"The Past has a Vote, not a Veto"

Adapted from the Keddem Outlook, May 1999 (Iyyar/Sivan 5759)

Many of us have heard Mordecai Kaplan's statement, "The past has a vote, but not a veto." What does this really mean? The "vote of the past" is to be understood as the basis of the reconstruction of Judaism which, we believe, must be pursued in every generation. We must understand the Jewish past from which we have come. Our tradition is a record of millenia of insights. We must translate these insights which we have inherited into our own terms, so that by doing so we can enrich our lives through the Jewish practices that have enriched the lives of those who came before us. By "revaluating" (Kaplan's term) our tradition, we can engage our "Jewish civilization" more completely than if we simply discarded traditions we did not understand.

It is also the case, however, that we may find aspects of the tradition wanting as they connect to our modern sensibilities and ideas. It is then our obligation as Jews to find a means to reconstruct these, or to adopt innovative practices in their stead. While we must "struggle to hear the voices of our ancestors...," we must also "struggle to hear our own voices as distinct from theirs."1

So, we make changes to our services, but do not abandon the form and structure of the traditional worship service. We look to texts like Pirke Avot and find insights into current dilemmas, insights that perhaps the rabbis who wrote the original text would never have imagined.

To conclude, "Innovation need not entail the destruction of tradition; on the contrary, change is an important part of keeping tradition alive, as it has been throughout Jewish history. As the world changes faster, Judaism must be reconstructed ever more quickly if its wisdom is to continue to guide us."2

1,2 Alpert, Rebecca T., and Staub, Jacob J. Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach. 1985

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