A Guide to Jew­ish Prac­tice: Vol­ume 1 — Every­day Living

David A. Teutsch
  • Review
By – January 10, 2012

Recon­struc­tion­ist Judaism, the move­ment found­ed in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry by Morde­cai Kaplan, has no oblig­a­tory state­ment of prin­ci­ples, but rather holds by a con­sen­sus of beliefs. Recon­struc­tion­ists reject the clas­si­cal view of God, don’t believe in divine inter­ven­tion, and believe that the Torah comes from the social and his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of the Jew­ish peo­ple. God is rede­fined as the sum of those pow­ers or process­es that allow mankind to gain self-ful­fill­ment and moral improve­ment. The move­ment is based on a demo­c­ra­t­ic com­mu­ni­ty where the laity, not just the rab­bis, can make deci­sions. The idea that God chose the Jew­ish peo­ple for any pur­pose, in any way, is moral­ly unten­able,” because any­one who has such beliefs implies the supe­ri­or­i­ty of the elect com­mu­ni­ty and the rejec­tion of others.”

Halakha is not con­sid­ered bind­ing, but is to be tak­en seri­ous­ly as a source and a resource. The move­ment empha­sizes pos­i­tive views toward mod­ernism, and has an approach to Jew­ish cus­tom which aims toward com­mu­nal deci­sion mak­ing through a process of edu­ca­tion and dis­til­la­tion of val­ues from tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish and con­tem­po­rary sources. Recon­struc­tion­ist Judaism holds that con­tem­po­rary West­ern sec­u­lar moral­i­ty should be con­sid­ered seri­ous­ly along­side Jew­ish law and theology. 

With this back­ground in mind, David Teutsch, a past pres­i­dent of the Recon­struc­tion­ist Rab­bini­cal Col­lege, has set out to draft a mul­ti-vol­ume guide to Recon­struc­tion­ist prac­tice. The focus in Vol­ume I is on con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing the eth­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal dimen­sions of Judaism with­in an autonomous frame­work. Intend­ed for use by indi­vid­u­als, rab­bis, and com­mu­ni­ties, it address­es such top­ics as dai­ly reli­gious prac­tice, kashrut, tzeda­ka, bioethics, and gen­er­al prin­ci­ples of busi­ness and of fam­i­ly and sex­u­al ethics. In Rab­bi Teutsch’s words, this is “…the most com­pre­hen­sive, non-halakhic guide to dai­ly liv­ing ever published.” 

The vol­ume is designed to mim­ic tra­di­tion­al rab­binic texts. The top of the page con­tains the text, and along the bot­tom of the page are com­ments and obser­va­tions by a host of Recon­struc­tion­ist rab­bis. Many of these com­men­taries demon­strate con­sid­er­able schol­ar­ship and are often more sig­nif­i­cant than the text itself, some­times chal­leng­ing main­stream Recon­struc­tion­ist think­ing and offer­ing tren­chant com­ments of their own. Every sec­tion con­tains an exten­sive read­ing list.

Near the end of the book, Rab­bi Teutsch bemoans the fact that the Recon­struc­tion­ist laity is woe­ful­ly une­d­u­cat­ed. Despite the cen­tral­i­ty of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion to the Jew­ish future, it is a painful fact,” he notes, that most lib­er­al, adult Jews have nei­ther the lev­el of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion or of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence to make well-ground­ed deci­sions. What is more, some of those Jews are proud to make their deci­sions with­out such ground­ing.” Per­haps his book will inspire read­ers to engage more deeply with Jew­ish cul­ture – its texts, rit­u­als, and val­ues – so that Jew­ish tra­di­tion has, in Rab­bi Kaplan’s words, a vote but not a veto” in a post-halakhic world.”

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions