Reconstructionist Judaism in the Mind of Mordecai Kaplan: The Transformation from a Philosophy into a Religious Denomination

By Musher, Deborah Ann | American Jewish History, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Reconstructionist Judaism in the Mind of Mordecai Kaplan: The Transformation from a Philosophy into a Religious Denomination


Musher, Deborah Ann, American Jewish History


In Judaism as a Civilization (Judaism), the 1934 magnum opus in which he most elaborately defined his program for the reconstruction of the American Jewish people, Mordecai Menachem Kaplan made no mention of developing his philosophy into an autonomous denomination of Judaism. On the contrary, his ardent plea for the reunification of the Jewish people as one civilization, together with his recurring emphasis in later writings on the need to incorporate his reconstructionist program into the already-existing branches of Judaism, intimated an inherent philosophical objection to the denominalization of reconstructionism.(1) Repeatedly in his writings Kaplan warned against the divisive force of denominalization and urged that reconstructionism not contribute further to the fragmentation of the Jewish people. Nonetheless, 34 years following the publication of Judaism, in September 1968, reconstructionism declared itself a denomination as it opened the doors to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC).(2)

The fact that this transformation occurred during Kaplan's lifetime raises interesting questions. As time progressed, did Kaplan change his intentions for his reconstructionist philosophy? Did he eventually incorporate into his ideology an argument for the creation of a reconstructionist denomination? Or did other forces exist to propel reconstructionism down a path that Kaplan had not intended?

This paper attempts to answer such inquiries as it examines the historical and philosophical evolution of reconstructionism, a school of thought, into Reconstructionism, an independent denomination within Judaism by focusing on the developments in Kaplan's mind between 1934 and 1968. Thus, while some discussion of the role of Kaplan's followers in the creation of Reconstructionism the denomination is included, such sections are present because they provide relevant context for understanding the evolution of Kaplan's actions and philosophical position.

Tracing the often-opposing motivations of Kaplan and his closest followers, I suggest that Reconstructionism was the invention not of Kaplan but rather of the disciples who pressured him to agree to the redefinition of his school of thought first into a movement and then into an independent denomination. Contrary to the common conception that Kaplan created a fourth branch of Judaism or, at the very least, fully endorsed such a creation, a close examination of his journals suggests that, in fact, he never fully reconciled himself to the path that reconstructionism followed.(3) In fact, even after the RRC had been established and a public Kaplan seemed to support the institution, Kaplan's more private side remained ambivalent about the potentially divisive effects of the denominalization of his philosophy on American Jewry.

The Historical Development of Reconstructionism

At the heart of Kaplan's argument for American Judaism is the need to shift the focus of Judaism from religion to civilization. No longer should the Jewish people define their Jewishness exclusively in terms of their faith and ritual practice. Rather, Kaplan claimed, they must come to understand their Judaism as a rich "accumulation of knowledge, skills, tools, arts, literatures, laws, religions, and philosophies."(4) Kaplan elaborated on the many positive effects that such a redefinition of Judaism would have on the Jewish community. Among them--and most important for the argument of this essay--is the reunification of the Jewish people.

Kaplan stated that divisiveness had rendered the American Jewish community incapable of responding constructively to the challenges it faced living in secular America.(5) In order to survive their minority status American Jews needed to redefine themselves as one unified people. Kaplan recognized that understanding Judaism as a civilization would allow for such unification, for if Jews would view their religion like art, culture, and language, as one of many interrelated components of their Judaism, civilization as a totality could replace faith and ritual as the unifying force behind the Jewish people. …

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