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PEARL: Providing Education and Resources for Leadership
For Part One see:
Reconstructionism and Spiritual Life II
“A Conversation About Spirituality”
Rabbi Shawn Zevit, Rabbi Richard Hirsh,
and Rabbi Rachel Gartner
May 4, 2011-8:00 p.m.-9:15 p.m.
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation
Transformative Judaism for the 21st Century
101 Greenwood Avenue
Beit Devora, Suite 430
Jenkintown, PA 19046
215.885.5601 / fax: 215.885.5603
An Opening Prayer
c- Rabbi Shawn Zevit, May 2011
We begin our holy work
In space and time
This moment, this Eternality.
Open our hearts, Dear G~d
Open our eyes, our mind
To be present to this process
Of building sacred community
Be the strength and resilience
Energy, creativity, and wisdom
Compassion, love, and confidence
In being and becoming
In leadership and service
For all of us who share
This wonder-filled exploration
Called Life.
Jewish Tradition and Spiritual Seeking
Rabbi Richard Hirsh
Reconstructionist Judaism is respectful of traditional Jewish observances but also
open to new interpretations and forms of religious expression. As Rabbi Mordecai
M. Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionism, taught, tradition has "a
vote, but not a veto.” Reconstructionists share a commitment to making Judaism
their own by finding in it joy, meaning, and ideas they can believe. We continue to
turn to Jewish law and tradition for guidance, if not always for governance. We
recognize that in the contemporary world, individuals and communities make their
own choices with regard to religious practice and ritual observance.
We live in an age of spiritual seeking, a time in which the search for transcendent
values and deeper meanings invites many of us back to our own religious
traditions, to rediscover the rich insights of those who came before us on the
spiritual journey. Reconstructionist Judaism has always been open to new
approaches to thinking about God, to alternative ways of experiencing the Divine
in our lives, and to honest wrestling with the inherited insights of our ancestors.
Exploring Judaism - Staub and Alpert
Living as a Reconstructionist, p. 79
Recent studies suggest that there are different “spiritual
types”…Some people find holiness in analysis and study. Some
experience God most readily in social justice or interpersonal
relationships. Others find transcendence in observing the
natural world or experiencing the creative process. There is
even a spiritual type who best connects to God and religious
life- remaining true to God by smashing the idols of religious
hypocrisy… No individual is purely one of these “types,” but
each of us has greater propensities in some directions than
others. Viewing Judaism as a religious civilization that
encompasses all these paths, Reconstructionists affirm the
validity of each of them and seek to encourage one another
as we each find our own way.
Belonging to a Democratic Jewish Community in a Post-Halakhic Age
If halakha is defined as the Jewish process of celebrating, creating and transmitting tradition,
Reconstructionist Jewish communities would certainly fit within the framework of halakha.
But if halakha has the meaning of a rigid body of law, changeable only under very rarefied circumstances,
most Jewish people, including Reconstructionists, no longer accept its binding authority. While
Reconstructionists are lovers of tradition and support community celebration of the Jewish sacred year
and life-cycle events, we also believe that the face of the Jewish community is changing and that
individuals have the right to adapt Jewish tradition to new circumstances.
Reconstructionist communities challenge Jews to participate fully in our shared Jewish civilization. From
building a sukkah to appreciating Jewish music, from caring for the Jewish young and old to leading Torah
study - community members should experience Jewish civilization in our day as fully as they experience
secular civilization.
Judaism will continue to be a dynamic civilization only if we choose to participate, create and transmit
vitality to future generations. Reconstructionist rabbis work in partnership with committed lay people to
formulate guidelines that serve as Jewish touchstones for our times. These guidelines are presented and
democratically considered in Reconstructionist communities as standards for enhancing the Jewish life of
the individual and the community rather than as binding laws.
I. From Conception to Perception
(Commentary R. Richard Hirsh)
A. Rabbi Larry Kushner: “Spirituality is a dimension of living where we are aware of
God’s presence.” (Eyes Remade for Wonder, p. 153) “Reverence is the only option.”
B. Rabbi Art Green: “The proper question is, ‘Do you consider yourself a religious
person? How do you express that religiosity? What is the relationship between
your own spiritual life and the symbols of Judaism? In what sense do you use the
word God or its Hebrew equivalent in your religious life?” (Art Green, symposium
in Commentary August 1996, p. 42)
COMMENTARY, Richard Hirsh: What I want to introduce here is “the place from
which we look”– i.e., religion as a human project, not a divine revelation; not a
“different way of being” but a “different way of looking.” So, much of theology
presumes to tell us something about God; and much of “spirituality” often foregoes
even asking any questions about God [and simply assumes “God” too easily]. “A
Reconstructionist approach to spirituality” could start from an interior assessment
of what may be just below the surface, and a naming of that through Jewish
symbols and language. Ultimately, “reverence” is a posture, an attitude, an
assumption – encompassing a sense of wonder, appreciation, newness, and
II. Spiritual Practice as a Means of Cultivating a
Perceptual Framework
A. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan: The pragmatic method is concerned with the effect the
words of the writer had on the inner life of the people or the way what he said
worked…The pragmatic method…, seeks to identify the direction which the
thought first formulated by the writer has taken. It tries to get not at the static
truth but at the dynamic truth. It is this method alone which is of actual aid in the
religious life of a people or a group.
B. Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The Biblical words about the genesis of heaven and
earth are not words of information but words of appreciation. The story of
creation is not a description of how the world came into being, but a song about
the glory of the world’s having come into being. ‘And God saw that it was good.’
This is the challenge: to reconcile God’s view with our experience. The demand, as
understood in Biblical religion, is to be alert and open to what is happening. What
is, what comes about. Every moment a new arrival, a new bestowal. How to
welcome the moment? How to respond to the marvel? The cardinal sin is our
failure to sense the grandeur of the moment, the marvel and mystery of being, the
possibility of quiet exultation.” (What Is Man?)
II. Spiritual Practice as a Means of Cultivating a Perceptual
Framework (R. Rachel Gartner commentary)
COMMENTARY, on Kaplan, R. Rachel Gartner:
“effect the words of the writer had on the inner life of the people”
Pragmatic approach to spirituality: Spiritual practice is about cultivating an everevolving perceptual framework (or perspective) for experiencing and interpreting
what happens in our individual lives as part of what happens in Life as such. A
framework which, over time, allows us to weave a given experience into it, see
how a given experience fits into it or sometimes even re- shapes the framework or
experience and our understanding of Life. The question of whether or not that
framework reflects an objective reality about Life is interesting to me on some
level, but is not really in the realm of perception, rather it returns us to the realm
of conception. This realm and its questions are not primarily what I am compelled
to investigate as a religious practitioner and as a rabbi. However, whether or not
that perceptual framework is empowering, comforting, ennobling is a pragmatic
concern, and one that interests me profoundly both in my life and in my rabbinate.
II. Spiritual Practice as a Means of Cultivating a Perceptual
Framework (R. Rachel Gartner commentary- cont’d)
• “the direction which the thought first formulated has taken,” “ the dynamic truth”
To my mind, truths of the human/trans-human, natural/trans-natural experience are not
exactly dynamic but the way we experience these truths is. Truths like: things come and go;
there is pain; there is resilience; and so forth are in my mind in some essential way not
dynamic, but the way we experience and interpret them is dynamic and the way they show
up in our lives and communities is dynamic.
• “religious life of a people or group”
This cultivation can be a communal seeking and cultivation of an empowering, comforting,
ennobling perceptual framework, or an individual one. In my work, I am most interested in
the intersection of the two. The two intersect in my work primarily through in-depth deeply
personal engagement with liturgy/text either in Spiritual Direction or in group meditation and
sharing sessions. The way I practice Spiritual Direction is not at all about teaching concepts,
rather it’s about helping people develop perceptual frameworks, informed, when
appropriate, by Jewish teachings and texts. I engage texts when they feel to me like they
connect with the emerging perceptual framework of the directee and might help deepen or
take that perceptual framework to a new place.
One way I do this is by creating contexts in which life and Jewish text can intimately mix,
mingle and ultimately (hopefully) morph; so that one’s life illuminates the meaning of the
text, and the text can come to illuminate the meaning(s) of one’s life/Life.
Religious life of the group is enhanced through the cherubim model: it comes out in chevurta
and other larger groups – in the conversations and what passes in between participants.
II. Spiritual Practice as a Means of Cultivating a Perceptual
Framework (Commentary on Heschel, R. Rachel Gartner)
Here, Heschel interprets the biblical account of genesis of
heaven and earth not as a factual account that fits into a neat
conceptual framework of how the world was made. Rather,
he interprets the biblical account of heaven and earth as
(a) being reflective of “the thought first formulated in the
writer” and,
(b) meant to induce in the listener “the effect on the inner life
of the listener” a specific perceptual framework; in this case a
perceptual framework of appreciation, newness, welcoming,
sensing of grandeur, marveling at mystery, quiet exultation.
III. From Conception to Perception: Ways of Knowing
(Commentary Rabbi Richard Hirsh)
• Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan: “God must not merely be held as an
idea; He (sic) must be felt as a presence if we want not only to
know about God but to know God...There is a difference
between knowing God philosophically in His manifestations
and experiencing Him religiously in worship.” (Mordecai
Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion,
chapter “God Felt as a Presence,” p. 244, 249)
• COMMENTARY, RH: 1) Kaplan & Reconstructionism do not
only know “the god idea” or talk about God only in an
academic, analytical or intellectual manner. The religious
quest is to experience something that places our personaltemporal lifespan into a larger context.
III. From Conception to Perception: Ways of Knowing
(Commentary Rabbi Richard Hirsh, cont’d)
• B. Rita Nakashima Brock: “Heart knowledge, the deepest and
fullest knowing… involves a union of body, spirit, reason, and
passion. [What we get from our hearts is true, valid
information.] For we know best by heart.” (Journeys by Heart)
• COMMENTARY, RG: Perceptual frameworks are not
constructed through information, argumentation, scientific
facts, or even religious dogmas. Rather, they are built on
intuition, unitive experiences, feelings, and ultimately what,
borrowing from theologian Rita Nakashima Brock, I call “heart
IV. Cultivating Perception: The Meeting Place between
Personal Experience & Jewish Expression
• Kaplan: When we worship in public we know
our life is part of a larger life, a wave of an
ocean of being – the first-hand experience of
that larger life which is God.
(KOL HANESHAMAH: Shabbat Vehagim p. 57)
V. Separation & Connection
(Commentary Rabbi Richard Hirsh)
• A. Marcia Falk: “I would describe my own experience
of the divine as an awareness, or a sensing, of the
dynamic, alive, and unifying wholeness within
creation—a wholeness that subsumes and contains
and embraces me, a wholeness greater than the sum
of its parts”
(Marcia Falk The Book of Blessings, p. 419)
V. Separation & Connection
(Commentary Rabbi Richard Hirsh, cont’d)
• B. “Danny Matt: once explained [the relationship of the World of
Separation and the World of Unity] this way: we have a word for leaf, twig,
branch, trunk, roots. The words make it easier for us to categorize and
comprehend reality. But we must not think that just because we have
words for all the parts of a tree that a tree really has all those parts. The
leaf does not know, for instance, when it stops being a leaf and becomes a
twig. And the trunk is not aware that it has stopped being a trunk and has
become the roots. Indeed, the roots do not know when they stop being
roots and become soil, nor the soil moisture, nor the moisture the
atmosphere, nor the atmosphere the sunlight. All our names are arbitrarily
superimposed on what is, in truth, the seamless unity of all being. And that
is when the World of Separation gives way to the World of Unity. It lasts for
only a moment, the twinkling of an eye. Then it's gone and we're bounced
back into this World of Separation." (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Kabbalah:
A Love Story)
V. Separation & Connection
(Commentary Rabbi Richard Hirsh, cont’d)
• COMMENTARY, RH: What I want to stress here is the
fundamental decision we are challenged to make -whether life is primarily defined by polarities,
opposites, distance, dissonance – or whether it is
primarily defined by unity, contact, the “one” versus
the “two.” Are we “apart from” or “a part of”? This
too is primarily an act of perception and position and
decision – but one that conveys an investment/faith
in the ultimate nature of things.
Personal Spiritual Connection
“Throughout my life, I had searched for a spirituality that felt right for me. I had
belonged to a number of synagogues and read many books, but never found a
community or a philosophy with which I could identify. But during my first Shabbat
service at Kehillath Israel, I had a sense that I had finally found a 'home.' A class
called 'God and Spiritually - a Reconstructionist Approach' helped me affirm
intellectually all the positive feelings I experienced on my first visit to the
synagogue. During the class I realized that the entire community was helping me
validate my own intuitive, spiritual perceptions. I am very grateful that Kehillath
Israel has turned out be a place that nurtures my spirituality through experience
and education.” - Member, Kehillath Israel, Pacific Palisades, California
"For me there is no separation between spirituality and living. Spirituality is at the
core of Life .“
-Debbie Freidman, z”l, Lilith Magazine 1988
Further Resources
Reconstructionism Today Articles: Values
Who Is A Reconstructionist Jew?:
Reconstructionism and Prayer:
Audio Programs:
FAQ's on Reconstructionist Approaches to Jewish ideas and Practices
How To Successfully Integrate and Use Reconstructionism in Synagogue Processes
”What Is Reconstructionism, Anyway?”
Further Resources
(Omer Series available at
Omer Project: "A House of Prayer for All Peoples": Diversity in Growing Sacred Community
Omer Project: Spiritual direction : "Growing God-ward"
Omer Project: Varieties of Spiritual practice
Omer Project: Liturgy and Prayer
Omer Project: Growing Self and Community through Creativity and the Arts
Omer Project: Tikkun L'eyl Shavuot: The Many Paths to Revelation of Torah
Omer Project: Growing Spirituality in Education: Learning Across the Lifecycle
Spirituality and Social Justice
Re-inventing Synagogue Life and Prayer