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Reconstructionist Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Winter 1978, Vol. VI, Number I

Reconstructionist Judaism? 

How does it differ from Humanistic Judaism? 

Many people have asked this question. 

After all, Reconstructionism has always identified itself as a form of religious humanism. Mordecai Kaplan, the founding father of the movement, was a signer of The Humanist Manifesto and an ardent disciple of John Dewey. 

If Reconstructionism is humanistic and Humanistic Judaism is humanistic then why are there two movements? Redundant denominations are legion. Judaism doesn’t need one more. 

In a recent article which appeared in The Reconstructionist, Harold Morris suggested that the difference between the two movements was that Reconstructionism was a moderate humanism while Humanistic Judaism was a radical humanism. He even proposed that Reconstructionism abandon the humanistic label because it is now identified with the extreme positions of atheism and secularism. 

Morris’ designation is hardly accurate. To declare that Reconstructionism is moderate is to avoid the more realistic label-namely that Reconstructionism is ‘chicken’. ‘Chicken’ humanism is a humanism which looks, sounds and smells like theism but which claims to be different on the inside. 

Before the contention that Reconstructionism is a form of ‘chicken’ humanism can be demonstrated we must first define Reconstructionism.  

The “Bible” of the Reconstructionist movement is a book called Judaism as a Civilization. It was written by Mordecai Kaplan and published in the 1930’s. It is now a Jewish classic, with enormous influence on Conservative and Reform rabbis who would choose to avoid the label Reconstructionist. 

Mordecai Kaplan, was born in Lithuania, about 100 years ago, came to America at an early age, attended and graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and remained to teach at the school. He organized his own congregation on the west side of Manhattan which he called the Society for the Advancement of Judaism and which became the pioneer congregation of his new movement. As more rabbis and laymen subscribed to his ideas, new groups arose in other cities. In time, the organizational structure of a new denomination distinct from the Conservative movement, which had fathered Kaplan, began to emerge. A magazine called The Reconstructionist was published. The traditional prayer book was revised to suit Reconstructionist conviction. An association of congregations, fellowships and communes was established. A rabbinical seminary was opened in Philadelphia which functioned as an adjunct to the graduate school of Temple University. Despite the smallness of the movement (some 3,000 identified families) the structure was impressive. 

Kaplan was the emotional child of Europe and the traditional lifestyle of the Litvak Jew.  But he was the intellectual child of two ideologies who were the ‘rage’ at the beginning of the twentieth century. One was John Dewey. The other was Emile Durkheim. 

John Dewey, together with William James, was the father of American pragmatism. He maintained that the truth of a statement is a function of its usefulness in the struggle for survival. Salvation is successful survival in the here and how. There is no long-run ultimate goal to human existence. There are only a continuous series of day to day problems in which the latter may be no more significant than the earlier. Statements about the after-life, which have occupied the minds of so many for so long, are diversionary and irrelevant to the day to day struggle. Religion, if it can have humanistic meaning, is the celebration of those powers in the universe which help us stay alive and find our happiness. God, if the word has any humanistic meaning, is the symbol of that power. 

Emile Durkheim was a French social scientist of Jewish origin who is often referred to as one of the ‘papas’ of the discipline of sociology. He was curious about religion and disdained the conventional descriptions of the religious experience which always made it personal and private. For Durkheim, religion was a social enterprise, a ritual glue which kept everybody together. The heart of religion was sacred behavior. The untouchable and unchangeable set of actions by which the group affirmed its unity with the past, the present and the future. Religion was never personal. It was always social. That was why it was so hard to change. It was the sanctification of group survival. 

If one takes Dewey and Durkheim, mixes them up, and adds a large dose of Litvak loyalty, one gets Mordeai Kaplan. Kaplan’s ideas are Reconstructionism. Two principles articulate them. 

1. Judaism is a religious civilization. Judaism is more than a religion in the formal sense. It is more than a set of theological statements. It is more than a set of personal rituals. Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish nation, just as Hellenism is the historic culture of the Greek nation. Religion is that aspect of the culture which sanctifies group unity and group survival. Of course, there is more to Judaism than just religion. There is music, dance, poetry, crafts and science. Christianity is a contemporary deception. At one time it was the religious enterprise of the Greco-Roman empire. Today it is the name of a series of religions each one a function of a living ethnicity. Without the group, without the nation, there can be no true religion. The so-called religion of the individual is religion in decay. 

2. Salvation is the survival of the individual in his community. Salvation is not some far-off distant event in the ‘world to come’. It is on this earth here and now. Wisdom is not the warning of the fantasy tales of traditional theology. Wisdom is pragmatic. 

3. God is the power in the universe which makes for salvation. Since the supernatural is a useless fantasy, the word God can only be rescued if it is ‘naturalized’. A la Dewey. Kaplan redefines the word as the creative energy of the universe which keeps us going. God is a sum word. It is the sum total of all the forces in the world which enable us to preserve community and the individual who depends on community. 

4. Judaism needs the reconstruction of the Jewish nation. Contemporary Judaism is sick because the Jewish people is sick. Western secular culture has undermined the communal institutions of the Jewish people. The Diaspora has distributed the Jews over the face of the earth, depriving them of linguistic unity and a territorial center. The result of these traumas is either frozen Orthodoxy, with its clinging to what the nation used to be or silly Reform, with its contention that the Jews are not a nation at all, that they are simply Americans and Germans of Mosaic persuasion. Reconstruction means reconstructing the Jewish people so that a vital religious civilization can continue to flourish. Reconstruction means (1) the creation of a Jewish territorial center in Palestine, a Jewish homeland where Judaism is the primary civilization (2) the revival of Hebrew as the linguistic glue of the nation (3) the recognition that Jews, no matter where they live, are members of the Jewish nation (Ahad Haam and Simon Dubnow were Jewish intellectuals who preceded Kaplan with this idea) and (4) the rebuilding of Jewish communal structures in the Diaspora so that religion, education, the arts and the sense of peoplehood could all come together in one institution (the Jewish Community Center is the child of Kaplan). 

5. Religion reinforces group unity through sacred symbols called sancta. The history of a people produces certain symbols which are invested with the meaning of group survival. By their association with epic events they go beyond their origins to embody the hope of the culture for its own continuity. They also enable individual members of the group to identify with the group, no matter where they live, no matter what they personally believe and to share a single experience. God and Torah are the most powerful sancta of Judaism. They cannot be abandoned without disrupting the unity and continuity of the Jewish people. 

These five principles are hardly exhaustive in the Reconstructionist position. But they are the essence. 

How does  Humanistic Jew deal with them? We’ll take them one by one. 

  1. Kaplan’s observation that Judaism is more than a theology is perceptive and right. But to call it a civilization is pretentious. Culture would be a more modest and accurate word. But even culture misses the defining character of Jewishness in modern times. While some Jews share in the historic culture, large numbers do not and still preserve the Jewish identity. The relationship of one Jew to another has become primarily familial whether through a sense of shared ancestors, shared history or shared danger. Judaism is the behavior of a large International family called the Jewish people. It has radically altered in the past one hundred years just as Jewish behavior has radically altered.  
  1. The word salvation is an old religious word which is best discarded because it implies exactly what any good-humored pragmatists would avoid, the suggestion of overwhelmingly dramatic trouble in an equally overwhelming solution. However, the substance is appropriate. Finding survival and happiness in the hearing now is certainly humanistic. 
  1. Kaplan’s rescue of the word God is no rescue at all. He has invented the dreariest duty ever.  In saying the word he has killed God. A God who is nothing more than the sum total of every helpful force in the universe, from electricity to gravity is not somebody you would want to spend three hours on Saturday morning talking to.  

And what is ‘creative energy’ ‘the power that makes for salvation’ (sic). Yahweh at least had a distinct personality you could sink your devotion in. The so-called humanist alternatives are like the ‘emperor’s clothing’ – nothing. When atheists are afraid to admit that they are atheists they invent gods that nobody wants. The word God, because of its historic associations, cannot be radically redefined by fiat. Kaplan ought to know that, since he is always so interested in the importance of social meanings and gradual change. 

  1. The Reconstruction of the Jewish Community is an admirable goal. Part of that reconstruction already exists in the success of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel. But to force the Humanistic and Orthodox Jews into community structures where they will have to negotiate religious change together is to have a strong love for suffering. The Jewish Welfare Federation, which raises money for common causes and to fight common enemies, is the only feasible communal structure. Otherwise, we shall be devoting our Jewish energies to continuous infighting. In an age when all other religious communities are experiencing the painful disintegration of their outmoded bureaucratic structures, we cannot reverse the procedure. We ought not to. The Jewish community does not have to imitate the U.S. government in order to be effective. On the contrary, it should maximize individual freedom so that new bold and ‘saving’ ideas can easily emerge.  We need more excitement in Jewish life, not more meetings. 
  1. Sancta like God and Torah are no longer effective as agents of communal unity. In reality, they are divisive. Overwhelming numbers of Jews today are thoroughly secular whether in Israel or in America. Moreover, the fact that both these symbols are associated with a vast literature of law and liturgy which is supernaturally oriented means that those who insist on using them must devote enormous amounts of time to reinterpreting old texts. Reinterpretation generally involves proving that what appears to be unacceptable really isn’t. It’s the work of clever lawyers but not good-humored Jews who want to use their time profitably. Reconstructionists on a Sabbath morning, because they insist on keeping God and Torah, are forced to study the sacrificial laws of Leviticus, when, quite frankly, if they weren’t so nostalgic, Einstein and Bialik would be so much more enjoyable. 

In the end, a Reconstructionist life style Is hardly distinguishable from a Conservative one. If people are their behavior, and not their reinterpretations, then Reconstructionism is hardly humanism. 

If one’s major task is to reconstruct the unity of the Jewish people, he cannot be an effective Jewish humanist. He will always be the victim of nostalgia and the continuous veto of his unrelenting ancestors. 

And effective Jewish humanism cannot be the community conciliator. It has to be true to its nature. It has to be bold, creative, provocative and daring. It has to be the cutting edge of change. If already it is going to receive the hostility of the traditionalists (as Kaplan did) it should receive it for good reason (sic). 

A futile pursuit of Jewish unity leads to ‘chicken’ humanism and the loss of Integrity. 

Humanistic Judaism believes that we must first deal with the problem of Integrity – making the symbols of religion truly fit what we are and do. 

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Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, leader of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan is the founder of Humanistic Judaism.  

Reconstructionist Judaism

“Reconstructionist Judaism” from Judaism Beyond God (1985)

Reconstructionism is the third style of the Jewish Ambivalent. It arose out of Conservative Judaism and is emotionally allied with it. In fact, Reconstructionism fits very neatly into its pragmatic operating procedure—free philosophic inquiry and halakhic behavior.

Mordecai Kaplan, who was the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement and its reigning guru, was a graduate and teacher of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the New York school for Conservative Judaism. He was born in Lithuania over a hundred years ago and came to America at an early age. He organized his own congregation on the west side of Manhattan, which he called the Society for the Advancement of Judaism and which became the pioneer congregation of his new movement.

Kaplan was the emotional child of Europe and of the traditional lifestyle of the Litvak Jew. But he was the intellectual child of two secular humanists, John Dewey and Emile Durkheim. Dewey, the philosopher, maintained that religion could have a humanistic meaning. It was the celebration of all those powers in the universe that help us stay alive and solve our problems. “God” is the symbol of that power. Durkheim, the sociologist, maintained that religion was a social enterprise, a ritual glue that kept everybody together. The heart of religion was sacred behavior, the untouchable and unchangeable set of actions by which any group affirmed its unity. If one takes Dewey and Durkheim, mixes them up, and adds a large dose of Litvak loyalty, one gets Reconstructionism.

Kaplan tried to wed humanism and halakha. He claimed that Judaism was not a specific combination of theological beliefs. It was a religious civilization and could accommodate many different systems of thought. He claimed that God could be redefined as the creative energy of the universe that enables individuals and communities to survive. And salvation was fulfillment in the here and now. Above all, he pleaded for the reconstruction of the Jewish community to allow for diversity in unity.

The unity for Kaplan was the folk, the Jewish people. And the sign of that unity was an adherence to the three folk sancta: God, Israel, and Torah—in other words, the halakha, or a slightly amended reasonable facsimile of it designated folk-religion. In the end, it was the same old Conservative package: act traditional and think humanist; use all the words of faith and humility and make them mean reason and dignity. The official Reconstructionist prayerbook is hardly distinguishable from the Conservative one.

Reconstructionism differs from Conservatism in its refusal to endorse the idea of the Chosen People. For Kaplan, this concept was a violation of the humanistic respect for the value of all cultures and civilizations. But its removal from the vocabulary of the prayerbook (which was a small change) seemed bizarre. Why bother to change one little item in the service when the whole concept of a worship experience where people talk to God for three hours is inconsistent with an impersonal deity? How can any reasonable person talk to creative energy?

There is a humorless edge to Kaplan. If you want to combine halakha and humanism, do not be fastidious. Nothing really fits anyway. In that respect, conventional Conservatism is superior to Reconstructionism. It never tried to be profound. It lets the absurdity stand because it is emotionally satisfying. Ambivalence should never insist on consistency.

Modern Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism are best described by the Yiddish phrase: nisht a hin, nisht a her—neither here nor there. They may work for some people. But they do not take reason and dignity seriously enough. A humanism that is dressed up to look like rabbinic Judaism is ashamed of what it is.