What Does It Imply? How Does It Apply?: Holiday Editorials in the Reconstructionist, 1935-1955

Article excerpt

Mordecai Kaplan founded The Reconstructionist to popularize his thought and to show its relevance to issues then facing American Jews. Accordingly, each issue of the magazine opened with a series of editorials in which current events were analyzed from the standpoint of Reconstructionism. This article examines those pieces that appeared before, during, or immediately after the Jewish holidays and generally sought to uncover a festival's relevance to secular life. Editorials of this nature were especially prevalent in the magazine's first twenty years of publication, and the pieces respond to the major events of the day: the rise of Nazism and fascism, World War Two, McCarthyism, and the founding of the State of Israel. They provide a concise picture of Kaplan's social vision and illustrate the interpretive process that he believed was necessary to render Judaism relevant to the modern age. A brief history of The Reconstructionist is included.

The publication of Mordecai Kaplan's Judaism as a Civilization in May of 1934 was a turning point for the dissemination of Reconstructionist thought. Although many of its ideas had been aired previously in journal articles,1 the book presented the first complete exposition of its author's views. Community centers and synagogues organized discussions of the book, and Kaplan received numerous requests to lecture on its contents. Later that year, Kaplan and Ira Eisenstein-his son-in-law and assistant rabbi of The Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ)2-decided to publish a journal devoted to the Reconstuctionist viewpoint.3 The first issue of The Reconstructionist appeared on January 11, 1935.

Testimonies of people involved in the early years of the journal indicate that it was founded to serve two interrelated purposes. First, to review contemporary events from the standpoint of Reconstructionism, a purpose emphasized by the journal's name.4 This would demonstrate Reconstructionism's relevance to current issues, make clear the practical implications of Kaplan's thought, and render it accessible to "people who are too busy or too impatient to follow the intricacies of elaborate philosophical discussion."5 Fittingly, the lead editorial of the inaugural issue summarized Kaplan's ideological position.6

Second, and perhaps most important, The Reconstructionist was founded to motivate the implementation of Reconstructionism in American Jewish life. Reflecting on the journal's first four months of publication, the editors made clear that they hoped "to challenge the complacency of our people with Jewish things as they are." Although the magazine had a small subscription base-only 1,000 copies of each issue were distributed in the first year, including free copies given to all members of the SAJ7-many of the readers were communal leaders. They could "constitute the vanguard of the forces of reconstruction" by forming "Reconstructionist Clubs" that would discuss the contents of the magazine and plan "how their fellow Jews can be made to feel the impact of The Reconstructionist's philosophy and program." It is not clear whether clubs of this nature actually emerged in the 1930s,8 but The Reconstructionist did influence the thought of many Jews, including those who created the first Reconstructionist congregations in the 1950s and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1968.9

The Reconstructionist's editorials were central to the realization of both of the magazine's goals, and approximately four of its original 16 pages10 were devoted to them.11 Since the magazine appeared bi-monthly, editorials could truly respond to events and issues as they emerged.12 The editorial line was formulated collectively by the Editorial Board, which consisted primarily of Reform and Conservative rabbis and of educators sympathetic to Kaplan's view.13 Discussions could be long, intense and heated, but a consensus generally emerged. The editorial was then assigned for writing to the board member with the greatest expertise in the subject addressed. …