08/18/2011 11:41 am ET Updated Oct 18, 2011

Reconstructing A Fractured Zionism

In a recent article in Jewish Ideas Daily, I sought to measure the degree to which the ideological legacy of Mordecai Kaplan, one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the modern age, is still being honored within the Reconstructionist movement that he founded and that claims him as its own. My objective was neither to throw stones nor to point fingers but to encourage discussion, especially among those in whose hands lies the future of the movement. A variety of private responses suggests that to some extent I succeeded.

A decidedly different impression, though, emerges from Rabbi David Teutsch's response to my article here on HuffPost Religion. Not only does Rabbi Teutsch detect enmity where there is none, he fundamentally misrepresents both of the arguments that he addresses, thereby evading the point of my exercise.

Fairness dictates that I acknowledge one valid, if minor, correction entered by Rabbi Teutsch. The organization Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), insofar as it advocates boycott of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and not of Israel as a whole, diverges somewhat from the more sweeping program of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. I regret not having made that distinction clear. And while I am at it, I gladly affirm for the record that I take very seriously the moral obligation of the Jewish state and those who support it to show concern for the wellbeing of any and all with a stake in its activities, notably the Palestinian Arabs.

Nonetheless, I reject entirely the idea that such affirmations of concern provide moral legitimacy to the actions of those who participate, even partially, in the BDS movement. And here I come to Rabbi Teutsch's first misrepresentation. In a sweeping imputation of motive, he conflates my position with that of fanatics who "would like to see the Jewish community treat as traitors anyone who shares the view that Zionism involves a profound commitment to the values embodied in Israel's Declaration of Independence and its Basic Laws." Whoever such unnamed excommunicators may be, I do not know them. My concern is with the fanatics involved in promoting boycotts of their Jewish brethren, elevating differences of theology and politics to a fratricidal pitch, waging economic warfare against citizens of a democracy and close American ally, and lending cover to Israel's myriad delegitimizers on the international scene.

It may well be that Rabbi Teutsch and I will have to agree to disagree in our assessments of the respectability of JVP activists. What is not disputable, however, is my observation that a far higher proportion of Reconstructionist rabbinical ordainees participates in this movement than do rabbis of the other liberal Jewish denominations. While at least 15 Reconstructionist rabbis conduct overt economic warfare against their fellow Jews, only four Reform and one Conservative rabbi, out of ranks far more numerous than the total of 310 Reconstructionist rabbis, do the same. Clearly, Rabbi Teutsch must feel it wise to sweep such stirring skeletons back into the closet.

The second argument taken up and misrepresented by Rabbi Teutsch is my statement that "neither [Mordecai] Kaplan nor his thought features prominently in [contemporary] Reconstructionist self-understanding." This he dismisses as "laughable," patronizingly pointing me, in lieu of evidence, to his new book on Jewish practice while managing to muster a single fact of which I was fully aware when I wrote: namely, that students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College are exposed to Kaplan's thought as a component of their training.

Granted. But what influence, if any, does such exposure wield over a student's outlook or behavior? And even if we assume, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, that today's students and young rabbis are indeed as committed to Kaplan's vision as they may be well versed in its precepts, what about the movement they lead -- the real, stated object of my concern? On this point, I refer Rabbi Teutsch to one of his own students, Rabbi Ben Weiner, who observed in 2010 that, as a whole, Kaplan's movement has "shifted" over the decades "from a cadre of highly knowledgeable free-thinkers toward a catchall for dim sum Jews who [are] seeking a noncoercive environment for the blending of tradition and self-expression, their literacy and commitment varying widely."

Hardly a strong internal endorsement. True, this "dim sum" approach to religious life constitutes a, if not the, main challenge to all the embattled branches of liberal Judaism. But what does Rabbi Teutsch's wan rejoinder say about the leadership of a movement reduced to measuring success by what its rabbis may have learned regardless of the motivations, interests and commitments of its members?

I do not count myself among those who see liberal Judaism as doomed. But if its branches are to thrive, as I hope they will, their leaders will need to show more willingness to grapple with the arguments of critics from within and without, especially the well-wishers among them.

Rabbi Teutsch's display of derision and defensiveness ill suits one who concludes his string of evasions and animadversions by pleading for mutual understanding and "respect."

Joseph J. Siev is a program officer with the Tikvah Fund in New York.