Reconstructing Judaism

By Joseph J. Siev
Wednesday, August 3, 2011

At a time when all three major Jewish denominations in America—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—find themselves in a state of deep internal fracture, a fourth and much smaller movement, Reconstructionism, has just voted to create a unified body to coordinate the activities of its lay and rabbinical arms. Such a display of consensus is striking enough these days; as a sign of life, if not liveliness, in a movement that many Jews are not even aware of, it prompts a look into the history and aims of a peculiarly American institution that has never truly realized the hopes of its visionary founder. 

Those hopes were articulated by the ex-Orthodox thinker Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983) over the course of a half-century of tireless writing, lecturing, and politicking. Kaplan, who rejected wholesale the core tenets—revelation, chosenness, rabbinic authority—of any then-extant conception of Judaism, sought to develop a Jewish consciousness based neither on dogma nor on ritual practice but on the notion of Judaism as, fundamentally, the ever-evolving, self-actuating, and progressively self-fulfilling civilization of the Jewish people.  Judaism as a Civilization, Kaplan's massive 1934 summa, meticulously deconstructed the fallacies and weaknesses, as he saw them, of Reform and Orthodoxy, both of which were rooted in an outmoded supernaturalism, and called for the reconstruction of Jewish life on a new basis designed to correspond with what Jews had actually come to believe.

Possessing a studied ambivalence toward anything smacking of denominationalism or partisanship, Kaplan spent nearly two decades trying, largely fruitlessly, to promulgate his ideas first within American Orthodoxy and then, with greater plausibility, within the nascent Conservative movement led by Solomon Schechter at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was not until 1955, by which time he had become thoroughly disabused of the notion of finding a foothold for his ideas within establishment Judaism, that Reconstructionism took shape as a distinct denomination of its own.

Since its founding, the movement has established a rabbinical seminary and ordained 310 rabbis, built an affiliation of 105 congregations across North America, published prayer books and ritual guides reflecting its controversial revisions of Jewish liturgy and practice, and exercised a palpable if largely unacknowledged influence on modern American Jewish identity and culture—not least by helping to popularize the notion of Jewish "peoplehood."

But much has happened in the last half-century to alter the ideological disposition of Reconstructionism. To Kaplan and his first-generation followers, the task of radically reformulating the nature and meaning of Judaism was to be pursued in the light of certain inviolable facts: the impossibility of revelation (at Sinai or elsewhere), the unique historical development of Jewish civilization across three millennia, and the democratic right of living, breathing individuals to participate in the ongoing process of defining an authentic Judaism. Denominational trappings notwithstanding, the aim was outward-focused: nothing less than the retrieval and reinvigoration of the Jewish people as a whole. Not for nothing was Reconstructionism marked from the start by a strong Zionist bent.  

And now? Curiously, neither Kaplan nor his thought features prominently in Reconstructionist self-understanding. Even as an old guard piously claims to want to educate, in the words of Rabbi Shawn Zevit,  "a whole new generation of members who are not well versed in Kaplanian thought or Reconstructionist principles," the movement's newly ordained rabbis commonly describe their own attraction to Reconstructionism in altogether different terms. Their approach is neatly summed up in the words of one young rabbi for whom the appeal of Reconstructionism is that it "really puts the individual Jew back into Jewish life."

This statement aligns perfectly with the findings of Arnold Eisen and Steven Cohen in their 2000 book, The Jew Within, which traced the process whereby the promptings of the "sovereign self" have come to be enshrined as the chief standard of value in the religious lives of many Jewish Americans. Little could be farther from the defining essence of a movement that set out, above all, to find meaning for modern Jews within the organism of a living and evolving people. Today's rising Reconstructionist leaders, little concerned with Kaplan's ideas, seem driven instead by nebulous notions of personal fulfillment combined, however improbably, with "progressive" political activism.  Fully half of the 30 members of the rabbinic advisory board of "Jewish Voices for Peace"—a prominent component of the anti-Zionist initiative known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)—are affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement; the comparable numbers for Reform and Conservative rabbis are four and one.   

That so quintessentially American and Zionist a movement should have lost touch with its founding ideals may not have come as a surprise to Mordecai Kaplan. For all his radicalism, Kaplan harbored no illusions that a robust Judaism could maintain itself in the absence of a normative element of some kind; Jewish life, he wrote in 1948 (in The Future of the American Jew) is "meaningless without Jewish law." Indeed, Kaplan was cognizant of the risks involved in imbuing people with authority to break with a tradition so that it might, paradoxically, survive in the modern world. In the case of Reconstructionism, now evidently in thrall to the regnant secular ideologies of the day, the result seems to have been a break with Reconstructionist tradition itself.

Was Kaplanism, then, just another big idea, bound to come to grief in its encounter with history? It is for today's leaders, newly outfitted with an arch-organ of the movement's internal affairs, to supply an answer to this question and, if Reconstructionism is to thrive, formulate a strategy for re-establishing its former identification with the "essentially communitarian nature of Judaism."

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

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