Kaplan and Innovative Liturgy

by Mel Scult

Mordecai Kaplan was a man whose writings reflected many different moods. Some might call this sloppy thinking or simple inconsistency. For me it is extremely valuable because in the end he legitimates many positions, giving each individual a wide field to choose from.

Such is the case with reference to liturgy and prayer. Kaplan famously paid much attention to the exact language of prayer. “We must mean what we say when we pray,” he strongly believed. Thus he dropped the language of chosenness, of resurrection, of the plagues in the Passover Haggadah and elsewhere. The changes initiated by Kaplan are carefully chronicled by our colleague Eric Caplan in his groundbreaking work, From Ideology to Liturgy: Reconstructionist Worship and American Liberal Judaism (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2002).

But there were moments when the deeply creative Kaplan burst forth, advocating that we start all over again with the prayer book. Of course, he did not mean it entirely seriously, but if prayer is to be relevant at all it must express our deepest feelings, our most powerful fears and our ultimate concerns.

There are today many talented creators of liturgy, and I just want to mention one example. In Israel there is a very novel davenning community called “Beit Tefila Israeli“. It is not affiliated with any of the denominations, although its rabbi is an ordained Reform rabbi named Esteban Gottfried. Without going into detail, I want to mention their now well-known summer services, which are held at the Tel Aviv Port. If you can imagine facing the Mediterranean at sundown on Friday night with three or four hundred other worshippers, you get the  idea of how meaningful praying can be.

But my main point is that Rabbi Gottfried has created an innovative prayer book regularly used by the congregation, which includes many modern Hebrew writers alongside the traditional prayers. Kaplan had the idea that we should pray from our contemporaries. Rabbi Gottfried included in his siddur such poets and other writers as Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Leah Goldberg, A.D.Gordon, Yehudah Amichai , Martin Buber, Ahad Ha-Am, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai Kaplan, as well as other Hebrew notables. Readings from the Psalms and the Torah are, of course, also very much in evidence.

Here is Kaplan at his most radical, giving voice to his deeply held desire to be able to pray with honest conviction:

I said that I hold no brief for the prayer book. Why not write new prayers in conformity with the modern conception of God? Why have a prayer book at all? Why not prayers which can be used at discretion and in accordance with actually felt needs? [Kaplan Diary, January 29, 1935]