At the heart of Mordecai Kaplan's reconstruction of Judaism is a reconceptualizing of Judaism as a civilization. Kaplan didn’t choose “civilization” merely as a semantic alternative to Jewish peoplehood. He meant to reimagine Judaism in the most inclusive way possible.
Judaism as a civilization encompasses at once the understanding of the Jewish people as a religious community, a nation in the modern political sense, a culture and an ethnicity. All of which Kaplan deemed essential to the survival of Judaism in the twentieth century. He believed that more limited, less inclusive understandings of Judaism that foregrounded one's level of ritual observance — in the case of Orthodoxy, ethical monotheism in the case of (classical) Reform and the purely cultural identity in the case of secular Jews — would fail to attract younger generations of American Jews.
Above all, he regarded Judaism's inherent hierarchy, based on a system of learning that excluded women, as especially problematic and finite. Only a Judaism that offered multiple paths through which all Jews — men and women, boys and girls — could be Jewish would appeal to an increasingly diverse American Jewry.
Suffused by Suffrage
Indeed, Kaplan's overall goal of inclusion was exemplified in his criticism of the relegating of Jewish women and girls to second-class status. This issue irked Kaplan both personally and professionally. Kaplan, after all, was the father of four intellectually dynamic, educated and learned daughters. When the Nineteenth Amendment gave women in America the right to vote, his eldest daughter Judith was approaching Bat Mitzvah age — coinciding events that further italicized the severe differences between Bar and Bat Mitzvah as coming of age moments for Jewish teens.
American society's dramatic step toward civic equality between men and women demanded a Jewish response from Kaplan, both as a father and communal leader: celebrating his daughter Judith's coming of age in the same way a Jewish boy would celebrate this moment — the first modern Bat Mitzvah.
A century later, such celebrations are commonplace. Whether and how much a Jewish child reads from the Torah, chants the Haftarah and leads the service no longer depends on the child's gender. Even some Orthodox congregations have found ways for girls to read the Torah and lead the service. The erstwhile all-male club of Torah readers and Hazzanim now includes men and women alike.
Tear Down That Mechitza
In retrospect, Kaplan's championing of his daughters' right to participate fully in the service was the tip of the iceberg. As the century progressed — chronologically and socially — Kaplan was not alone in noting the contradictory situation of Jewish women.
Successful corporate executives, partners at law firms, accomplished professionals and public officials became second-class citizens the moment they walked through the doors of a synagogue. Leaders in public life were expected to sit passively behind a mechitza, watch the men lead the service — not even be counted in a minyan, even though many men were less knowledgeable, observant and engaged.
In Kaplan's view, Judaism's retrograde exclusion of girls epitomized the broader consequences of excluding Jewish women from public Jewish life, squandering an enormous resource: the intellectual ability, creativity and leadership of half of all Jewish children. Denying Jewish girls a proper Jewish education, he argued, left countless young Jewish minds uncultivated and unable to contribute to the sea of rabbinic thinking and writing that sustained Jewish life for centuries.
To be sure, Kaplan was not the first to call for Jewish girls to receive a full Jewish education. Already during the late nineteenth century, reformers of Jewish communal education, notably Abraham Hochmuth in Hungary and Sarah Schenirer in Poland, attributed the decline of Jewish identity and piety in no small part to Jewish mothers receiving little or nothing in the way of a proper Jewish education.
Yet while these earlier reformers of education called for the amelioration of Jewish education for girls, they still differentiated between what boys and girls should learn and were reluctant to advocate boys and girls studying together. Neither, for example, was prepared to say that girls should study the Talmud.
Equal Footing for Equal Minds
Mordecai Kaplan saw no reason why Jewish girls and boys should not study the same subjects together.
His vision has been realized, in varying degrees, in two ways. The gap between the education of Jewish boys and girls has largely disappeared outside the world of Orthodoxy. And even within that world, educators have embraced the benefits of young women studying Talmud with the intensity and depth of their male counterparts. That some of the best Talmudic minds in the world right now are women, whose contributions to the sea of Talmud are indisputable, attests to the prescience of Kaplan's vision of a more inclusive Judaism and Jewish community.
Women and men studying, thinking and working together, Kaplan believed, would produce a diaspora Jewry most capable of engaging the challenges of the modern world.
... 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.