A Guide to Jew­ish Prac­tice, Vol­ume 2: Shab­bat and Holidays

David A. Teutsch, ed.
  • Review
By – October 14, 2014

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.

Halakha (Jew­ish law) is not con­sid­ered bind­ing, but is to be tak­en seri­ous­ly as a source and a resource. The move­ment empha­sizes pos­i­tive views toward mod­ernisn, 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 Teustch, a past pres­i­dent of the Recon­struc­tion­ist Rab­bini­cal Col­lege, has writ­ten and edit­ed a guide to Reon­struc­tion­ist the­o­ry and prac­tice. The focus in Vol­ume 2 is on con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing the pro­gres­sive reli­gious, moral, eth­i­cal, and philo­soph­i­cal dimen­sions of Recon­struc­tion­ist Judaism as they apply to Shab­bat and all the major and minor hol­i­days and obser­vances. The read­ing pub­lic is indebt­ed to Rab­bi Teutsch for bing­ing to our atten­tion some very fine think­ing about con­tem­po­rary Shab­bat and hol­i­day the­ol­o­gy, some of which will res­onate across denom­i­na­tion­al lines.

The volumbe 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 hot of Recon­struc­tion­ist rab­bis and oth­er thinkers. Many of these com­men­taries demon­strate con­sid­er­able schol­ar­ship, often offer­ing tren­chant per­son­al vignettes. What is fas­ci­nat­ing is that many of the com­men­ta­tors have very tra­di­tion­al back­grounds and often cite the pos­i­tive impact that their upbring­ing had on them and how much their rit­u­al obser­vance has influ­enced their think­ing and prac­tice. In that same vein, quite often, Hasidic mas­ters and Ortho­dox thinkers are quot­ed to make a point.

The writ­ers are pas­sion­ate in their attempt to make Recon­struc­tion­ist prac­tice palat­able. Their well-writ­ten essays and com­ments strive not just to explain their pro­gres­sive take on Shab­bat and hol­i­day rit­u­als, prayers, and home obser­vances, but also to give an under­pin­ning that is cogent and accept­able with­in their the­o­log­i­cal mind­set. Many of the philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts and sym­bol­isms explored and expli­cat­ed are of inter­est to tra­di­tion­al Jews as well. That being said, there are a num­ber of seri­ous issues that rep­re­sent seri­ous cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance with tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish practice.

The Greeks start­ed the debate between nomos and logos, Divine law vs. man’s rea­son. It is played out here in a num­ber of ways. Since it is often dif­fi­cult to observe Shab­bat on time in the win­ter, a con­ces­sion is made to observe Shab­bat lat­er in the evening. If it is not con­ve­nient because of a Fri­day night foot­ball fame or oth­er com­mit­ment, or if the fam­i­ly is only avail­able togeth­er on a Tues­day night, then that, too is accept­able for a Shab­bat din­ner. Sim­i­lar­ly, since many do not observe the sec­ond day of a hol­i­day, and nei­ther the sho­far nor the lulav are tak­en if the first day is also Sha­bat, the sho­far is sound­ed and the lulav is waved on Shab­bat so that this oppor­tu­ni­ty will not be missed. This may not be uni­ver­sal­ly prac­ticed in all Recon­struc­tion­ist syn­a­gogues, but the lat­i­tude and auton­o­my to do so is part of their theology.

Anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing con­cept pre­sent­ed is the non-halakhic Sab­bath observ­er. One who is a Sab­bath com­mem­o­ra­tor can be flex­i­ble in one’s sub­jec­tive deter­mi­na­tion of how to observe Shab­bat. If hav­ing din­ner with friends in a restau­rant, attend­ing a con­cert, or going to a movie or a muse­um enhances their Sab­bath con­scious­ness then that, too, is accept­able. Through­out the dis­cus­sions about litur­gy, home, and syn­a­gogue obser­vances, there is an acknowl­edge­ment that many in the move­ment are not par­tic­u­lar­ly knowl­edge­able, hence the empha­sis on what is felt to be right and com­fort­able based loose­ly on tra­di­tion­al prac­tices but with a decid­ed­ly pro­gres­sive and lib­er­al reinterpretation.

Each of the writ­ers strives to cap­ture the essence not only of how but the why of Jew­ish tra­di­tion and there are often flash­es of gen­uine bril­liance. Some rab­bis’ prac­tices reflect hol­i­day joy in a humor­ous way. Bak­ing hamen­taschen is the first step in get­ting ready for Passover by using up flour; sweet pota­toes served at the seder are known as the Paschal yam”; there is a Shavuot recipe for Mt. Sinai cheese balls with a pecan on top rep­re­sent­ing two tablets.

Some con­trib­u­tors occa­sion­al­ly make dis­parag­ing remarks about Ortho­doxy and oth­er make egre­gious errors: the asser­tion that it is dif­fi­cult to observe a tra­di­tion­al Shab­bat with its pro­hi­bi­tions and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly expe­ri­ence the joy and plea­sure of Shab­bat is news to those who are hap­pi­ly tra­di­tion­al in their obser­vance, and call­ing slav­ery to rit­u­al prac­tice idol­a­try” is a bit much even for lib­er­al Jews.

Rab­bi Teutsch observed in Vol­ume I 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 books 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 by not a veto” in a post-halakhic world.”

Relat­ed content:

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.

Discussion Questions