On Reconstructionism

I have been reading Mordecai Kaplan’s “Judaism as a Civilization” as well as Mel Scult’s “The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan.” Actually, I started on Scult first, but while well written, I found the parts I am particularly interested in, namely Kaplan’s sociological imagination, missing. For those who don’t know who Kaplan was, he was a Jewish rabbi, professor, and philosopher, and the founder of the 4th stream of Jewish denominations, reconstructionism. Kaplan published his mammoth work in the early 30s although many of the ideas had been developed and published earlier. Kaplan was frustrated with the widening gaps between the practical and spiritual realities of American life and not only traditional Judaism, but also Conservative and Reform responses to modernity. Taking what one might call a democratic, progressive variant of functionalist sociological approach to the problem at hand, Kaplan argued that fundamental practical social realities and political inclusion in American life had radically changed conditions for Jews in America. A concept of a supernatural God that dictated practices and beliefs in this world, and an acceptance of injustice and suffering as a temporary transit point to salvation in the afterlife simply, did not align with the sociological realities of Jews in America, in their new found opportunities for self-expression, individual realization, spiritual meaning, and sources of satisfaction and worth in work, education, entertainment, the arts, and social relations that could be found outside of the confines of a narrow Jewish community. Kaplan believed that to address this problem required a radical reworking of what Judaism meant through a sociological lens. Judaism needed to be reconceived in such a way as to be perfectly aligned with American life. Embracing what he saw as the immensely creative potential of American spiritual life, his response was to constantly find ways to maximize the Jewish in American Judaism. This required not just a reinterpretation of the vast Jewish heritage to emphasize those aspects that particularly resonated with American life, but also to embark on institution building that proactively insisted on funneling as much as possible of practical life through such institutions to build practical solidarities (both organic and mechanical to borrow from Durkheim) at the experiential level. He was the founder and director of one of the first Jewish community centers that incorporated a gym and pool in addition to a sanctuary open to the working class immigrant Jews, and not just the affluent established ones who had closed themselves up into exclusive synagogues – “shul with a pool” – to carry this sociological vision further. I find this project fascinating and am eager to continue to read him with an updated sociology in mind and a set of new practical realities that Kaplan did not have to confront. I am also interested in Kaplan’s positive support of Zionism – remember that this is pre-state Israel and most of American Judaism was indifferent or somewhat hostile to a Jewish nationalism that could call into question the status of Jews as loyal citizens of their host countries. It seems that Kaplan saw Zionism and in particular Ahad Ha’am’s vision of it, not as a replacement for an reconstructed and authentic American Judaism, but as a national project that was likely to focus the energies of Jews, giving them a point of pride and anchor in a joint national project, and strengthen communal solidarity. If this is so, what happens when the liberal and progressive underpinnings of such practical Utopian visions, once solidified in state bureaucracy losses its reason d’etre and with it, its charismatic potential? And what happens to a vision based on construction (a nation and a reconstructed agentic self, as well as actual settlements and institutions) once the space for such building and construction disappears? This is no less than the seminal challenge of American and European Judaism and how it should or shouldn’t relate to a Jewish homeland that has lost its charismatic pull for progressive nation building.

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