What We Mean by Religion

Rabbi Richard Hirsh’s Introduction toWhat We Mean By Religion by Ira Eisenstein (1938)

What We Mean By Religion focuses on Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, and was based on Mordecai Kaplan’s 1936 volume The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion [MOG]. That book was assembled from holiday sermons Kaplan gave at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), as edited by Rabbi Eugene Kohn. It is in MOG that Kaplan coins the phrase “God is the Power That Makes for Salvation” with reference to Shabbat.

Where Eisenstein’s earlier book, Creative Judaism, was written for adults as a simplified version of Judaism As a CivilizationWhat We Mean By Religion  was written for “the younger generation of Jews,” with the hope that by reading it, “they would not brush aside Jewish religion with impatience,” or feel “they must accept beliefs against which their reason rebelled.” 

Put differently, What We Mean By Religion seems to have been aimed at Jews of B’nei Mitzvah age and perhaps also for those studying for confirmation at around age sixteen. (While the SAJ did not conduct confirmation services, there was an annual Shavuot ceremony for teens, often including cantatas written by Ira and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein.) In addition to presenting many of Kaplan’s insights from MOG, What We Mean By Religion was the first Reconstructionist attempt to translate those insights into an educational curriculum for Jewish teens. 

What We Mean By Religion  focuses less on God as “the Power that…” than on a humanistic extraction of key ideas from each of the Jewish holidays. Each chapter includes discussion questions aimed at teenagers. Rabbi Eisenstein’s goal was to translate the “Judaism says” that so many Jewish teens grew up with into questions: “what does Judaism have to say about the issues of life that you experience every day?” Put differently, he wanted to use the holidays as opportunities to invite discussion about, for example, modern meanings of freedom (Pesach), sin (Yom Kippur), and holiness (Shabbat).

The final questions Eisenstein asks are: “How has [this book] changed your views about religion? What old ideas did you learn to discard? What new ones did you acquire?” These are not questions limited to Jewish teens, but perennial ones that we continue to ask: how do we access Jewish tradition as a resource as we move through the entirety of life, leaving aside certain things, engaging with others, and, always, asking questions rather than seeking answers.