Reconstructionist Judaism at 100 Retrospect and Prospect

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the congregation that would serve as the laboratory for the Reconstructionist ideology and movement launched by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan (1882-1984). That same year (1922) Kaplan affirmed the equality of women in the synagogue by unceremoniously calling his daughter, Judith, to become a Bat Mitzvah. And later, one of the first decisions of the newly formed Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (1968) was to accept women for ordination. Their first woman, Sandy Eisenberg (Sasso), was accepted in the second year of the college and ordained in 1974. SAJ’s current senior rabbi, Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, is a woman.

A protégé of Rabbi Solomon Schechter, Kaplan taught homiletics and founded the Teachers Institute at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Kaplan’s family came to America from Eastern Europe when he was a child.  His father was a prominent rabbinic leader of the Orthodox Kehilah in New York.

Trained in classical Jewish sources, Kaplan was also exposed to modernist thinkers who expanded his understanding of philology, history, philosophy, and social sciences. He learned textual biblical and rabbinic exegesis from Arnold Ehrlich, philosophic pragmatism from John Dewey, a social science approach to religion from William James, and an appreciation of Judaism and Zionism as the spiritual culture of the Jewish people from Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Ha’am). Kaplan came to understand Judaism as “the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” He effected for Judaism what he liked to call a “Copernican Revolution,” shifting the center of gravity of Jewish religion and identity from supernaturalism to naturalism, from revelation to discovery, from an emphasis on belief and doctrine to an affirmation of collective consciousness and belonging. Kaplan’s classical work, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), is regarded as the pivotal book of American Judaism in the 20th century. His analyses and proposals, his diagnoses and prescriptions for American Judaism are still valid and unfolding.

Kaplan eschewed metaphysics and approached Judaism with pragmatic purpose. His notion of the “Organic Jewish Community” gave birth to the concept of the Jewish Community Center and many of the institutions of modern American Judaism. He embraced democracy not just as an American ideal, but as a model for Jewish communal living, affirming the need for American Jews to live in the interface of the Jewish and American civilizations in their unity and diversity. The Reconstructionist vision grew from the Society for the Advancement of Judaism to the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, to the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Fellowships (1955); to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (1968) that would insure future leadership for the ideology that had now become a fourth Movement of American Judaism.

Kaplan understood God not as a supernatural Being, but as “the power or process at work in the universe that makes for salvation” (meaning, purpose, the fulfillment of potential). God’s reality is relational, rather than fixed; in process, rather than perfected. Instead of seeking to understand “what” is God, Kaplan urged us to experience “when” is God. For Kaplan, God is not a “fact”, but the “factor” of the ongoing possibilities and renewal of creativity, goodness, and purpose.

Kaplan’s non-supernaturalist understanding of Judaism applied not only to the idea of God, but also to Torah, not a final divine given revelation, but a human driven striving, the ongoing discovery of the Jewish people of its godly purposes. The Jewish people, also, is not supernaturally chosen; it is a “choosing people”, affirming its particularist character while committed to living by the moral standards of our highest common humanity. The uniqueness and distinctiveness of the people of Israel is best expressed by the language of “vocation” rather than “election”.

In keeping with his understanding of Judaism as a civilization and the values of Jewish peoplehood (a term he coined), Kaplan was a Zionist, deeply committed to the flourishing of a democratic, pluralistic State of Israel living in peace in the region. During his ninth decade, Kaplan lived in Israel, returning to the United States to be closer to his family, just a couple of years before his death at the age of 102. Kaplan’s vision for the Jewish people is expressed in the concept of “the religion of ethical nationhood”, a transnational people, in Israel and the diaspora, living by the prophetic values of justice and compassion, in democratically constituted organic communities, embracing the totality and diversity of Jewish life.

In so many ways, the ideals of Kaplan’s Reconstructionism have been adopted and adapted by the majority of American Jews. Already in the early 1970’s, Charles Liebman, a keen observer of Jewish life, proposed that “most American Jews are Reconstructionist, but they do not know it.” Today, there is a spectrum of diversity within Reconstructing Judaism (name adopted by the movement in recent years). While many adhere to the Kaplanian ideals of rationalism, non-supernaturalism, the centrality of Jewish peoplehood and of Zionist values, others have trended to a more individualistic focused, spirituality. I fear for a loss of the value of peoplehood that recognizes diversity and still affirms boundaries. Judaism is like a cell whose membrane protects it while remaining selectively permeable; it insures the cell’s integrity, while connecting it vitally to the surrounding environment.

I had the privilege of studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from 1969-1974. There we were treated during our first year of studies to a Seminar with Dr. Kaplan who would come in to Philadelphia from New York. Following the class, he would take a nap in the extra bed in my room at the top floor dormitory of the College on Broad Street. It would then be my pleasure to walk him back to the train station in North Philadelphia and be treated to fascinating personal conversations with him. Once, when I dared point out that what he had said in class that day contradicted what he had said the week before, he looked at me with his penetrating blue eyes, grinned, and said, “Well, Dennis, that shows that I too am evolving.”  When Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and I were ordained in 1974 with the second graduating class of the College, she as the first woman to be ordained by the Reconstructionist movement and we as the first rabbinical married couple in world Jewish history, we experienced with a sense of reverence and gratitude the honor of having studied with Kaplan and Ira Eisenstein (Kaplan’s son in law, successor at the SAJ, and first President of the College). I would then have the honor of being Rabbi Eisenstein’s Assistant as the first full-time Rabbi at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore. Sandy would become the first Rabbi of the Manhattan Reconstructionist Havurah (later to become the West End Synagogue), established by a group of Reconstructionist founding families, disciples and relatives of Mordecai Kaplan, who had separated from the SAJ over differences with the incumbent rabbi.

Kaplan understood the role of the rabbi and of organized Jewish life to involve both bridge-building and gate-keeping; out-reach and in-reach; boundaries and porousness. The movement proclaims itself today as “deeply rooted and boldly relevant”. May the next 100 years see the growth of a community that, indeed, honors and is grounded in its past even as it strives for a Judaism that boldly celebrates and cerebrates the ever renewing possibilities of our “evolving religious civilization”.

About the Author
Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana.
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