselves exiles.

The naturalism of the era of Enlightenment undermined that tradition which had given the Jew a rationale for remaining a Jew under the most trying circumstances. That rationale derived from the assumption of the miraculous character of Israel’s origin and early history. It was rooted in the belief in the glorious and transmundane character of the future for which Israel was destined. It had never occurred to any one, Jew or Gentile, to question the literal truth of the wonders which took place in Egypt, in The Wilderness, and in Canaan at the beginning of Israel’s career. Never did doubt trouble the mind of the Jew concerning the coming of a Messiah, who would gather all Israel from the four comers of the earth and lead them in triumph to their ancient land. The certainty that ineffable bliss of the world-to-come awaited all who were of Israel rendered the Jew immune to the temptation to renounce his religion. Out of all these hopes and dreams the Jew was rudely awakened by the dawning light of the new matter-of-fact knowledge about the history of the physical world, of living things and of man’s spiritual evolution.

_____________

 

Reform’s Answer

The first answer to the challenge of nationalism was given by the so-called Sanhedrin or Assembly of Jewish Notables convened by Napoleon. As a condition to the granting of civil rights to the Jews, it was expected of that Assembly to renounce Jewish nationhood. It acquiesced in this condition, declaring that henceforth the Jews were to be regarded as no more than a religious group with a common ancestry. Although there was an element of duress in the acceptance of that status by the Napoleonic Sanhedrin, its acceptance was hailed by many Jews even outside France, and provided the basis of that effort at Jewish reconstruction which came to be known as Reform. A number of synods in Germany and other lands, in which Reform rabbis were the principal participants, hailed with satisfaction this renunciation of Jewish nationhood and sought, on the basis of it, to purge Judaism of all its particularist elements, which, from the view of a universal religion, were deemed irrelevant. The “Pittsburgh Platform” which was for a long time the authoritative statement of the Reform position in America, was formulated by a similar assembly of Reform rabbis in America and expresses the same conception of Judaism.

The Reform movement reckoned also with the challenge of naturalism. It accepted naturalism’s rejection of miracle. It was under the necessity of finding a new rationale for maintaining adherence to the Jewish faith, since it could not accept the supernaturalist version of the revelation of the Torah as valid. It found this rationale in the theory of the “mission.” Jewish religion, it contended, was superior to every other religion in being the purest form of ethical monotheism. Hence it was the mission of the Jews to attest to the world the truth of its religion. Some of the leaders of Reform, notably Dr. Kaufmann Kohler, went so far as to assume a special aptitude for religion inherent in the Jewish race.

In view of the religious character of Jewish life, and in further view of the fact that differences of religion were then tolerated while other cultural distinctions among minority groups were not, the Reform formula was quite an unavoidable response to the situation as it then prevailed in Western Europe. Nevertheless, it has proved inadequate. The evidence of its inadequacy is to be found in the fact that, while its renunciation of Jewish nationhood was widely accepted among Jews, its affirmation of a Jewish mission did not prove a sufficient motivating force to stem the tide of escapism. It was not strong enough to counteract the tendency to look upon Judaism as an unfortunate impediment which one could not perhaps quite discard, but which, as far as possible, one wanted to forget, or at least ignore. The inadequacy of the classic formula of Reform has become increasingly apparent even to those rabbis who have been trained and educated under Reform auspices. This is evidenced by the fact that the “Pittsburgh Platform” has been largely repudiated by the movement, and that the official position of American Reform now recognizes the “peoplehood” of Israel and the importance of many of the so-called secular elements of Jewish culture.

But not only did Reform leave the inner problem of the Jew unsolved; its renunciation of Jewish nationhood did not gain for the Jews acceptance without reservation as part of the same intimate world as the rest of the population. The democratic idealism of the Enlightenment period which sponsored the emanicipation of the Jews was soon succeeded by a romantic, reactionary, chauvinistic nationalism which sought to extrude them from social and economic life and, in extreme instances, also from political equality. This situation made Jews again aware that they did not belong, that they were inherently aliens, and that this alienage had little to do with their religious convictions.

The affirmative reaction on the part of the Jews to this disillusionment was Jewish nationalism, which finds its fullest expression in Zionism. Since the Jew was regarded by anti-Semitism as an unassimilable foreign element in the national body, Zionism saw the solution of the Jewish problem in reconstituting the Jews as a normal nation with a land, a government, a language and all the other characteristics of a national civilization.

But, like the Reform movement, Zionism was conditioned by the European setting in which it arose. The nationalism of the European nations was so totalitarian that it left little possibility of a future for Judaism in Europe as then constituted. The whole emphasis of Zionism, therefore, was on the development of the Jewish national home in Palestine as an autonomous national state. It did not concern itself, and hardly concerns itself to this day, with the possibility of a permanent Jewish group life in the diaspora, or with the problem of how to make such a group life worthwhile.

It is here that Reconstructionism has its unique contribution to make. It closes the gap that Zionism has left open. It is unwilling to abandon those American Jews who either do not desire or are unable to settle in Palestine, and leave them at the mercy of the sense of inferiority to which their status as an identifiable minority exposes them. Like Zionism, Reconstructionism does not shut its eyes to the fact that the Jews constitute a distinct societal group—call it nation, people or what you will—which differs from the rest of the population not merely in its religious ideas and practices but in many other respects. Moreover, it sees the need, as do all Zionists, to give the maximum opportunity to the Jewish people to develop its peoplehood and freely express its group character.

But Reconstructionism also reckons, as no previous movement in Judaism has done, with the opportunities inherent in the democratic character of American nationalism. While demanding of the individual complete identification with the vital interests of that nation as a whole and unreserved participation in the country’s political cultural and social life, Americanism does not interfere with his “pursuit of happiness” in respect to interests which may be confined to a more limited group of the American population, and which that group may share with others who are not American. American democracy—and the same is true of genuine democracy everywhere—recognizes the right to be different. The recognition of the Jews’ right to be different affords them the opportunity to develop the differential factors in Jewish life to their own advantage, in every way that is not detrimental to the equal and similar rights of other groups and individuals or to the general welfare. The aim of Reconstructionism is to exploit that opportunity.

_____________

 

Judaism Is a Civilization

When that aim is clearly understood, it is easy to see the mistake in Dr. Grossman’s conception of Reconstructionism which vitiates his entire argument in opposition to it. He raises the question: “Can Jewish life in this country attain that vitality of function, that variety of content, that integrity and distinctiveness of pattern, and degree of organization which would endow it with the character of a civilization?” Reconstructionism does not have to give to Judaism the character of a civilization. Judaism has always had that character. By Judaism as a civilization—to quote from the Reconstructionist Platform—we mean that it embraces “all the social, cultural and spiritual activities of Jewish life,” and consists of “nationhood, religion, historical continuity, language and literature, law, mores, folkways and art.” The fact that so many of these elements of Jewish civilization are lacking in the life of most American Jews does not invalidate the definition, because whatever of Judaism does function in their life is a fragment of the Jewish civilization.

But, in consequence of the impact of modem nationalism and modem naturalism, Judaism, or the Jewish civilization, has lost “vitality of function, variety of content and integrity and distinctiveness of pattern.” These are the qualities Judaism must come to possess if American Jews are to give it a place in their lives. To achieve these qualities for our day, the Jewish civilization must undergo a veritable transformation. The traditional form in which it has come down to us has lost its power to evoke in the Jewish individual that voluntary and enthusiastic acceptance of Judaism on which a happy and creative adjustment of his Jewish heritage to his American environment depends.

Civilizations have this power of making themselves over without loss of identity. Judaism has undergone a number of transformations in the course of its history. But through all of them it has retained its fundamental pattern. The principle of that pattern has been articulated in its religion, for it is the function of religion to orient the individual and the group to the world in which they live by articulating a scale of values for the different elements of the civilivation. Judaism must have both body and soul. It must function through such organs as land, government, language, economic and cultural institutions, but it must be given organic unity and functional direction through its soul, which is its religion.

Reform, in its repudiation of the secular elements of Jewish civilization, made the mistake of trying to keep the soul alive without a body. It deprived Jewish religion of the organs by which it could function, and thus reduced it to impotence. Secular Jewish nationalism on the other hand has sought to preserve the life of the body without a soul to give meaning and purposive direction to that life. It has tried to evoke in the Jewish people the will to live, without giving Jews a clear conception of what they are to live for, what is to make their life as Jews worth living. Reconstructionism, in seeking a synthesis of the two solutions previously proposed, offers the only realistic method of enabling Judaism to be of service to the individual Jew by making his particular Jewish heritage yield universal religious values that will help him adjust himself, not merely to his Jewish community, but to the life of America and of mankind.

_____________

 

Civilization and Civilizations

A failure to understand the realism of the Reconstructionist approach is seen in the frequent charge, which Dr. Grossman takes up in his article, that Reconstructionism believes only in civilizations not in civilization, that its interests are particularistic not universal. “For Reconstructionists,” says Dr. Grossman, “mankind is the arithmetical summation of nations inhabiting the earth, not an embracing unity which transcends national demarcations. By the same token, civilization means the sum total of national civilizations, not something shared by humanity.” Neither statement is true. They are both based on a fundamental fallacy in respect to the relations of the particular to the universal which has bedeviled philosophic thought for ages.

Actually there is no contradiction between beliefs in the reality of both universals and particulars, of both civilization and civilizations. Civilization is real, but it is real as a common characteristic of all civilizations, just as language is real, as expressing the common characteristics of all languages. If there were no languages there would be no language, and, if there were no civilizations, there would be no civilization. On the other hand, though civilizations are real, they really are civilizations only to the extent that they exhibit the common characteristics that are denoted by the term civilization. One could theoretically conceive of a world in which there was only a single civilization—whether one would want to live in such a world is another matter—but it is certainly not this world. Nor can civilization in this world be served by neglecting civilizations, any more than we could develop a universal language by refusing to speak in our own vernacular.

How free Reconstructionism is from the narrowness or parochialism which Dr. Grossman imputes to it is evident from the following affirmations in its Platform: “Judaism should impel Jews to practice its ethical and spiritual values in all human relations. It should sanction efforts for a social order based upon the coordination of individual liberty with the well-being of the community. Jews should envisage the Kingdom of God as a world-wide, all-embracing community, and should encourage all action looking to the establishment of a world commonwealth of nations.”

_____________

 

The Solution

From the point of view of Reconstructionism, the civilization, the nationhood and the religion of a people are one and inseparable. Reconstructionism stresses all the three elements in the life of the Jewish people, and not merely nationhood and civilization, as Dr. Grossman states. He overlooks the fact that Reconstructionism defines Judaism as a religious civilization, and he disregards completely its emphasis upon the integral relationship of religion, nationhood and civilization. Their relationship can perhaps best be described as three dimensions of the same reality. None of them can be apprehended without reference to the others. They correspond to the three concepts referred to in the celebrated dictum: “Israel, the Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one.” Note that, in this statement, “Israel” represents nationhood; “Torah” or Israel’s way of life, represents civilization; and “The Holy One,” represents religion. The purpose in pronouncing them one is to stress the fact that none of the three terms can be understood without defining its relations to the others; that Israel means the people on whom God bestowed the Torah; that Torah means the civilization that God bestowed on Israel; and that God is the Power who bestowed the Torah on Israel. Jewish religion, Jewish nationhood and Jewish civilization, all refer to the same reality, and each is meaningless apart from its relation to the totality of Jewish life.

With the foregoing conception of Judaism, or of that which differentiates the Jews as a group from other groups and unites its members into a people, we are in a position to state the general lines along which Judaism must be reconstructed. It must be so reconstructed that,

  1. collective Jewish life would, despite necessary changes, be so manifestly continuous with that of the past, as to enable the living generation of Jews to feel its oneness with all the preceding hundred generations of the Jewish people;
  2. Judaism would run counter neither to the most reasonable interpretation of naturalism nor to the most ethical interpretation of nationalism, and
  3. Judaism would have room for diversity of world outlook and religious practice, the only requirement being a sincere desire to have Jewish life survive, grow and exert a salutary influence in the world.

If we are to reconstruct Judaism on these principles, then in the first place, that which is to make Jews into a distinct social group can, for a very large number of our people, no longer be the traditional conception of the origin of the Jewish people and its destiny. Secondly, those same Jews can no longer regard themselves as a scattered and exiled nation looking toward the ultimate return of all Jews to Palestine. Thirdly, they cannot constitute merely a religious society, for the simple reason that there can no longer be any one uniform system of religious beliefs and practices which would be acceptable to all Jews.

The only alternative is for Jews to constitute themselves into an international people, with Palestine as the home for that segment of the Jewish people which will be in a position to resume national life, rooted in its own historical soil. So long as Jews maintain their group identity, that which differentiated them in the past from their surroundings, namely, a “religious civilization,” will continue to differentiate them in the future. That conception, we believe, is far more in accord with actuality than other terms by which the element common to all Jews is described, such as “religion,” whether revealed or historically evolved, or “secular nationhood,” which is entirely analogous to the nationhood of other peoples that are completely identified with specific territories.

Those Jews who cannot, or will not, go to Palestine, and who want their Jewish heritage to be fruitful of good to themselves and to the non-Jewish nation of which they form a part, have to re-interpret their tradition and to replenish its stock of values. For only by doing so can they learn to meet modern life with all its new and complex needs. What renders them complex, and at the same time inescapable, is the fact that in the very process of living as a Jew, the individual must learn how he might best contribute to the national culture of the nation of which he is a citizen.

Moreover, Jews in the diaspora must create anew the social structure of communal existence. This is a problem beset by great difficulties, because Jews have never been thrown entirely upon their own free will to maintain their group life. The outward pressure of the state was always brought to bear upon them. In the past, the purpose of the state to squeeze the maximum possible revenue out of the Jews forced them to organize themselves into an autonomous community. In modern times, in Western and Central Europe, the policy of the West European states to encourage religious affiliation on the part of its citizens forced the Jews to organize themselves into communities. With the complete separation of church from state, Jews have to want, of their own free will and accord, to affiliate with one another. That is by no means easy. That calls for a most satisfying type of organization and integration of all cultural and social activities.

Accordingly, the Reconstructionist movement makes it a point to stress that the task of organizing Jewish life on voluntaristic and democratic lines is as vital and imperative as is the task of putting new life and meaning into the inherited tradition. Reconstructionism would have the community councils, the community centers, synagogue defense organizations, social service agencies as well as congregations and unions of congregations, all help the Jew get and make the most out of his heritage. Only an organized Jewish community with ultimate authority and responsibility for all collective Jewish action vested in the rank-and-file, can confer on the individual Jew the sense of status and self-respect that would enable him to adjust himself to his environment.

_____________

 

Compound, Not Mixture

Owing to the purpose of Reconstruction to enrich Jewish life by intensifying it, its critics denounce it as a species of ghettoism. In the words of Dr. Grossman, “They (Reconstructionists) can make peace with the idea that they are Americans and Jews and proceed to live a complete American and a complete Jewish life on two separate planes.” He set this up as an alternative to what he himself apparently would advocate, namely, the integration of “certain elements of the Jewish cultural heritage in a unitary design for American living.” This alternative he describes as “a Jewish cultural variant of Americanism.” He grants that he has no clear conception of the form which such a variant would have to take. This, together with his admission that he objects less to the program than to the philosophy of Reconstructionism, leads one to suspect that what he envisages is really a variant of Reconstructionism.

The fact is that living in two civilizations does not at all mean dividing our time between them. It means compounding the two civilizations in such a way as to be able to live in both of them simultaneously. Actually, Jews are not the only people who try to live in two civilizations. Dr. Grossman correctly states that by the same token as Reconstructionism regards Judaism as a civilization, it also regards Christianity, Hinduism and Mohammedanism, as civilizations. An American way of life, in the strict sense of the term, is lived only by the American Indian. When the Europeans brought Christianity to this country, they brought a civilization which they have since been synthesizing with those elements of American national life that are the products of the new American physical environment and the historical events that have created the American people.

One may question the extent to which Protestantism may be regarded as a civilization, since it has broken with the visible church, and has given up the distinctive Latin culture of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholicism represents a far more affirmative and aggressive type of civilization. Yet no one would suggest that being an American Catholic means living on two different planes, or being a Catholic part of the time and an American the rest of the time. Nor may the right of Catholics to live their Catholic civilization simultaneously with the American be questioned without impugning the fundamentals of American democracy.

It is a well-known fact that the Puritans endeavored to establish in America a way of life based on Biblical law. One does not regard the Puritan community on that account as segregationist and unintegrated in the American pattern of life. Why then should the efforts of Jews to live by Biblical law as embodied in Jewish civilization be an evidence of segregationism? If it is legitimate for the Irish to parade on St. Patrick’s day in glorification of the patron saint of a non-American nation, why would it be less legitimate for Jews to carry the sefer torah in procession through the streets on Simhat Torah? On Palm Sunday, the streets are thronged with Christians bearing palm branches, but on Sukkot, Jews, if they must carry a lulav through the streets usually wrap it in paper to conceal its identity, because they assume that any flaunting of a distinctively Jewish culture trait will expose them to the charge of ghettoism. Why is it American to go about on All-Saints Eve in masquerade, and an exotic practice to do the same on Purim? Why should Jews consider it a good American practice for Christians to display Christmas trees and sing Christmas carols in public, while feeling too inhibited to display the Hanukkah lights publicly and to sing Hebrew hymns in the streets when they are lighted?

The logic of Dr. Grossman’s assumption that, to live Judaism in America as a religious civilization, means segregation and an incomplete integration in American life, involves the acceptance by Jews of an inferior status for Jewish religion to that of any other religion in America, since all of them are aspects of civilizations which, with the exception of the religions of American Indians, are not confined to American soil. The acceptance of such an inferior status is a symptom of that very pathological condition from which the spirit of the Jew in America suffers and which Reconstructionism endeavors to cure.

Dr. Grossman also gives Christianity an advantage over Judaism by affirming that Christianity is universal and Judaism, as Reconstructionism conceives it, national. He says: “To a Christian, loyalty to a universal human society supplements loyalty to his native land; to the Reconstructionist, loyalty to another particular nation supplements the Jew’s loyalty to his native land.” This distinction, however, is by no means valid. Christianity is not loyalty to a universal human society; it is loyalty to a particular church. It means loyalty to Christendom, which is merely a larger nation than any of the territorial nations. Christendom is not coextensive with mankind. The only way in which it could be universal would be by way of imperialism, and surely that is no claim to ethical superiority.

_____________

 

The Place of Palestine

The most challenging element in Reconstructionism is, no doubt, its insistence upon the fact that both the culture and the religion of Judaism are bound to wither away unless they have rootage in the Jewish nationhood of a thriving Palestinian Jewry. Under the most favorable circumstances it is impossible for a non-territorial minority to retain its civilization indefinitely, without continual replenishment from some selfsustaining fountain of cultural creativity. For Jews, as they are constituted today with their infinitely divergent interests and beliefs, a Jewish nation in-Palestine is indispensable if they are to have something to live for, culturally and religiously, as Jews.

The nationhood which Reconstructionism would have Jews in the diaspora foster is to have its habitat nowhere but in Palestine. Moreover, it would have them foster it not as a political fact, but as a source of cultural and ethical and religious values for themselves. Indeed, that is the way it would want to see all nations live their nationhood. That is the only way nations will ever come to surrender their absolute sovereignty and merge into a universal commonwealth of nations.

Dr. Grossman accuses Reconstructionists of wishful thinking in their conception of nationhood, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. He claims that they base their conception “not on the way nations actually function, but on the way it is wished they should function.” But any formulation of the ideal type of a society involves a question of desirability. Our concept of the desirable is inevitably influenced by our desire. Dr. Grossman in holding up the merger of nations as our ideal is no less influenced by his desires.

Surely of the two approaches, ours seems by far the more realistic, for Dr. Grossman disregards the fact that separate nations do exist. It is his opinion that to reckon with national civilizations is to perpetuate a national transient lag, because it denies the possibility of one civilization. But “the division of mankind into nations has produced lasting accumulations of culture, and the individual who is a member of a nation inherits its culture as surely as he gets the color of his eyes from his parents. No generation can begin the process of human development de novo. It must take over the social heritage which is transmitted to it by its forebears. Consequently, as far as we can reasonably prognosticate, civilization in the concrete will consist of many civilizations. Though that manifoldness complicate matters, it is inevitable. . . .“ (Judaism as a Civilization, pp. 245-246).

Since, then, nations will continue to exist within any foreseeable time, there is no reason why Jews should liquidate their nationhood. Their nationhood elicited from them those universal values which have enriched human civilization. There is no reason why Jews should surrender all aspirations for the survival of their nationhood in Palestine at this time, when every other people is doing its utmost to assert its right to life and a place in the sun. Reconstructionism claims an equal right for the Jewish people to survive as for any other people. It wants Jews to value their Judaism, as all other peoples value their respective civilizations.

In the diaspora, Jews are bound to identify themselves spiritually with the nations in which they live. Judaism, to evoke American Jews’ loyalty, must not only be compatible with, but also corroborative of, their loyalty to America. Only a Judaism calculated to bring out all that is best in human nature and guide Jews in applying it to all their human interests can command sufficient loyalty to insure its survival and advancement. America is a cultural melting pot, and cultural differences that are not associated with universal human values and felt as indispensable to their realization tend in the course of time to vanish. But it is generally recognized that all men need to be rooted in a religious tradition, and that it is to the various historic religions, older than America itself, that the American nation looks for the strengthening of the national morale. It looks to Jewish religion, and rightly so, to accomplish this for its Jewish citizens. That expectation is an unequalled opportunity for Jews not only to retain their group life in this country, but to achieve a religious orientation that might prove of great value to the religiously starved mankind of our day.

For, without doubt, Judaism is inherently a religious civilization. The most significant contributions of the Jewish people to human civilization generally have been in the area of ethical religion. But, owing undoubtedly to the exiles, dispersions and oppressions of Jews, Jewish religion has not been able to develop fully all of its universal ethical implications. It has to be reconstructed in order to enable it to make its maximum contribution to human civilization, by demonstrating the true role of religion in human life.

Religion should be a unifying influence. It should make for human brotherhood. Actually, it has proved a divisive force. That religion should unite all men has been articulated in the religious tradition of Judaism and of those religions that stem from it. But the reiteration of the doctrine of human brotherhood by all the major religions of the world has failed to result in brotherhood, because each has claimed for itself possession of the exclusive means for achieving a united mankind, redeemed from violence and strife.

By recognizing that the right of all civilizations to exist is inherent, and that the function of religion is to enable them to bring to realization the best human qualities of their adherents for the enhancement of the life of all mankind, Reconstructionism points the way to enabling religion really to function as a unifying influence. To be sure, before it can so function the various religions must renounce their exaggerated pretensions to being the sole possessors of the key to human salvation. Each must recognize and acknowledge that the others are equally ways of salvation for their adherents, that each in its particular way seeks to embody ideals that are of universal validity but can best be realized for each group in relation to the culture traits and social institutions resulting from its own collective experience. For the Jews, this conception involves the abandonment of the idea of Israel as God’s chosen people, to whom alone He revealed the true way of life in the Torah. Just as there can be no peace among nations as long as each insists on absolute sovereignty, so there can be no peace among religions as long as each insists on the exclusive possession of absolute revealed truth.

By abandoning the belief in the supernatural or miraculous revelation of the Torah to Israel and Israel alone, and by substituting the conception of Jewish religion as the soul of the Jewish civilization, its organizing and directing principle, Reconstructionism reckons with the challenge of modern nationalism and modem naturalism in a way compatible with the survival and growth of Judaism. In the dimension of peoplehood, it stresses the indispensable role of Palestine; in the dimension of civilization, it stresses national culture rather than statehood as that which should unite a people into a societal entity; in the realm of religion it stresses the universal human and ethical values which unite Jews with the rest of mankind.

In keeping with its own principle of unity in diversity, Reconstructionism does not claim to be the only true method of salvation for all American Jews. It merely enunciates a philosophy and a program for those who do not find any of the existing versions of Judaism intellectually or spiritually satisfying, but who nevertheless want to live integrated and wholesome lives as Jews and as Americans. Whatever truth there is to Reconstructionism will undoubtedly have a fructifying influence on the other versions of Judaism.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.