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Cutting Edge Judaism

Judaism on the Cutting Edge

Judaism on the Cutting Edge

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D.

The only surprise about my decision to become a rabbi was my choice of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Everything about my activities and commitments throughout my life made this seem logical to the people who knew and loved me—except that I had been raised in another movement. For me, however, I was either going to RRC or choosing a different career. I had a strong intuition then, now proven many times over, that within the Reconstructionist movement I would not only receive outstanding rabbinical training, but would be both pushed and supported to be the best person I could be. I also accurately sensed that I would find an extended community of committed people engaged in meaningful conversations who worked continuously to translate them into action.

My own experience embodies the essence of a Reconstructionist approach: fostering individual growth, mediated by committed engagement with Jewish communities both past and present. It reflects the Reconstructionist movement’s commitment to both celebrating the richness of Jewish history and ensuring a vital Jewish future by honing a cutting edge. I write as a trail blazer—the first woman rabbi to head a seminary and movement, an “out” lesbian, partnered with a passionate Jew by choice. I am the grateful beneficiary of the Reconstructionist movement’s commitment to expanding the boundaries of the Jewish community and the nature of its leadership without lowering standards. I am deeply honored by the opportunity to work with movement members as well as our allies in the wider Jewish world to continue this essential, intentional work.

The Reconstructionist movement's fearless innovation and pragmatic spirit laid the groundwork for significant changes in North American Jewish life. In our 90-year history, Reconstructionist contributions include:

  • Giving modern Jews the expansive vocabulary of “peoplehood” to speak about our Judaism, freeing us from such incomplete descriptions as “religion,” “ethnicity” and “nationality";
  • Insisting that Jewish belonging connects us with other Jews even when we differ in belief or practice;
  • Integrating democratic practice into religious and communal structures;
  • In a world of radical individualism, promoting with non-Orthodox and post-halakhic modes of communal decision-making.
  • Forging the way for true egalitarianism in Jewish life, from bat mitzvah (1922), counting women in minyan (1950), recognition of patrilineal descent (1968), and cultivating women’s leadership as rabbis (1968);
  • Pioneering non-supernatural religious thinking that helps Jews harmonize science and religion, and contributes to process theology and feminist theology;
  • Penning innovative and influential religious texts, including the first creative haggadah in North America (1942), two sets of siddurim widely emulated by other movements (beginning in 1945 and 1994), and the award-winning website Ritualwell.org;
  • Grappling with the role of Jewish particularism in a globalized world, while championing a Judaism that repudiates chauvinism and pursues universal justice;
  • Welcoming non-Jews who are committed to a Jewish future into our communities;
  • Demonstrating deep commitment to Israel’s Jewish and democratic future while accommodating diverse viewpoints about the best way to bring that future about;
  • Welcoming openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews as members and leaders of our communities; and
  • Exploring a variety of communal structures adapted to promote engaged Jewish living in the new conditions of 21st-century society. 

There is a tremendous need today for a Reconstructionist approach to innovation, and ample space for that approach to continue to inspire and lead the larger Jewish community. The new cutting edge builds on the core commitments that drove those influential Reconstructionist innovations that are now taken for granted.

At the heart of the Reconstructionist concept of Judaism as a “civilization” is an embrace of diversity. Reconstructionism recognizes there are multiple ways to be Jewish, including but not limited to religion. This approach affirms cultural and secular expressions of Jewishness that may never find a comfortable home in a synagogue, even as it seeks to draw from the power and richness of Jewish religion to inform the entirety of Jewish living. As the North American Jewish community increasingly moves toward new and uncharted models of Jewish life, leaders and lay people alike must recognize that Judaism and Jewishness look different for each person and emerge from different sources. We are all, to a certain extent, “Jews by choice” in an open society. When we foster a welcoming Jewish community that is diverse in expression and approach, we increase the possibility that members of the next generation will choose to be Jewish even while we are all intensely exposed to other options.

As both fundamentalism and secularism rise simultaneously in our society, Reconstructionism challenges both extremes. Modelling a progressive religious approach that is inclusive and non-authoritarian, Reconstructionism provides a path that melds our historical commitments to democracy and pluralism with an activist approach to Jewish living. We embrace Jewish particularism. Our commitment to the ideal of minyan, tending to the needs of community beyond individual desire, stands in counterpoint to emerging cultural norms of radical universalism and autonomy. Yet in our abiding commitment to tikkun olam and multifaith work, we are resolutely engaged with the wider world.

Perhaps most importantly, the Reconstructionist approach embodies an intentional optimism amid this period of intense anxiety. Understanding the ongoing evolution of all things, including the Jewish community, we accept that change is inevitable. Rather than despairing about change, we take steps to harness it, both to improve ourselves and to repair a broken world. We foster connections with other peoples out of the belief that we are better Jews when we deepen our shared humanity. We believe that the North American Jewish community—wealthier and enjoying greater freedom than any other Jewish community during any other period of our history—can work together to create a vital Jewish future in the 21st century.

The Reconstructionist movement has consistently been small, in spite of and perhaps even because of our outsized influence. We have insisted that every generation is entitled and even obligated to reconstruct Judaism to ensure its relevance. This stance has felt like a rewarding challenge to some, and a demanding or confusing burden to many others. The Reconstructionist innovations listed above are now widely adopted, but they were initially received as controversial and disruptive. For the organizations sponsoring Reconstructionist thought and programming, being on the “cutting edge” has meant generating new ideas on a shoe-string budget, encountering fierce criticism at their introduction, and receiving inadequate recognition once those ideas become mainstream. Yet our principled and affirmative approach, and the extraordinary people who are drawn to it, demonstrate how Jewish life and the Jewish people can flourish in an open society.

Mordecai Kaplan taught that preserving the past does not itself justify the continuation of the Jewish people and Jewish civilization. To remain vital, Jewish communities must invite and nurture their members living their complex lives, helping them to find Judaism a source of meaning, support and inspiration. Our challenge today: to create and refine the 21st-century Jewish storehouse, articulating Jewish values and then moving to responsive practice. We pursue this work in conversation with Jewish communities and authorities of the past; with present-day Jewish communities in North America, Israel and around the world; with fellow travelers committed to progressive religious and humanist values. We draw deeply from the rich and varied legacies of Jewish teachings and traditions, to appreciate them for their own sake and with an eye toward the future. We hone cutting edges not for the sake of radicalism or novelty, but for the promise of engaging a new generation in the holy work of furthering the millennia-old enterprise of Jewish life.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D.
The first woman rabbi to head a Jewish congregational union and lead a Jewish seminary, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., emphasizes Reconstructionist Judaism’s distinctive path toward meaning and connection. Rabbi Waxman graduated cum laude from Columbia College, Columbia University, where she was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. She received rabbinical ordination and a Master of Arts in Hebrew letters from RRC in 1999. She studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as both an undergraduate and graduate student, and received a Horace W. Goldsmith Fellowship to support her graduate work. She earned a Ph.D. in American Jewish history from Temple University in May 2010; her dissertation was titled “Faith and Ethnicity in American Judaism: Reconstructionism as Ideology and Institution, 1935–1959.” In addition to her rabbinical and academic credentials, Rabbi Waxman brings significant expertise in strategic planning to her post. Along with a team of Reconstructionist movement leaders, she led the development of the first strategic plan for both the College and the movement as a combined organization. In her previous role as vice president for governance, Rabbi Waxman helped to set mandates and evaluate the impact of the board of governors’ 13 committees—and was key in the successful integration of the rabbinical college and the congregational union in June 2012. In past positions for the movement, Rabbi Waxman won support from leading funders such as the Kresge Foundation, Wexner Foundation and Cummings Foundation. She also led RRC’s academic accreditation work. Rabbi Waxman has been on the faculty of RRC since 2002, teaching courses on Reconstructionist Judaism and practical rabbinics.