The Challenge of Implementing Reconstructionism: Art, Ideology, and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism's Sanctuary Mural
Waxman, Deborah, Norden, Joyce Galpern, American Jewish History
In May 1935, a large-scale, three-paneled mural was unveiled in the sanctuary of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), a synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side established more than a decade earlier by Mordecai M. Kaplan, the founding thinker of the Reconstructionist movement in American Judaism, and his followers. Painted by an art student who was directly influenced by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, the mural included more than fifty images of contemporaneous Palestinian Jews. It was a significant departure from most synagogue art of the period, which avoided figural representation based on the prevailing belief that it was forbidden by the Second Commandment. Titled Elements of Palestine, Old and New, the mural presented a Labor Zionist vision of pioneers, with the central panel celebrating a kibbutz harvest (see Figures 1 and 2). One side panel featured recent Zionist accomplishments (see Figure 3); the second captured the diversity of the inhabitants of prestate Israel (see Figure 4).
How did a mural influenced by a radical leftist painter and depicting the program of an avowedly secular political movement come to hang in the prayer space of an American synagogue? The mural was painted by Temima Nimtzowitz, a New York artist and Kaplan disciple who had earlier sat on the scaffolding with Diego Rivera as he painted murals during the 1933 construction of Rockefeller Center. (1) She created it expressly for the SAJ, which served as an experimental laboratory for Kaplan's Reconstructionist ideas. Commissioned by Kaplan, the mural was part of his agenda for the radical reimagining of American Jewish life. As this article will argue, however, both the mural's creation and reception reflected the serious challenges Kaplan and his followers faced in inspiring American Jews to embrace their vision. In particular, it highlights the difficulties they experienced in translating an ideological platform into a concrete program that would attract large numbers of adherents.
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Kaplan and his followers had established the SAJ in i922., after they broke away from the Jewish Center, an Upper West Side Orthodox synagogue where Kaplan had served as founding rabbi. (2) Though established to meet the religious needs of its members, the synagogue's name reveals the more expansive aspiration of its founders to serve as a laboratory where Kaplan could work out liturgical and communal innovations that would help to develop his philosophy of Reconstructionism and, in this way, to "advance" Judaism so that it would thrive in a modern environment. (3)
Kaplan maintained that eastern European Jewish immigrants to America and their children felt torn between a traditional "old world" version of Judaism, which was law-based and dependent on a degree of social, religious and cultural exclusivity, and the appeals of American society, including a democratic government, a consumer-oriented economy, and the possibility of meaningful participation in American life. Kaplan's formulation of Judaism as the "evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people," made widely known with the publication of his Judaism as a Civilization in 1934, was a response to the impact of modernity on Jewish life and to the challenges and possibilities presented by the American context. Chief among his concerns was the potential for fragmentation and divisiveness as competing visions of Judaism and Jewish life began to multiply. Kaplan's approach sought to accommodate both the religious expression of Judaism, including liberal innovations, and, in contrast to the Reform Judaism of his day, to celebrate the "ethnic" or "national" expressions of Jewish life, including ones that were exclusively secular. (4) Among the innovations introduced at the SAJ in its first decade was the establishment of a bat mitzvah ceremony for girls and the elimination--temporary, as it turned out--of Kol Nidrei from the Yom Kippur liturgy on the grounds that its legal formulation was mistaken by most worshippers for a prayer. (5)
A commitment to the breadth of Jewish culture was one of the central tenets of Reconstructionism and, as laid out in Judaism as a Civilization, was in equal measure part of Kaplan's diagnosis of the challenges facing Jewish life and his prescription for Jewish survival. Kaplan promoted the concept of Judaism as a "civilization"--comprised of "the accumulation of knowledge, skills, tools, arts, literatures, laws, religions and philosophies"--to enable Jews to make sense of Judaism in light of modernity and to reconstruct it to ensure its continuing vitality. (6) Aestheticism, Kaplan argued along with progressive educators of the period, was a hallmark of modernity; "esthetic experience and creativity" had risen in importance in direct proportion to the fading of religion as a unifying social force. (7) Kaplan saw the shift toward the aesthetic as a critical means toward his end of revitalizing religion. "Works of art give expression to the group emotions and provide occasions for participating in them," he observed. "Art forms may thus be understood as the rhythms into which the emotions of a civilization fall at their moments of highest power and intensity, and correspond to the heightened speech-rhythms of emotional excitement." Thus he insisted that Judaism needed to build on any historical artistic creativity in order to be relevant and to perpetuate itself in the modern era. "A civilization cannot endure on a high plane," he warned, "without the preservation and cultivation of its arts." (8)
In making his case for the centrality of art to Jewish regeneration, Kaplan pointed to the ways in which Jewish artistic expression had flourished from the days of the Israelites--in literary expression, illuminated manuscripts, and hand wrought ritual objects--even in the face of the Second Commandment's prohibition against figural representation. (9) These examples of artistic creativity, he argued, countered the widespread notion that Jews had not historically been an artistic people. Occasionally, his tone on the subject approached the polemical, as it did when he argued that a denial of the Jewish artistic heritage was "dangerous to the perpetuation of Judaism." In Kaplan's worldview, the existence of a civilization "implies a specific esthetic mood" that expresses the group's "individual interpretation of the world in color, sound and image" and "contributes a unique expressive value to each object of the spiritual life of that people." Thus, without a strong artistic expressiveness, Jews would neither be able to foster nor enjoy the full complexity of experience inherent in the life of a civilization, and Judaism would harden into an anachronistic artifact rather than a source of meaning and inspiration. (10)
Kaplan applauded the "unmistakable signs of Jewish life" that he observed in the artistic realm in both America and Palestine. Consistent with the vision of his fellow cultural Zionists, who emphasized the importance of art in attaining a healthy, modern Jewish identity and who promoted an "open-ended, experimental, eclectic and all-inclusive" view of Jewish art, Kaplan attributed these developments to the propensity of Jews to "[flower] in art as soon as they were liberated from the anxieties and fears of persecution."" In Kaplan's opinion, however, as laudable as these signs were, they were insufficient. The stakes were high: in the modern era, "esthetics" had replaced religion as a major--if not the primary--vehicle for expressing spiritual values. Unless contemporary Jewish civilization fostered compelling aesthetic expressions, "Jews who subscribe to the modern emphasis upon the esthetic" would lose interest in Judaism. (12)
Kaplan prescribed an extensive program for generating "abundant and variegated esthetic creativity," advocating the formation of choral societies, glee clubs, and quartets; the expansion of Hebrew and Yiddish theater; the cultivation of a "distinctly Jewish" architecture for Jewish public institutions; and the establishment of a Jewishly inflected design industry that would enable Jewish homes to be decorated according to a Jewish aesthetic. (13) Most especially, Kaplan believed that aesthetic creativity should infuse Jewish worship. "In organizing public worship," he wrote, "the aim should be to utilize as much as possible ... poetry, music, song, drama and ... dance." Art, too, was a cultural expression, both an end in itself and a means toward cultural regeneration. Kaplan did not worry about syncretism, dilution, or distraction, though he did demand rigorousness in quality and content. Included in this mandate was the incorporation of figural representation into worship settings. In Kaplan's view, the prohibition against "the use of human form" was not only antiquated and divorced from the original concern about "idolatrous worship" that had inspired it. It was also potentially destructive in the way that it prevented the deeper spiritual engagement of modern Jews.
Kaplan's goal was not simply the engagement of individual Jews, the fostering of a distinctive American Jewish aesthetic, or the revitalization of worship in American synagogues. Kaplan's program of creative exploration--utilizing the widest possible range of artistic expression, of Jewish and human values expressive of the Jewish past and present--was intended to help weave a common thread through the multiple varieties of Judaism that otherwise threatened to fragment the Jewish community in modern America. "When Judaism has acquired the potency of multiple appeal," Kaplan prophesied, "not even extreme diversity of belief will threaten its integrity." (14)
Kaplan also believed that cultural and aesthetic expressions of Jewishness would provide an effective means of translating his abstract ideology of Jewish life into an influential program widely supported by the Jewish public. Reflecting in his diary on an artist he had engaged for the SAJ and whom he thought might be "of great help in giving concrete form to the program of Judaism as a civilization," Kaplan wrote:
The more I think on the problem of Judaism the more convinced I am that the only possibility of saving Judaism in this country and for that matter anywhere, even in Palestine, is making it the theme of as many and varied aesthetic creations as possible. If I had the genius of a William Morris I would have been able to demonstrate in a practical way what ! have in mind. As it is I must content myself with acting as impresario of existing artistic Jewish talent."
Accordingly, Kaplan embedded an embrace of cultural creativity in the SAJ's credo, the Thirteen Wants, which he composed in 1926 and modeled after Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith." Want number ten reads: "We want Judaism to find rich, manifold and ever new expression in philosophy, letters and the arts." (17) During the first decade of the SAJ, Kaplan pursued this plank of his program by implementing an intensive schedule of adult education that focused significantly on cultural offerings. (18)
If the publication of Judaism as a Civilization had given Kaplan the chance to articulate his stance on Jewish art as part of his larger philosophy of Reconstructionism, he found an opportunity to pursue his ideas in a more concrete fashion shortly after the book appeared. In the fall of 1934, …
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Publication information: Article title: The Challenge of Implementing Reconstructionism: Art, Ideology, and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism's Sanctuary Mural. Contributors: Waxman, Deborah - Author, Norden, Joyce Galpern - Author. Journal title: American Jewish History. Volume: 95. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 2009. Page number: 195+. © 1998 American Jewish Historical Society. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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