What do we do when someone calls all religious Jews (from Reform to Orthodox) “unthinking?” When they call our beliefs “cancerous”? That other Jews are “unthinking”?
These ideas come from Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and from the creators of the Reconstructionist Haggadah. They have been taught in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for decades.
This is from “Kaplan After Sinai: Evolution or Revelation?” by Mel Scult
The Reconstructionist, Volume 70, Number 1, Fall 2005
Kaplan felt that the belief that theTorah came down to Moses on Mount Sinai simply made no sense and, moreover, the implication of absolute truth inherent in it was more than he could tolerate. He confided the following to his journal:
The problem of Judaism would not be so acute if the traditional doctrine of revelation were merely obsolete. The trouble is that to cherish that doctrine is as unethical as being guilty of bigamy. To believe that we are in possession of the authentically revealed will of God is incompatible with religious tolerance, to say nothing of religious equality . . . I have come to feel about the traditional doctrine of revelation as the prophets felt about the baalized worship of YHWH and as Maimonidies felt about the anthropomorphic conception of God.That doctrine must now be opposed as being a vestige of ancient idolatry.
Kaplan Journal, entry for July 11, 1943.
Some Thoughts on Passover and Kaplan’s The New Haggadah. Mel Scult
In 1941 there were few alternative Haggadahs. The traditional Haggadah emphasized the power of God in liberating the Israelites ; it was God that was the center of attention. Moses is not mentioned in the traditional Haggadah but he is the hero for Kaplan. Kaplan shifted the whole focus of the holiday to the matter of freedom. We now take this paradigm shift for granted but it was revolutionary in 1941.
For Kaplan the most exciting aspect of the New Haggadah was the opportunity to state publicly, through changing the kiddush, that the language referring to the election of Israel [ chosenness ] should be eliminated totally from Jewish ritual. He had eliminated it at the SAJ but the New Haggadah was for him a powerful statement on this “cancerous growth in Jewish consciousness” and he was happy to remove it from the Haggadah.
Some ask about Kaplan’s omission of the plagues in his New Haggadah. He does not give his reason for omitting the details of the plagues [ he does mention them in his Haggadah on page 49 but he does not list them.]
The New Haggadah appeared in 1941 but was sent to the publisher before the War started and before Kaplan knew about the cruelties of the concentration camps. Although he was fully conscious of the rise of Nazism and in a sense much of the Haggadah is a protest against fascism, he did not think the plagues should be enshrined in ritual. Below are some general statements which may prove useful at this time.
Preaching on Freedom April 13, 1941
Yesterday I preached on “ The Freedom Indispensable to Democracy”. I developed the thought that inner freedom consisted of an unreconciled heart, a challenging mind and a will that is both dauntless and cooperative.
[Communings of the Spirit, vol 2. page 320]
Freedom – The Message of the Haggadah.
April 9, 1942
A striking illustration of what Reconstructionism should do is what it has done with the Haggadah. The traditional Haggadah fails entirely to accentuate the theme of freedom. Its motif is specifically that of recapturing the spirit of the sacrificial rite in Jerusalem with the purpose of having the seder as a substitute for the pilgrimage offering that was brought to the Temple. That motif is definitely theurgic. [ i.e. magical ed.] It falls in line with what the average person expects from religion, namely guidance in the performance of mystic rites to appease the invisible superhuman powers. This is why the unthinking Jew hankers after the ritual of pouring off some wine from his cup for each of the plagues. In the Reconstructionist version the original motif gives way to the motif of freedom. Whereas Moses was out of place in a sacrificial motif, he is indispensable in the freedom motif.
[ Communings of the Spirit, vol 3, p. 49]
Kaplan on The Chosen People
Tuesday, April 29, 1941
For once I have acted out a dream of mine. The elimination from the Kiddush in the Haggadah of the reference to our being a chosen people has called down upon me the vociferous protestations of the great do-nothings who command positions of spiritual influence in Jewish life but who, having a vested interest in the status quo, confine their activity to protesting against any move to blow off the sacred dust that has collected on the ancient stereotypes. I anticipated the storm which has broken loose and which may develop into a hurricane. But I had to dislodge from the Jewish mentality an idea which was bound to be most obstructive in any growth, reconstruction and progress in Jewish life.
The very act of affirming with all the solemn pretense of prayer an idea which is not taken seriously and which in fact is flouted and ridiculed is the greatest offense against elemental decency. That Jews could be so insensitive as to permit themselves such flummery would be evidence either of senility or degeneracy. I could not continue to work for the Jewish cause if it was to be inextricably tied up with such unfeeling disregard for the sanctity of prayer. Thank God I have had the courage to go through with the excision of such a cancerous growth from the Jewish consciousness.
Alone among Jewish theologians and philosophers stood Mordecai M. Kaplan in his assault on chosenness and excision of references in the liturgy to the chosen people. He believed the doctrine to be racially tinged and dangerous as a breeder of contempt for others. “The idea of race or national superiority exercises divisive influences generating suspicion and hatred,” he wrote already in 1934. Later on, he added that “we cannot assume that Israel must at all times possess that spirit to a higher degree than other people.” In his personal diary, he reflected more vitriolicly: “Thank God I had had the courage to go through with the excision of such a cancerous growth from the Jewish consciousness …”
And in a remarkable outburst in class, witnessed by this writer, he heatedly called the doctrine “racism and Nazism” — much to the outrage of the students. Kaplan carried his theory into practice as he expunged references to the chosen people from his Reconstructionist prayerbook.
Some are chosen, all are loved, Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, Executive Director, National Council of Synagogues
The official statement of principles of Reconstructionist Judaism says that they are the only ethical Jews, and that all other Jewish groups are of racists who look down on all other human beings. This attack on all Jews is especially horrifying considering that this is basically a quote from Nazi Germany newspapers: The Reconstructionists make the same attack on all other Jews.
Reconstructionism does not accept the traditional concept of the Jews as “the chosen people. Chosenness however reinterpreted is conceptually inconsistent with a naturalistic conception of God, and is morally untenable as IT IMPLIES THE SUPERIORITY OF THE ELECT COMMUNITY AND REJECTION OF OTHERS.
In 1986, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) and the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations (FRC) passed the official “Platform on Reconstructionism” (2 pages. FRC Newsletter, Sept. 1986, pages D, E.