Deborah Waxman

As Reconstructionists, Our Litmus Test is Centering Relationships Over Politics

This Passover, our Jewish community feels more vulnerable and more divided than in recent memory. As most North American Jews—and the people who love us—gather next week to discuss the meaning of freedom and its significance in our lives, many of us are wondering how to share our seder tables – not to mention our synagogues and Jewish communal organizations — across these deep divisions.

The Reconstructionist movement, which I lead, was founded on a commitment to diversity across the Jewish people, one that we forcefully reaffirm today. Like much of the North American Jewish community, Reconstructionist Jews were horrified by Hamas’ brutal terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7 and are deeply pained by rising antisemitism. Within and across our movement, we also have been divided–on analyses of how October 7 came to happen and appropriate paths forward, on implications for Jews in the coalitions of social justice organizations where Jews have long been overrepresented, and more.

Adherence to a particular set of hawkish political views on Israel has long been considered the norm in the Jewish institutional world, even though these views are out of step with the broad diversity of views within our community. Since October 7th, some have even begun questioning the Jewishness of non- or anti-Zionists in our community. And anti-Zionist Jews have become further disengaged from or critical of Jewish communities and organizations that don’t take explicit positions reflecting their beliefs on Zionism and the rights of Palestinians.

Yet in the Reconstructionist movement, which includes people who hold wildly opposing beliefs on these and many other issues, we have overwhelmingly stayed connected and in conversation—in our congregations, at our seminary, among the Reconstructionist rabbinate. We’ve managed to do this by rejecting political litmus tests – instead, we translate our commitment to diversity into centering relationships over politics. This Passover and beyond, this approach may help the broader Jewish community to bring to life a more engaged, less divided community as we look to a future after the current conflict is resolved.

Reconstructionists identify and work on practices to help us to achieve and maintain the people-centered communities we aspire to be. These practices include encounter informed by curiosity, not certainty; the cultivation of capacity for discomfort; the constant nurturing of anavah (humility) and hesed (lovingkindness); the willingness to do teshuvah (repentance) and make tikkun (repair) where necessary; and the seeking of joy. At the foundation of all of this is a commitment to forming abiding relationships across difference based on shared fundamental values, which almost always transcend the headlines of the moment, no matter how infuriating or heartbreaking they are.

We draw from the Shema, the central prayer in Jewish thought, which raises up sacred listening (“Hear, O Israel.”  “Listen up, Israel.”  “Take heed.”  “Pay attention.”). As I have written previously, this means that we prioritize listening over argument and hold the possibility that we will be transformed by the encounter. Recognizing that, like God, we create whole worlds with words, we work to pair this sacred listening with covenantal conversation, speaking with intentional language that can enable us to join ourselves into webs of mutual connection and obligation.

This is not easy, nor is it a “one and done” activity. Since October 7, Reconstructionist rabbis and RRC faculty members have reached out over and over to individuals and groups who are feeling marginalized to hear their concerns and find points of connection. Some individuals–who identify as anti-Zionists and as Zionists–have exited. This is not an outcome that anyone wants and is deeply painful to them and to their communities. But overwhelmingly most people have chosen to stay and engage in brave and deep conversations with people with whom they do not agree. Almost always, those conversations are conducted with profound respect and end with deepened relationships and a renewed commitment to building community together.

Leaders of the organized Jewish community have expended significant energy excluding non-Zionists and anti-Zionists from communal gatherings, decision making tables and funding opportunities. This camp includes many young people, whom these same leaders have claimed to value and prioritize. While most Reconstructionists identify as progressive Zionists who believe that Israel has a right to exist and is a vital center for Jewish life and the Jewish people, we also believe it is essential to listen to, learn from and stay in community with people with whom we disagree.

Activists on the left have made charges against the State of Israel that implicate the North American Jewish community, Jewish organizations and even individual Jews in supremacism and beyond, sometimes with the intent that these voices and values should not be heard.  But in tuning out large parts of the Jewish community, much is lost – the richness of relationships that nurture our lives, and, critically, the opportunity to be heard, lead the transformation they desire and contribute other insights and gifts.

At the end of the day, any litmus test we have in the Reconstructionist movement is not about particular stances around Israel. It is about the capacity to center relationships and to build covenantal community together across our differences. By covenantal community, we mean intentional and abiding and values-driven, communities that have the orientation and commitment to develop the skills to stay in deep relationship, especially in hard conversations and in times of struggle.

Making this commitment and employing practices that support it may help in our communal dialogues and also around our seder tables, which are intended to be lively, intergenerational conversations. The Passover Haggadah points to the complexity of the exploration of freedom and, presumably, the people engaged in discussing it through its repeated exploration of four—drinking four cups of wine, asking four questions, engaging four different children in the conversation. Our seder table has room for all of these. If we are to be the caring, abiding, vital Jewish community we aspire to be, we must find ways to move forward through our most challenging moments together. We don’t do this by closing the door on those with whom we disagree. We do it by opening and letting all who are hungry–and passionately opinionated–come to talk as well as to eat.

About the Author
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism.
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