Mordechai Kaplan and the Second Century of Reconstructing Judaism

Mordechai Kaplan and the Second Century of Reconstructing Judaism
 Commemorating the Convention for Reconstructing Judaism, Philadelphia, Nov 15-18, 2018

Prior to serving as lead rabbi for Mishkan Shalom, I participated in numerous conversations about the mission and goals of our now called Reconstructing Judaism. In my  years of traveling throughout Canada and the United States I heard many interpretations of Reconstructionist theology, philosophy and practice from self-described "classical Kaplanians"  to "neo-Hasidic" Reconstructionists

Some were attracted by the intellectual rigor and cultural, philosophical and theological idea of Reconstructionism and others were seeking an integration of the body, emotional intelligence and spirit, alongside other seekers and activists. Now a new generation is emerging with multiple identity markers and questioning what belonging to Jewish communal structures actually means. Through all of this, Mishkan Shalom, entering its fourth decade, has been growing steadily as our members continue to find meaning and purpose in out spiritual, activist Jewish community

 If you read the inspiring first two volumes of Kaplan's diaries (Communings of the Spirit, edited by Mel Scult), you will perceive a man concerned not only with the clear, accessible articulation of his key ideas, but with a commitment to God-wrestling and a striving for authenticity and meaning.

We need more than replications of Reconstructionism's past formulations. Using the term "Reconstructionist" to support a personal preference without study, values clarification and willingness to see the needs of the community as on a par with our individual needs is not the democracy Kaplan had in mind. Yet for all the diversity of personality and practice within our 100-plus affiliates, Mordecai Kaplan's core ideas of religious naturalism, egalitarianism, democratic decision-making, and an empowered rabbinate and membership have produced dynamic, creative communities. These communities share many important characteristics: gender equality, shared leadership, a welcoming atmosphere, lifelong educational practices, liturgical and ritual creativity, a serious embrace of tradition, a commitment to tikkun olam and mutual support, and a conscious search for meaningful, sustainable lives as Jews and as human beings on the planet.

Increasingly, our expanding membership and leadership have been working on articulating what the "it" is that produces the warm, inclusive, participatory, egalitarian communities that we have come to value so dearly. Our movement has a whole new generation of members who are not well versed in Kaplanian thought or Reconstructionist principles, even as they are proud and active participants in the movement. The education, thought-exchange and work for justice and the future of our planet, is being explored in our congregations across the North America and the globe, and through the college and movement for Reconstructing Judaism and, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the RENA educator's association, and our movement youth camp, Camp Havaya, now on two coasts!

Kaplan spoke of God as the Process that makes for the fulfillment of our human potential. When we enter discussions of an important issue in our community, therefore, we are entering The Process — we are on sacred ground. Godliness can manifest through the approach and content of our decision-making. This Process makes for “salvation,” in Kaplan’s terms, as we move towards an agreed-upon outcome that ideally brings us and our communities into greater self-realization. We are, in short, striving for a Process that contains Godly values and yields an outcome that fulfills the mission of our community and the spiritual growth of the participants.

Of course, we can misuse the idea of democratic participatory process to block needed action and consign decision-making to an endless process of processing. We may overuse Jewish values-based decision-making by applying it to every issue instead of saving it for key issues of community identity and policy. We can also hide behind anti-authoritarian tendencies to undermine rabbis and leaders by insisting that everyone needs to approve every decision or that consensus is required at every turn. The disempowering of leadership simply allows for influence to be exerted subtly and often implicitly, without evaluation and discussion. That said, our movement’s core Reconstructionist values and decision-making processes have very much produced dynamic and creative communities that, for all their diversity, share a generally cohesive and familiar set of norms and policies. Our point has not been to build a Judaism where “anything goes,” but one in which much is possible.

In the world of 21st century Reconstructionism, “truth” is certainly in flux. For example, as the new Exploring Judaism suggests, we are more questioning of the authority of the sciences than Kaplan was, even as we contend with staggering new scientific and technological advances. We are more questioning than Kaplan of the values of American society, and we feel ourselves being shaped by a multiplicity of identities and civilizations beyond the “living in two civilizations” credo. In light of the Holocaust and the never-ending eruption of brutal wars around the world, we question more vigorously than Kaplan the human capability of achieving peace and “salvation” through politics, education and technology.

The hunger for meaning and purpose in our increasingly globalized world and Hubble-enhanced universe has moved us beyond the discussion of Kaplan’s day about theism and atheism to a discussion about how to live Godlier and religiously authentic lives in a culture that champions individualism and personal happiness over communal commitment and peoplehood. Our embrace of egalitarianism since the founding of our movement has meant not only inclusion of women’s voices and feminist concerns, but a need for Jewish men to find a meaningful role in con-temporary congregations, and a striving to support LGBTQ Jews, inter/multifaith families, non-Jews committed to Reconstructionist communities, and Jews of multicultural and multiracial heritage, among others. Finally, in our modern “global village,” many Reconstructionist communities are responding creatively to the influence and challenges of Eastern religions and “human potential” movements.

As we enter “the second century of Mordecai Kaplan,” intellectual rigor, emotional honesty and spiritual creativity will enable us to continue to evolve with a deep relationship to our Jewish tradition, to our movement’s foundational ideas, and to global issues of environmental, political, economic and spiritual sustainability. Here at Mishkan Shalom, we have the opportunity together to continue to both treasure the heritage of the Jewish people, respond to current needs, challenges and unfolding energies in our times, and in so doing, help co-create and chart the course for the future coming our way. All these areas will be explored at the Reconstructionist Convention. See you there!

Hazak Hazak Hazak v’Nithazek. Let us be strong in our values and lift each other up!


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