Reconstructionist Judaism: The Fourth Denomination

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In 1934 Kaplan published his highly influential book Judaism as a Civilization, considered by many to be one of the major 20th century works of Jewish thought. The positive reception of the book led to the establishment in 1935 of The Reconstructionist magazine, edited by Kaplan and then subsequently by his preeminent disciple and exponent, son-in-law Rabbi Ira Eisenstein. More controversial have been the Reconstructionist liturgical texts, The New Hagaddah (published in 1941) and The Sabbath Prayer Book (published in 1945), which altered the working of the traditional Hebrew text, substituting alternate wording for phrases referring to the chosenness of Israel, the resurrection of the dead and the Messiah.

The Reconstructionist Platform: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

The Reconstructionist movement had at its core the stated belief that God could not literally choose one people over another and that the idea of privileged access to God promoted dangerous feelings of superiority. Kaplan instead argued that all peoples and civilizations had equal access to the divine, and he was willing to embrace the belief that non-Jews could also operate as transmitters of religious ideals.

By defining Judaism as a "civilization" Kaplan made it into an all-embracing way of life that includes languages, literature, food, customs, civil and criminal law, art, music, food—all elements of any civilization but elements usually considered secular. This definition encouraged Jews alienated from traditional theology and practice to become part of the movement.

As a result of the belief that American Jews lived in two civilizations, Kaplan and his followers believed they had a collective responsibility to speak out against social and economic injustice in contemporary society. The pages of Reconstructionist magazine have historically taken strong positions criticizing American militarism, unfair labor practices and institutionalized racism.

At the same time as the Reconstructionist Movement embraced a universalistic vision, Kaplan also deeply believed in developing both Jewish unity and a Jewish civilization and was a strong supporter of Zionism. Although critical of both the secular/religious dichotomy in Israeli society and of Israel's foreign policy, he made aliyah late in his life and lived in Jerusalem.

From Movement to Denomination

Kaplan saw no need to start a separate movement to achieve his goals. His goal was to create a unified American Judaism without denominational factionalism. However, it became clear to his followers that, if Kaplan's visions were to be realized, a separate movement was needed. In 1940, the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation (JRF) was established to support the works that promoted the Reconstructionist program. In 1954, the SAJ joined with three other synagogues to form to Reconstructionist Federation of Congregations as the synagogue arm of the foundation. The organization grew at a gradual pace throughout the 1960s and 1970s under the leadership of Ira Eisenstein and Rabbi Ludwig Nadelmann. It then doubled in size in the 1980s under the direction of Rabbi David Teutsch.

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