More than 80 years ago, at the very beginning of the very first issue of The Reconstructionist journal, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan and his colleagues reprinted an editorial from a 1928 issue of that journal’s predecessor, The S.A.J. Review, succinctly explaining their reasons for the creation of a new movement. “[T]he problem of Jewish life is just th[e] problem of unity,” the editorial stated. “A solution to the problem of Jewish life depends upon finding, or making, a positive ideology which will enable both Orthodox and Reform, both believers and nonbelievers, to meet in common and to work together. It is only by conceiving Judaism as a civilization, and not as a general religious movement embracing many sects, that we will be able to construct such an ideology and reconstruct the Jewish civilization. To interpret Judaism as a civilization is to open the way for unity, because such interpretation enables us to seek the neutral factors of unity in language, the rebuilding of Palestine, and social relationships among Jews. In Judaism as a civilization, religion, the most important element in it, will flourish the better because it will not then be the subject of so much negative controversy.” More specifically, the editorial noted, “The moment you propose one mode of worship or one attitude toward observance for another, you automatically divide. These very things depend on taste, habit, and pressure of necessity. Hence, it is about them that our differences are most deeply rooted and therefore most irreconcilable.”
About 75 years later, the great Jewish thinker Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, z”l, discovered that Kaplan’s agenda for the reconstruction of Jewish civilization was remarkably fresh and vital. Hartman provided a nice summary of the particular approach to Judaism that Kaplan offered to those who do not find other approaches compelling. “What Kaplan wanted,” Hartman wrote, “was to make Judaism real as an experience, not as a supernatural obsession. … He believed that Judaism is not most essentially from God; it is, rather, the Jewish people’s prayer to God. In Kaplan’s understanding, it is not that the Jewish people exist in order to serve God and to obey the commandments; the commandments exist to help the Jewish people access a sense of possibility for their own moral future. … Redemption is not otherworldly salvation at the end of time. … For Kaplan, redemption is not something that’s going to happen at the end of days when we’ll all be instructed to pack our bags and welcome the Messiah. Redemption is an individual’s growth into a complete human being, a person who fulfills all of his or her aptitudes. Redemption is not an abstract philosophical or theological construct, but a fine-tuning of the human soul that helps us to love more and to be more sensitive. It creates a meaningful pattern of self-fulfillment.”*
Our mission statement reads as follows: “The mission of The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood is to disseminate and promote the thought and writings of Rabbi Kaplan and to advance the trans-denominational agenda of the Kaplanian approach to Judaism in the 21st century by producing or otherwise making widely available publications and other resources, both in print and on-line, by facilitating academic conferences and broader educational events and by spurring creative experimentation in the formation or reorganization of various kinds of Jewish communities and institutions. In so doing, we will strive to insure that the influence of Rabbi Kaplan’s thought in the 21st century is commensurate with his stature as one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century."
Why is this mission so important? When in about 40 years some of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be considering maintaining their Jewish identity in North America, we are virtually certain that among the options available to them will be a variety of healthy Orthodox and near-Orthoprax communities. We are much less confident that they will be able to find a liberal community that is intellectually vibrant, emotionally fulfilling and programmatically daring, and at the same time is strongly rooted in the Rabbinic Jewish past that, in Kaplan’s famous words, should always have a vote but not a veto. Increasing the chances that such serious, but religiously progressive, alternatives in Jewish communal life will exist for our descendants is of vital importance to us, and we believe that implementation of Kaplan’s agenda for the reconstruction of Jewish civilization is the best way to do so. This agenda ranges from the creation of new Hebrew liturgical materials to the production of new Jewish music and art to the redefinition of the fundamental concept of the kehilla, of the community. Most of this agenda, surprisingly, still awaits any attempt at implementation.
We believe that the Kaplanian approach to Judaism can strengthen each of the existing denominational movements and have a positive influence on the lives of individual Jews regardless of their levels of observance, or even, within limits, their theologies. We resist use of the term “post-denominational,” but we embrace use of the term “trans-denominational,” and in doing so we recognize that “none of the above” is becoming a sizeable denomination.
Our key projects, some of which are well under way and some of which are still in the planning stage, are detailed elsewhere on this website. Stay tuned for much more information about those projects in the future.
My colleagues, Eric Caplan, Mel Scult and Jack Wolofsky, and I are excited to have embarked on what we consider an important adventure. We invite you to join us.
Dan Cedarbaum can be reached at [email protected].
The Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood is an independent organization. The Kaplan Center works in cooperation with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association but has no affiliation with either of those organizations.
*David Hartman, “Redemption and the rational mind,” The Jerusalem Post, March 29, 2010, http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishFeatures/Article.aspx?id=172026.