Judaism as a Civilization
In 1935, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), professor of the philosophy of religion at the Jewish Theological Institute, published JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION. That book, widely read and still in print, furnished the foundation for Reconstructionist Judaism.
According to Kaplan, Judaism is not only a religion but a civilization including literature, history, art, social organization, symbols and customs. Therefore, Kaplan sought to reorganize the synagogue to offer not only religious events, but also drama, dance, music, sports and other social events. Kaplan sought to reconstruct Judaism by offering voluntary membership, elected leadership, and acknowledgment of the views of others regarding religion.
Those of us living in the 21st century view all of this as commonplace. Yet, in Kaplan’s day such an outlook was radical in that synagogues were only place of prayer, study and meditation. Programs such as Kaplan sought did not exist. This demonstrates that although the number of Reconstructionist congregations is small, Kaplan’s ideas have permeated all of Judaism and have been largely adopted by all branches of the faith.
Presently there are only abut 50,000 Jews affiliated with Reconstructionist synagogues in the United States. Contrast this number with 761,000 Reform Jews, 653,000 Conservatives and 567,000 Orthodox Jews and we can see that Reconstructionism is not popular. The reason for this is mainly that Reconstruction must compete with the Jewish secular establishment and therefore cannot adequately satisfy that constituency. Of all persons deemed Jewish in America in some sense of that word, only forty percent are affiliated with any synagogue.
The primary tenets of Reconstructionism are therefore 1. That Judaism, despite some differences based on geography, has common roots and is unified by reason of our common history. The second Reconstructionist platform is the view that God is not a supernatural force but rather that God is nature and nature is God. Kaplan wrote: “God is the sum of all the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.” This is of course what Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) promoted in the 17th century, for which he was expelled from the Jewish community in 1656. The synagogue in which the expulsion ceremony was conducted in still standing in Amsterdam today.
The third proposition of Reconstructionism is that prayer is necessary because it focuses on the needs of the community and not only ourselves, releases emotions and allows us to gain “salvation”.
Rabbi Kaplan and Reconstructionists today reject the concept of “the Chosen People”. He also rejected the belief in a personal, human Moshiach (smeared) or Messiah. These views and other differences with traditional orthodoxies led rabbi Kaplan to write a Sabbath Prayer Book used in Reconstructionist congregations.
These views are taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College in Wyncote, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. The principal message of the Reconstructionists is a concern for “social justice”. That is indeed a high sounding phrase but has had the unfortunate effect in the past of using Jewish resources to aid every “cause” except Jewish needs and Jewish concerns. Reconstructionists are also concerned with the World Union of Progressive Judaism, which claims a membership of 1.7 million “liberal” Jews around the world and in Israel.
Whatever one may think of the views of Reconstructionists, Kaplan’s book JUDAISM AS A CIVILIZATION is worth reading even now. It is original and incisive and is without doubt a permanent contribution to Jewish thought and philosophy.