Reconstructionist Chutzpah: A Spirit of Provocation
Rabbi Josh Bolton (Jewish Renaissance Project, Penn Hillel)
Chabad shluchim, Beat poets, stoner Kabbalah artists, Walt Whitman, Rebbe Nachman, Mizrahi social activists: each of these occupy a place in my constellation of influences, waning and waxing in potency. I revere them and I synthesize many of their characteristics and techniques in my work.
Mordecai Kaplan is not on this list, nor are other “Reconstructionist” spiritual leaders. So am I a Reconstructionist rabbi? What does it mean to be Reconstructionist?
I want to believe there is a special chutzpah in the heart of the Reconstructionist project – a word I’m using to encompass both its approach to Torah and its communities. A chutzpah and a spirit of provocation. A dissatisfaction and an agitation toward change.
It’s a chutzpah emerging from a very particular historical context.
We live, as our teacher Rabbi Richard Hirsh thinks of it, in mishnaic times. As in the time of ferment after the destruction of the Second Temple, a frankly incomprehensible national trauma (the Shoah) shook the earth of Jewish civilization. Everything from identity to praxis was in flux, and only generations later was the newly settled consensus recorded in the Mishnah. Now too, the codes and the boundaries and the rules and the normative are all up for discussion. This era’s future Mishnah is still being written.
Or, in those other words we’ve come to recite: we live in an evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people – with an emphasis on the evolving part.
As is the case with modernity (perhaps itself a Jewish trauma), there have been a variety of responses to this period of Jewish reshaping. There are Jews who deny everything and just keep rolling with the answers as they’ve always been. Some are joyous and faithful and wait it out – they’re open to a future in which Judaism looks different, but they do nothing in particular to hasten its advent.
Reconstructionism is another possible response to these mishnaic times. It’s a response that’s unafraid to position itself on the edge of the evolutionary arc. It strives to provoke the jumps and “drifts” of the evolutionary process. In order to do that, Reconstructionists (and perhaps mostly Reconstructionist rabbis) have to be hanging out in the dark places and in the margins and in the laboratories where changes to Jewishness are taking place right now.
And of course Reconstructionists are not satisfied to let this experimentation unfold by happenstance. We carry a particular vision of justice, pluralism, progressivism, democracy, etc., and we hope to influence the evolutionary process by selective cultivation, shaping a future Judaism that reflects these values in philosophy, myth, and ritual.
By the time I finally get to campus after having inherited all this, by the time I finally sit down to coffee with students of this millennial generation, it turns out that the Reconstructionist response to our contemporary Jewish moment is nuanced and chutzpadik enough to validate the complexity of Jewish identity found among young Jews in the early 21st century.
College-age Jews (like all late teens), are busy trying to figure out (and also play with) the boundaries of identity, as they explore the contours of the path ahead. In a context where the boundaries themselves are increasingly fuzzy, and where students’ own familial contexts don’t have firm precedents in the past, these issues of identity and choice can be sources of great doubt and distress.
From day one on campus, I have found myself called upon to validate the Jewishness of students whose identities do not fit neatly into the Jewish boxes of the past. I am willing to do so, even when their Jewishness crosses over the borders of the halakhic map in ways that others find transgressive, because 1) I care most about their existential need for rootedness in a world where roots are being ripped up, and 2) because I believe a future halakhah will emerge to reflect the complexities of contemporary Jewish identity. I think it’s already happening.
A lot of students on campus refer to me as the “cool rabbi.” I have reservations about this title, but I’d like to believe that what students mean is that I’m a rabbi who’s willing to be there with them. I’m willing to be in the places where past rabbis (or even past Judaism) wasn’t willing to be. I don’t mean in the bar – though I’m willing to be there too. I mean that I’m willing to be present in the muck and mire of what it means to be a young person in the early 21st century, and I’m willing to be present in the dark shifting places of Jewish identity and feeling where millennials increasingly find themselves.
Students think that’s “cool.” I think that might be Reconstructionist.
But there are several big “buts.”
First, Jewish millennials – especially the so-called “engagement students” I’m lucky to spend most of my time with – are largely post-denominational and post-institutional Jews. They’re simply not interested in the boundaries,camps and denominations of 20th century Jewish life (among their other Jewish disaffections.) And who can blame them? Those structures didn’t make a big impression upon my students as children and teens, so they remain irrelevant to them now in their early 20’s.
Reconstructionism is a part of that denominational landscape, and no matter how cutting edge it may be, it is in tension with an emerging millennial posture that largely eschews the tribal for the universal. Millennials want the wisdom and peoplehood of Judaism. They don’t want an “ism” tucked within another “ism.”
Second, so many students – so many people – are just trying to figure out how to live good lives on this crazy planet. The world millennials are inheriting is fraught in ways it hasn’t been for the past few generations. Optimism is much more difficult to garner. The unknown – whether vocational, spiritual or national – is much more in your face. Students today are in search of wisdom that can best help them make better sense of the world before them. They’re trying to identify a reasonable and inspirational approach to the span of years they’re blessed with upon this earth.
Reconstructionism is an approach to Judaism. It may free Judaism up to be accessed by more folks, but Reconstructionism isn’t itself a source of meaning. Judaism is a source of meaning. And the fact is, most of my students really just want Judaism. I model a Reconstructionist approach through my teaching and community building, but it’s rare that I explicitly name that that approach.
My students’ time is precious and fraught with the business of life. They want meaning. They want Judaism – straight up.
Here’s an example where all these issues converge:
When I manage to battle back the ever-advancing armies of email, I flee from the office (or coffee shop or bar or wherever I am) with a big sign that reads, “FREE ADVICE from Rabbi Josh,” and I take a seat on Locust Walk, Penn’s main pedestrian thoroughfare.
Over the course of four years’ worth of free advice giving, I’ve addressed the spiritual, emotional, familial, academic, and social concerns of hundreds of Penn students – which means I’ve addressed the spiritual, emotional, familial, academic, and social concerns of some of the young men and women who are going to run and manage the world one day. Everyone is intelligent, ambitious, sweet, and broken.
It’s the most challenging and rewarding and essential work I do. I’ve told my boss that if he were to build me a weather-conditioned box and instruct me to sit on the walk giving advice every day – if this were the ONLY thing I did – I would both easily earn my keep, and affect a great many more student lives than I do through all the educational programs I offer over the course of each year.
Every once in a while I’m approached by a Jew – the type of Jewish student like many I know, raised with a mildly positive but lukewarm attitude about being Jewish. They often ask, “What type of rabbi are you?”
From the beginning I’ve said, “I’m a Hillel rabbi.”
By which I mean: “I want to be free from all those old boundaries. I’m not Reconstructionist or Reform or Conservative or Orthodox. I’m not interested in trying to figure out how to make those institutions better or more relevant or more involved in our lives. I’m just interested in Jewish growth – for you.”
I have no agenda that includes the sacred denominational desire: membership.
And this too is an authentic expression of who I am as a Jew. It speaks to Jewish millennials. It’s usually the place from which all my relationships stem and where Jewish learning begins. For me, it’s the approach at the heart of the Hillel project.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
And yet perhaps the act of saying that I’m not a Reconstructionist is, itself, the most Reconstructionist thing I can say.
There are many “Judaisms” on campus. There’s a whole marketplace of Judaisms that students can choose from.
Many students end up being really inspired by a Judaism that sells under the label “Truth.” And that makes some sense. In this world, there’s so much uncertainty, so much unknown, so much at stake. Who can blame a 20 year old for being drawn to the Judaism that says, “folks, this is how it really is, this is where the lines are really drawn, here’s what it all means.”
That type of Judaism was appealing to me too at one point. But today I think it’s just mokhin de-katnut – a restricted consciousness. It’s a Judaism that actually offers too many answers in our world of unending questions. I think it’s a small Judaism, where the black and white of the wardrobe reflects an intellectually untenable philosophical black-and-whiteness, and everyone dresses the same. But it’s well funded, its teachers are sometimes sexy, and it preys on students’ desire for answers.
My Judaism favors the questions instead. It’s a Judaism that places supreme value upon seeking – and is very suspicious of those who have settled their search. It’s a Judaism that you grow closer to through dialog and not through lecture.
It’s a Judaism that’s courageous enough to wake up alongside me me in this post-modern moment. I raise my head, take a look around, and decide that in spite of it all, I am determined to search for meaning – and that the process, not the conclusion, is the source of meaning itself. “Always seek God’s face.” (Psalm 105:4).
I think we’ve got to be compelling, we’ve got to be entertaining, and we’ve got to be provocative – but we’ve got to raise students capable of sitting with this Judaism of questions. We’ve got to fortify students with enough inspiration and validation that they don’t need to go running to answers so quickly.
In the civilizational evolution of the Jewish people, this is a moment of open questions with no certain answers. Let’s invite our students to participate in the mishnaic dialogs happening in our own day. You don’t have to be fluent in the tradition to participate. You don’t have to speak like or look like Jews of the past. The only prerequisite is that you have enough chutzpah to own the Jewish future.
Nota bene: It remains an open question whether I should describe myself as a Reconstructionist rabbi. While a degree from RRC hangs on a wall in my office, I am uncertain whether the chutzpah I've reflected on above (and try to practice on campus) was taught to me by RRC professors or by the Chabad rabbi who played such an important role in my life as a college student. I think Reconstructionism as a philosophy and movement has a lot of potential to inspire and guide me and the work I do. I also think it has a long way to go in order to fulfill that potential. Right now, I identify primarily a Hillel rabbi. Hillel is the emerging "movement" that most provokes me, and is my intellectual home. I welcome Reconstructionism to challenge that, and I remain open to that possibility.