Reconstructionist Judaism began as one man's passionate formulation of a solution to the ills of Jewish life as he saw them in the early decades of the 20th century. In the decades that followed, thanks to the work of devoted disciples, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's ideas became the basis for a new denomination within Judaism, taking its place alongside the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox branches. The youngest and by far the smallest of the denominations, and the only one to be conceived and born in America, Reconstructionism continues to be an innovative and influential presence in Jewish life today through the work of its Rabbinical College, Rabbinical Assembly, and Reconstructionist Federation and through its congregations dotted across the United States and Canada. Current programs and activities include a summer camp and youth movement founded in 2002, a pandenominational program for teenage girls entitled "Rosh Hodesh: It's A Girl Thing!" and a diverse set of career options offered through the Rabbinical College.
MORDECAI M. KAPLAN AND THE CENTRAL IDEAS OF RECONSTRUCTIONISM
Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983), the founding thinker of the Reconstructionist movement accomplished a lot during his 102 years. In addition to writing the many books and articles that embodied his ideas, Kaplan served "in the field" for most of his life as a congregational rabbi, teacher of teachers and rabbis, lecturer, and community organizer. Kaplan was also a man of many contradictions, whose strong opinions and commitment to honesty stirred up controversy. The Sabbath and festival prayer books he developed in the 1940s were so controversial that the Union of Orthodox Congregations of the United States and Canada pronounced a ban against them and went so far as to burn a copy of his prayer book. Such dramatic gestures did much to create misunderstanding as to what Kaplan was all about. Today however, thanks to ongoing scholarly work, Kaplan's place in the Jewish life of the 20th century is slowly being established. Many of the innovations that he championed or pioneered are commonly accepted today, including the bat mitzvah ceremony for girls and the idea of a Jewish Center (what some called a shul with a school and a pool) as a multi-dimensional community focus for study and leisure. The ideas he developed starting in the 1920s and expressed in his major work Judaism as a Civilization (Kaplan, 1934) remain fresh, challenging, and current in the 21st century. Throughout his life, Kaplan fought against being bound by traditional practices that did not serve the well-being of Jews in the here and now. He fought as well for a way of life that included strong and joyous identification not just with America or only with the Jewish people but with both. It was his firm conviction that Jewish leaders should not compel people to follow traditional practices but that they should instead help to make Jewish life attractive, "interesting, significant, and beautiful" so people would want to be involved. This belief rested on an interconnected set of ideas that Kaplan worked his way through to ideas about God, about the sources of authority in society and about the importance of community and religion in making human life vibrant and meaningful.
Kaplan fiercely opposed what he called the supernaturalistic vision of God as a remote being sitting in judgment, rewarding, punishing, and changing the laws of nature at will, a conception that he saw as hopelessly out of touch with modern thinking. Furthermore, Kaplan believed that this view of God tended to render humans helpless and obedient or else arrogant in their presumption that their clan was party to a revealed truth denied other groups. Instead, Kaplan chose to seek the divine within human experience, in the power that impels and enables all of our best and highest achievements: ethical, cultural, religious, and artistic. Closely related to Kaplan's idea of the divine was his view of religion and community. His study of the social sciences had shown him how crucial religions have always been among human communities, embodying their sacred values and articulating the rituals that foster depth, meaning, and a sense of belonging. Kaplan did not believe that religions originate in a realm detached from the human. Rather, he held that religions generally are a response to humanity's quest to meet its vital needs and that each particular religion is the product of a specific human group living in a particular time and place. In the matter closest to his heart, he concluded that the Jewish religion belonged to the Jewish people and was its creation. As a corollary, Kaplan insisted that it was arrogant and antidemocratic of the Jews to claim they were supernaturally chosen by God from among the nations of the world. He simply dropped the "chosen people" language from his prayer book, a choice that deeply upset most of the rest of the Jewish community in his time.
If Judaism was the central creation of the Jewish people, in Kaplan's view, it was not the only one. Rather, he saw Jewish life as a dynamic and evolving "religious civilization" involving land, language and literature, laws, folkways, arts, and social structures.