Current JTS chancellor Arnie Eisen once dubbed the book "the single most influential book of its generation" — for an investigation of the influence of Judaism as a Civilization see the articles from the 2004 conference that Eisen chaired at Stanford in honor of the book's seventieth anniversary.
My own article on the excommunication of Kaplan and the burning of his siddur is set to hit news stands everywhere this summer. Stay tuned for details.
See below for the article:
Invented the Bat Mitzvah, Rejected a Supernatural God
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and his Reconstructionist ideas
By DIANE COLE
In June of 1945, with memories of Nazi book-burning still vivid, a group called the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada excommunicated Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, after which they burned his newly published Sabbath Prayer Book. Although Kaplan is less known (and less read) today than his contemporaries Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, he was in many ways the most radical Jewish philosopher or theologian of his era. So it is good to see that his first book, the influential "Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life," has just returned to print. Published by Rabbi Kaplan in 1934, it is a masterpiece of 20th-century Jewish thought.
Although Kaplan grew up in an Orthodox home (he was born in Lithuania and arrived with his family in New York when he was 8) and served as a rabbi at Orthodox congregations, his increasingly un-Orthodox thinking led him in 1922 to found his own congregation in New York, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ). There, and at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a senior (and sometimes controversial) faculty member for more than 50 years, Kaplan continued to refine the ideas set out in his 1934 work.
As its title implies, "Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life" reflects Kaplan's effort to redefine how modern American Jewry thinks of itself. Judaism is not only a religion, Kaplan stated; it is a people with its own history, identity, culture and civilization. Moreover, like any civilization, to remain vital it must continue to evolve to meet and adapt to the challenges and needs of each new generation. It must be reconstructed, so to speak—or else risk losing its purpose.
Kaplan practiced what he preached at Sabbath and holiday services at his synagogue, SAJ (where I am an active member and am teaching a course on Kaplan's thought this winter). Seeking to reinvest traditional ritual and liturgy with relevance to contemporary Jews, he emphasized modern interpretations while also revising or discarding prayers (like the traditional prayer for rain) he thought incompatible with the progressive, rational-minded, science-oriented world of 20th-century America.
A believer in gender equality long before the term political correctness became a cliché, Kapan in 1922 "invented" the modern-day bat mitzvah—in which 12-year-old girls (like their male counterparts, 13-year-old boys, at their bar mitzvahs) symbolically accept the religious responsibilities of adulthood—when, at Sabbath services one Saturday morning, he called his oldest daughter to the pulpit and had her read from the Torah scroll. Since then, of course, this then-unheard-of custom has become an accepted, even expected rite-of-passage among Jews in all but the Orthodox branch of the faith.
Indeed, Kaplan held the goals and ethics of democracy and equality so high that he declared anachronistic the idea of Jews being the Chosen people—and changed or deleted the wording of traditional prayers that implied that belief from his 1945 Sabbath Prayer Book. Nor would worshipers find in that volume a rote acceptance of the literal belief of every word and letter of the Bible (modern archaeological findings having put its historicity in question), but rather a view of Torah as a source of spiritual truths and ethical aspirations. Most controversial of all, he rejected the supernatural concept of God in favor of a naturalistic view of a transcendent power behind nature and within us that helps us aspire to the highest level of moral action and ethical behavior. Kaplan was no atheist (as his critics asserted), but his definition of God as "the power that makes for salvation" allows for a broader interpretation of the potential for goodness that lies within each individual.
Such, in sum, was the "heresy" reflected in the Sabbath Prayer Book that so outraged the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada in 1945—and the essence of controversy that surrounded Kaplan's ideas throughout his professional life. After his retirement from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1963, Kaplan helped formalize a separate Reconstructionist denomination with its own rabbinical college, one that teaches the progressive Judaism that Kaplan espoused and that is distinct from the other branches of American Judaism. Even the Reform movement, which generally observes fewer ritual customs than the Orthodox and Conservative branches of the faith, maintains a more traditional view of God than does Reconstructionism.
Although many of Kaplan's ideas permeate contemporary American Judaism (most prominently, the concept of the bat mitzvah and his promoting of the synagogue as a community center as well as a house of worship), his movement remains the smallest of the four. To contemporary ears, I think, all those "Reconstruction"-based words can sound clunky, even if, for the sociologically minded Kaplan, in the scientifically minded early 20th century, the term spoke to the seriousness of the endeavor he outlined in his seminal 1934 work. And while "Judaism as a Civilization" swells with fresh ideas, there are passages that even to an admirer like me can feel hobbled by stilted language.
Nonetheless, I was shocked when, this past summer, I looked for a copy of this acknowledged classic and discovered not only that it was out of print but that used copies were hard to find. (Thanks to Alibris on the Internet, I did track down a slightly marked-up copy from Goodwill of Greater Washington.) That will no longer be a problem now that "Judaism as a Civilization" has been republished as a joint venture of the Jewish Publication Society and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, with a new introduction by the Kaplan scholar and biographer Mel Scult.
Certainly, readers can learn much from Kaplan's later and in some ways more accessible books, especially "The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion" and "The Future of the American Jew." But they were built on the foundation that Kaplan first laid out here, and without the attention accorded "Judaism as a Civilization," I wonder if Kaplan, whose diaries attest to a surprising insecurity, would have faltered in furthering his ideas. Its return to print reassures me that Kaplan's voice will continue to call out like the traditional shofar, or ram's horn, awakening new readers to his ever-relevant philosophy.