A Forgotten Chapter in Denominational History (Proto-Conservative or Proto-Reconstructionist?)
by Mel Scult
Mordecai Kaplan is known primarily as an ideologue, a man of ideas, but he was also an institution builder of considerable significance. He was the first director (“principal” was his title) of the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He remained in this office from 1909 until 1946. He was also famously the founder of The Jewish Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – “The Shul with a school and a pool.” This institution was the perfect embodiment of his developing philosophy of Judaism as a civilization and was meant to appeal to the mind and the body as well as the spirit of the Jewish people. He also hoped it would lead to young Jews meeting other young Jews, falling in love, marrying and producing more Jews. The Center inspired a host of imitations in the New York metropolitan area and around the country.
Kaplan also, of course, established the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), his home congregation. Additionally he was instrumental in setting up the University of Judaism (now called American Jewish University) in Los Angeles, which was largely his conception. He was also an early supporter of the creation of Camp Ramah and the Leaders Training Fellowship of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Throughout his life, Kaplan advocated his philosophy of Reconstructionism as a school of thought that would be relevant to all denominations. But in 1919 and 1920, at the urging of his young rabbinic disciples, he established an organization which lasted but two years, has been all but forgotten and might have become the beginning of a new denomination. It was called The Society for the Jewish Renascence (SJR), or Techiyah in Hebrew.
Sometimes the “might have beens” of history are very instructive. The SJR might have meant the real beginning of the Conservative movement or because of Mordecai Kaplan and his early development it might have become a “proto- Reconstructionist” movement. The SJR clearly illustrates that the Conservative movement had not yet been given definition. The Jewish Theological Seminary was perceived as a training school for rabbis but not as the center of a denomination. That only came later. The intellectual tradition of Positive-Historical Judaism goes back to Solomon Schechter and nineteenth-century figures such as Heinrich Graetz and Zecharias Frankel, but it takes more than an emphasis on a particular way of perceiving and studying the Jewish past to constitute an ideology. There were many at the Seminary who did not want particular “tags ” tied to the Seminary but wanted it to serve the whole of the Jewish community.
There were two young rabbis, however, former students of Kaplan’s, who wanted him to aid them in formulating an ideological basis for a third movement in American Judaism, beside Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism. (Note that it was not a fourth movement they had in mind but a third.) They wanted to give a clearer definition to what was then known as Positive-Historical Judaism. In 1919, Jacob Kohn and Herman Rubenowitz, two recent Seminary graduates and devoted disciples of Kaplan’s, came to him with the idea of forming a third movement.
Kaplan’s reaction is startling, utterly confounding and perhaps tells us much about the man. He was very excited about the idea but in a strange way was not willing to do anything to initiate its implementation. In his diary he wrote: “Nothing could be more in accord with my wishes than to organize those who take their Judaism seriously enough to demand of it that it satisfy their spiritual yearnings.” Yet at the same time he was honest enough with himself to write, “I must admit that I am too dogmatic in my way and unless I could carry out my wishes to the full, I would not be satisfied … If I am to launch out on a spiritual adventure, I do not want to be hampered by a sense of yielding and compromise.”
(December 1918). Kaplan desired above all to remain in his own world – the “universe of words” where undisturbed he could devote himself to formulating his goals.
But his disciples prevailed, and so they formed the SJR. The group was small but numbered among its members many who would become future leaders. Among others were Louis Finkelstein (who attended rarely), Solomon Goldman, Max Margolis, Bernard Richards, Morris Levine, and of course Jacob Kohn and Herman Rubenowitz. They met periodically at The Jewish Center or the 92nd Street YMHA to discuss the primary religious and theological issues of the day. They had wanted to meet at the Seminary but Louis Ginzberg, who was filling in for Cyrus Adler who was at the Versailles Peace conference, believed that holding meetings at the Seminary would be an endorsement of the principles finally decided by the group. Ginzberg like others still believed the Seminary should stand for a Judaism “without any adjectives attached to it.
Kaplan and his followers, on the other hand, believed that further definition was a necessity. There was much theological wrangling, but a set of principles was finally worked out. [For details of these discussions, see the fine book by Michael R. Cohen, The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).] See below for the “Platform of the Society” and the “Fundamental Duties of Members” finally agreed upon by the group.As to the fate of the SJR – between late 1921 and early 1922, Kaplan left The Jewish Center and founded the SAJ. At that point, the SJR faded into history. It is worthy of note that Kaplan may have intended the SAJ as the beginning of a denomination. While those who left The Jewish Center with Kaplan wanted a congregation, Kaplan may have had something else in mind. It is of considerable significance that in its early years the SAJ had chapters in the congregations where Kaplan was supported. The pattern was that Kaplan would visit a congregation and as a result a group would form that would be affiliated with the SAJ.
In 1925 the SAJ purchased a building, on West 86th Street where the synagogue remains today. It was obvious that Kaplan’s supporters at the SAJ were more interested in a congregation than a denomination.
Here are the “Platform of the Society” and the “Fundamental Duties of Members” of the SJR: