The following article is reprinted from the American Jewish Historical Society’s American Jewish Desk Reference: The Ultimate One Volume Reference to the Jewish Experience in America, published by Random House.
Judaism as a Civilization: Early Reconstructionist Thought
The smallest of the four branches of American Judaism, Reconstructionism, originated in the philosophy of one individual–Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan believed that Judaism was a “religious civilization” emerging from the history and culture of the Jewish people. As a “civilization” it was constantly evolving, and it was the goal of Jewish thinkers at any given time to interpret Judaism in the light of contemporary life and thought without abandoning its traditional values.
The beginning of Reconstructionism can be dated to 1922, when Kaplan founded the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a synagogue in New York City. Kaplan gathered Jews who were disaffected with other congregations and committed to “reconstructing” American Judaism so that it spoke more meaningfully to the twentieth-century world. Synagogue members were encouraged to interpret Jewish tradition freely and to create a more democratic institutional life. Kaplan rejected the notion that the Torah and the Talmud had been revealed by God at Sinai or that halakhah (Jewish law) served as an absolute binding set of commandments. Instead, he argued that the development of Jewish belief and practice had always adapted to ever-changing social conditions, political changes, and cultural influences.
In essence, Kaplan’s goal was to build a civil religion for the United States, with American culture rather than biblical tradition as the primary transmitter of Jewish religious values. He believed that Jewish Americans lived in two civilizations. His Reconstructionism sought to promote a blending of American and Jewish values. In this respect, he can be equated to the American Zionists of this period, most notably Louis Brandeis, who believed that organized Zionist movement needed to be filtered through the prism of American constitutionalism.
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