In quantitative terms, the impact of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan on American Jews appears limited. Numerically, Kaplan's impact does not amount to very much. Far fewer Jews have identified as Reconstructionist than as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform; and Reconstructionist Judaism, the movement Kaplan founded a century or so ago, has comparatively few congregations and rabbis.
More importantly and less obviously, in qualitative terms Kaplan's impact is far more significant. Simply put, for the last century, American Jews across the spectrum of observance and belief — from Humanist to Haredi and from Labor Zionist to Lubavicher — have been following parts of Kaplan's Jewish community playbook page by page.
Even the Jews who excommunicated Kaplan for his humanist understanding of commandments and the divine, selectively (and probably unwittingly) have embraced his ideas about transmitting Jewish identity and enhancing the Jewish community.
Indeed, Kaplan's panoply of ideas and communal strategies have arguably been at the heart of American Jewry's survival as a viable community during the last century.
This is a major claim that requires some explanation. Kaplan himself was one of many American Jewish intellectuals and communal leaders who, during the last three centuries, were convinced that their generation of American Jewry was the last. Growing up in America as the children of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Kaplan believed as a young man that the identity and sense of community that Jews transplanted to America, whether from the shtetl or from vibrant metropolitan Jewish communities like Warsaw and Vilna, simply would not be able to withstand the novel allures of a wide open mainstream society and culture in America — the place where religion purportedly went to die.
Only by reconstructing Judaism in all its complexity, Kaplan believed, would the Jewish identity of individual American Jews, let alone the cohesion of American Jewish communities, survive the pressures of assimilation in America. Kaplan's solution to this quandary was Reconstructionist Judaism.
Freedom of Religion
Kaplan's reconstruction of Judaism began with an adaptation of the core Jewish notion of mitzvot. In America — whose attitude toward religion was defined by the notion, articulated in the First Amendment to the Constitution, that religious belief, observance and affiliation are private and voluntary matters — rabbis and lay leaders in American faced the daunting task of leadership in an age of religious volunteerism. All Jewish communities, Orthodox communities no less than any others, are essentially voluntary societies that rely on their constituents opting in and choosing to observe.
In this situation, Kaplan believed, Jewish guilt and the nostalgic reinvention of a pure and authentic past were antiquated, anemic means of guaranteeing Jewish observance and affiliation. In other words, lacking the real communal authority they enjoyed in Europe and the Muslim World, how could Jewish leaders get their followers to choose to pay communal dues, keep kosher, attend synagogue, and invest in a proper Jewish education?
Kaplan's solution to this quandary was replacing the notion of mitzvah with a twentieth century sociological substitute: folkway.
By Law or Commandment?
To be clear, Kaplan did not reject the value of observing the commandments delineated in the Torah and expanded by rabbinic tradition. Rather, he rejected the long-term viability of the obligatory nature of observing mitzvot in an age and society that valued individual freedom and choice — and regarded religion as entirely voluntary.
Most Jews in America, he presciently feared, would be alienated from Judaism not because they craved shrimp or wanted to play golf on Saturday, but rather because they were forbidden to eat unkosher food and golf on shabbat. Kaplan was very much attuned to the natural human instinct that accepts more easily that which is voluntary and resists and rejects that which is imposed. This was the basis of Kaplan's notion of folkways replacing commandments.
Far from rejecting commandments à la classical Reform, Kaplan threw down a gauntlet to rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders of all ilks: show your congregants and followers that a mitzvah has meaning and relevance so that they will choose to make it part of their life.
Here Kaplan imported the distinction that Jewish philosophers like Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig drew between "law," which they understood as observance because of an external (and hence less meaningful) instruction and "commandment" — which they defined as something Jews do because it has meaning.
A specific example: claiming that the reason to refrain from riding in a car on Shabbat is simply because Jewish law prohibits it, Kaplan argued, is theologically and intellectually lazy and out of sync with the voluntary nature of American society. Instead, the reason Jews would choose to walk to the synagogue on Shabbat rather than drive, Kaplan suggested, was because walking enhanced the ritual of attending synagogue. By the same token, however, Kaplan noted that if driving on Shabbat in order to spend the day with family enhanced the day — have at it.
The goal was to make Shabbat meaningful, not invent an arbitrary shibboleth based on whether or not one chose to drive in a car on Shabbat. Realist that he was, Kaplan knew that many Jews in America would not volunteer for something conveyed as mandatory and would wind up non-observant and indifferent; but giving Jews the choice, he believed, would keep more affiliated than berating non-observant Jews with guilt and dismissing them as assimilated and lost.
Shul with a Pool
Ever the pragmatist, Kaplan's theoretical reconceptualization of commandments into folkways was the point of departure for a more broadly impactful array of changes — recreating the central institutions of Jewish communal life, especially the synagogue and communal education. Kaplan re-imagined the synagogue from a place where Jews gathered largely to pray and study into a communal space where Jews met for a virtually limitless range of activities: prayer, study, meals, card-playing, movies, book clubs, youth programs, and, of course basketball and swimming. His new imagined synagogue was nicknamed "shul with a pool." In fact, what he invented was the Jewish Community Center, the place where Jews do religious and recreational activities with other Jews.
Kaplan's expansive notion of the synagogue, moreover, resonated beyond the institutional novelty of the JCC. Today it is hard to find a Temple, Synagogue or Shul of any kind that is not a venue for a wide range of activities — some religious, some not — and especially youth activities.
Our own community has no shortage of examples. Exhibit A is Temple Israel, an exemplar of a congregation reaping the benefits of Kaplan's example of making Judaism at once meaningful, satisfying, enjoyable and inclusive. More surprising perhaps, try to find a Chabad that does not have sisterhood and that does not organize youth activities — a quintessentially Kaplan-esque use of a shul.
No less important was Kaplan's reconceptualization of Jewish communal education. He believed the dual curriculum day school was the best medium for instilling a strong Jewish identity. Yet his pragmatic side recognized, first, that most American Jewish children, regardless of denomination and level of observance, would not have access to the first-rate dual curriculum learning experience of a day school; and, second, that structural impediments (that most of us could list with little difficulty) limited the effectiveness of the after-school Hebrew school model of Jewish education.
Instead, Kaplan proposed informal settings as preferable venues for Jewish education as a complement to day school education and as supplement to public school education — in particular, the Jewish youth movement and the Jewish summer camp.
Kaplan correctly recognized that Jewish children liberated from their natural resistance to being in school would be more open to Jewish learning, observance, enthusiasm and pride. Whether at an evening program or weekend convention with friends — or immersed for a couple weeks or even months at a time in a remote bucolic setting — without conventional teachers and parental figures, being Jewish and living Jewish would become the background to an array of fun and formative activities.
Today every summer camp with a clear-cut mission of instilling Jewish identity and pride in young people uses this formula for instilling a love of Judaism in young people. Jewish youth movements are a temporal variation on this theme — similar formula, different setting. Whatever the specific mission, Jewish summer camps and youth movements are indebted to Kaplan's notion on informal Jewish education.
State of Israel state of mind
Along these lines, Kaplan recognized the centrality of Zionism and the State of Israel as indispensable in a rejuvenated educational endeavor. Writing at a time when Zionism was still largely alien to most Orthodox and Reform Jews, in America and even more so in Europe, Kaplan was among a small coterie of visionary American Jewish leaders who encouraged American Jews of all stripes to embrace Zionism. (The Conservative and Reconstructionist Movements embraced Zionism wholeheartedly a generation before Orthodoxy and Reform).
Very much the disciple of Ahad Ha'am, Kaplan embraced the Zionist aim of creating a sovereign Jewish State in the Land of Israel not only as a refuge from Anti-Semitism; but also because he regarded the secular Jewish culture that would radiate from a future Jewish state as indispensable shield with which American Jewry and other diaspora Jewish communities could withstand the pressures of assimilation. Kaplan wisely noted that, for the growing number of American Jews with a diminishing interest in religion, a Jewish identity defined by secular Zionism provided a much-needed alternative to the hitherto rigid either-or choice between religiously observant and culturally assimilated.
For observant Jews, too, Zionism and the State of Israel resonate deeply. All but the most zealously pietistic Orthodox schools teach their students about Israel and encourage them not only to make aliyah but to become Israeli citizens and serve in the army. In our own community, students at Farber, Hillel, and Temple Israel share a deep connection to eretz yisrael and medinat yisrael.
Proud to be Jewish
A century later, the possibility of a strong sense of Jewishness apart from an observant lifestyle resonates widely and deeply among American Jews, evidenced ironically by the much-lamented 2013 Pew Report. Alongside a dismal set of data regarding plummeting levels of observance and rising levels of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews, a more telling statistic perhaps was the fact that 94% of Jews surveyed — Orthodox and otherwise — reported that they are proud to be Jewish.
The bottom line is that, a century after Kaplan proposed a new brand of Judaism for American Jews, the fears that his generation would be the last have not come to fruition, nor have the comparable fears of subsequent generations. Kaplan and Kaplanite Judaism deserve some real credit; we continue to enjoy the fruit of the trees that he planted a century ago.