Q&A with Reconstructionist Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Philadelphia, recently made one of his biannual visits to Southern California, which is home to the largest Reconstructionist synagogue in the world, as well as growing congregations from Irvine to Manhattan Beach to San Diego.

Ehrenkrantz, who has been in his post for five years, is in the middle of a $50 million fundraising effort to expand and continue the vision of the RRC, which was founded in 1968 as the first college for a movement that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.

Jewish Journal: What is Reconstructionist Judaism, and how does it differ from other denominations?

Dan Ehrenkrantz: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism start with the idea that Judaism is something that God created, and that God gave [the Torah] to Moses on Mount Sinai, and Moses delivered it to the Jewish people, and ever since, what we’ve been trying to do as Jews is to understand what it was God wants from us. The traditional conception of the way that Judaism began is God needed people to carry out his program, but the program came first and the people were chosen to carry out this program, so we are chosen people. The Jewish people were elected to bring the Torah into the world.

The Reconstructionist Movement understands Judaism to be the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. So here Judaism is understood as a civilization of the Jewish people; Torah is what the Jewish people have created, as well as Talmud and midrash and writings of Jewish life that have gone on till today, so the emphasis is on the Jewish people.

JJ: But what makes a Reconstructionist Jew?

DE: Anybody … who understands himself to be a Reconstructionist Jew, who buys into what that is, or someone who is affiliated with a Reconstructionist congregation. The primacy is not on what you believe, the most important element — if Judaism is ‘believing, behaving, belonging,’ — then belonging is the most important. I can’t answer for a Reconstructionist Jew what they believe or how they behave.

JJ: Do Reconstructionist Jews believe in God?

DE: The thinkers within the movement believe in God. Some people don’t. It’s a question of how central is belief. It’s important within belief to wrestle with God, whatever your belief (in God or not in God) — but is it helping you to be a better person toward one another?
The purpose of Jewish life it to bring us to belief and wholeness, what the founder, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, called salvation. What does that look like?

JJ: It seems like Reconstructionist Jews are very traditional and follow many mitzvot.

DE: A good Reconstructionist Jew will be deeply engaged in traditional Judaism. What their outward behavior may look like will vary. That said, to be deeply engaged is not a question of ‘Do you know everything?’ but are you attached to the Jewish community, to Jewish sources? Do you live your life allowing those elements, the Jewish past and the present Jewish community, to help form our life?

JJ: So if someone wanted to be a Reconstructionist Jew, what would they have to do?

DE: They would have to understand Judaism in a particular way. And be Jewish — someone who has a Jewish mother or father and was raised as a Jew, or converted.

JJ: What unites Reconstructionist Jews?

DE: They are united in being interested and open to questions of Jewish life, they are united in placing community as an extraordinarily high value. Different Reconstructionist congregations will have very different atmosphere in halachic observance, in terms of Hebrew/English mix in the service, but everybody in Reconstructionist congregations will speak in very similar terms about their congregation. It has to do with how the synagogues are run, insisting that members take Judaism and create it for themselves, and the process of doing that brings people closer together. We decide together what Judaism is and that creates a very different communal atmosphere.

JJ: Then what is the role of the rabbi?

DE: The rabbi is the leader. What is leadership? Leadership is the ability to see a vision of the community beyond what the community currently manifests, and then to be able to know the steps that need to be taken in order to reach the next level, and to find the resources within the community. That leadership might look different at a different time and different places. What might be right for the large congregation in Pacific Palisades may not be right for a small town in Colorado.

JJ: About 300 students have graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. What is a student’s course of study?

DE: It’s the only graduate school in the world where you can do a study of Judaism in a chronological fashion. If you imagine that Judaism is the evolving civilization of the Jewish people, then it makes sense to begin studying the beginnings of the Jewish people from the biblical period to contemporary times, studying the history, thought, literature, Talmud and midrash from each of those periods and what the Jewish community was doing and thinking. What record did they produce of their lives in those times?

JJ: It sounds like you’re training Jewish historians.

DE: Not historians exactly, although there is a strong emphasis on Jewish history, it’s true. But to see and understand how Judaism has changed helps you understand what Judaism is, both in the past and the present.

Here’s an example: if you ask a rabbi typically ‘what does Judaism say about capital punishment?’ or ‘hareg v’al yavor,’ they will answer in the same way: ‘Judaism says … ‘

What we learn is that Judaism doesn’t say, Jewish people say. Jewish people say many different things over time. So we could say ‘let’s look [at] what Jews did in Masada, or in Spain, and we see [that] in the time of the Inquisition some Jews, when given the choice to convert or die, chose to convert or pretended to convert. That’s a Jewish answer to that question, and you won’t read it in the Talmud or in Jewish codes. There’s a variety of responses that the Jewish people have given, not all of which are in the Talmud.