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10 | The Future of Judaism Mordecai M. Kaplan Mordecai M. Kaplan, “The Future of Judaism,” Menorah Journal, June 1916, 160–72. In the first half of the twentieth century, few individuals did more to reconstruct Jewish thought, practice, and ritual in the United States than Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983). Though Kaplan is best known as the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, his intellectual influence can be seen across the American Jewish denominations. Kaplan was born in Svencian, Lithuania, in the Russian Empire, and immigrated to New York at the age of eight. Both Kaplan’s father, who was a rabbi, and Kaplan himself were influenced by Yitshak Yaakov (Isaac Jacob) Reines (1839–1915). An important rabbinic figure in Lithuania, and late imperial Russia as a whole, Reines was one of the founders and first leaders of the Orthodox Zionist Mizrahi movement, as well as the head of an Orthodox yeshiva that combined secular studies and rabbinic religious training. Kaplan received a yeshiva education but went on to earn degrees from the City College of New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary (where he received his ordination in 1902), and Columbia University. Kaplan worked at the Orthodox synagogue Kehilath Jeshurun in New York until 1909, when he became principal of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s newly established Teachers Institute. Kaplan believed in the necessity of adapting Jewish thought and practice to the challenges of modern science and society, and despite considerable opposition in his own day (he was formally excommunicated by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in 1945), he conceived of or initiated many of the radical changes in Jewish ritual and communal life that have been broadly adopted by American Jewish denominations. For example, he believed that Judaism should reflect the equality of the sexes, and, in 1922, his oldest daughter was the first woman to celebrate a bat mitzvah. Perhaps most important, Kaplan believed that the synagogue should stand at the center of American Jewish life, preserving Jewish difference by serving as the focus of Jewish communal, cultural, and religious activities. Throughout his long career, Kaplan published prolifically on Jewish philosophy, the meaning of Judaism, and the challenges of preserving Jewish life in the United States. Beginning with his early articles in the Menorah Journal, Kaplan struggled to 170 | p r e s e r vat i o n a n d r e c o n s t r uc t i o n­ define Judaism in a way that would preserve Jewish autonomy and be compatible to America’s democratic ethos. He eventually synthesized these ideas in his work Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life, published in 1934. Kaplan contributed frequently to the Menorah Journal, a publication of the Intercollegiate Menorah Association that became the major Englishlanguage venue for intellectual debate on Jewish culture and society in America before World War II. In fact, Kaplan was one of a group of Jewish intellectuals to write in the Menorah Journal on questions of American pluralism and Jewish nationalism. In 1915–16, the Menorah Journal’s first years, Kaplan published a five-part series called “The Meaning of Judaism,” about the nature of Judaism and how to preserve Jewish nationality in American society. In these articles, Kaplan first articulated the key concepts he would develop and return to over many years—in particular, that the Jews are a distinct people, and that what defines Judaism is a collective Jewish consciousness. In “How May Judaism Be Saved?”—the third article in the series—Kaplan discusses both the promise and the danger that American freedom posed to Jewish national identity. According to Kaplan, American democracy’s farreaching individual rights create pressure for Jews to shed their separate collective identity, but at the same time, those rights’ legal protections also afford Jews an opportunity to construct communal institutions capable of sustaining a separate Jewish nationality. In the final article, “The Future of Judaism,” from which the selection below is taken, Kaplan more explicitly explores the possible diverging paths that American Jews face. Kaplan believed the United States, like European countries, to be developing a “New Nationalism” that, in combining nationality and state religion, required the conformity of its citizenry (though this was not at all what Theodore Roosevelt meant when he coined the term “New Nationalism ” in 1910). The fact that America’s state religion is (or will be) “the Religion of Democracy” is particularly threatening to Jewish collective identity because of its inclusivity. Thus, for Kaplan, the only...


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