Let There Be Reconstruction
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The toll of the Great Depression was felt acutely, but by no means uniquely, by American Jewry. The synagogue building boom of the 1920s – case in point, the Park Avenue Synagogue sanctuary dedicated in 1927 – was followed by a period of Jewish life described by Dr. Beth Wenger as a spiritual depression. Synagogues became unable to meet their debts given unprecedented requests for dues assistance while others deemed synagogue membership a discretionary budget item. Temple Emanu-El, for instance, hemorrhaged by forty-four percent. While some communities, like our own, responded by making religious education free to any child seeking it, difficult decisions were unavoidable. The Brooklyn Jewish Center went on a self-declared “starvation diet”; professionals at KJ went without pay for as many as eight months; and Kane Street paid its employees on a month-to-month basis. Mushroom synagogues began to emerge as low-cost alternatives to established congregations, chipping away at foundational assumptions of communal life. It’s not that American and New York Jewry had no challenges prior to 1929. Our hands were already full with an assimilating second generation who had an increasingly tenuous relationship to the faith of their ancestors. Rather the economic and spiritual depression of those years served to accelerate the challenges, rendering them both existential and unavoidable.
Having begun his career around the corner at KJ, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan had gone on to become the founding rabbi of 86th Street’s Jewish Center and by 1922, had moved a few blocks east to establish the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ). Kaplan’s financial hit was such that he not only lost nearly half his life’s savings, but he found himself in the position of having to raise money for his own salary. Kaplan never lost sight of his blessings – he knew there were many who would gladly trade places with him – but his diaries, published by his biographer Dr. Mel Scult, render evident the dark night of Kaplan’s soul. Kaplan had long despaired of the Sisyphean affair of keeping Judaism alive in America. He felt his professional disappointments more keenly because he had passed on offers in previous years to take charge of the educational system in Palestine or to become the president of the Jewish Institute of Religion. Despite his stature as a congregational leader, a communal presence, and a public intellectual with a steady stream of popular articles, Kaplan felt the acute frustration of having never published a book, a full statement of his vision. In fall of 1929, he was forty-eight years old, a father of four, and several manuscripts lay unfinished in a drawer. “I feel,” he recorded in his diary during those months, “like a polar bear on an ice floe that is drifting into warmer zones as he watches with growling impotence the steady dwindling of his home.” (Communings of the Spirit, Vol. I: The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, p. 394)
The details of what happened next come by way of Dr. Scult’s scholarship. A group of Wall Street leaders hatched an initiative to seed an essay contest – a crowdsourcing effort if you will – on ideas to save and strengthen American Jewry. The noted philanthropist Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck fame responded with an initial (and eventually increased) prize of ten thousand dollars. A panel of anonymous judges from across Jewish life was appointed, and an announcement was issued that read in part: “For the fullest spiritual development of the individual Jew and the most effective functioning of the Jewish community in America, how can Judaism best adjust itself to and influence modern life . . . ?” Kaplan saw the opening and threw himself into the challenge, taking all that he had written, all his love for Judaism and the Jewish people, and all of his instincts about the lived lives of the Jews he served, and began to draft his magnum opus. When the contest closed in 1931, the judges had sixty-two manuscripts to review. Kaplan’s book – Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American Jewish Life – took first prize. Kaplan gave the Rosenwald prize money to a publisher, and the first edition was released in May 1934.
For Kaplan, the book was redemptive. It was the first of many books he would write before his death in 1983; he lived another 50 years before passing away at the age of 103. To the degree that American Jewry has a Bible, Kaplan’s book is it, in historian Hasia Diner’s words: “arguably the most important book in the history of American Judaism.” (Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World (Jewish Lives), p. 112) Kaplan examined the existing institutions and religious movements of his day and found them wanting. While it would be impossible to distill all 522 pages (not counting footnotes) into a sermon, for our purposes one might say he took the three primary categories of Jewish existence – Believing, Belonging and Behaving – and provided a radical conceptual shift in each, arguing that more than Jewish institutions, Judaism itself must evolve and be reconstructed in order to be saved. Kaplan’s God-idea – “Believing” – was a very different, more naturalistic God than that of prior formulations. Kaplan’s vision of a synagogue center, a shul with a pool and a school – “Belonging” – was revolutionary compared to the prayer shtibl of the shtetl immigrant. Kaplan’s notion of Judaism as a civilization, a shared set of Jewish folkways – “Behaving” – was a radical departure from the commanded mitzvot of yesteryear. Kaplan, to be sure, had shared many of his ideas prior to his book, and some of his ideas would have to wait years to be implemented. And yet it is no understatement to say that Kaplan’s vision has shaped the last ninety years of American Jewish life. The JCC movement, the sprawling suburban synagogues in which many of us grew up, havurot, the language of Jewish peoplehood that we take for granted, the bat mitzvah ceremony – Kaplan’s fingerprints are everywhere for those who know where to look. Kaplan’s vision transitioned, transformed, and reconstructed American Jewry from its old-world roots to its American setting. His was a bold vision, a Copernican revolution during a time – and this is the most important part – that was anything but hopeful.
Today is Rosh Hashanah, according to the Jewish calendar the day the world was created, a day given over to possibility and new beginnings. We look at the concentric circles of our existence, as individuals, as Jews, and as members of a wider humanity. The High Holiday mahzor announces: Hayom harat olam, Today the world was born, which Dr. Gerson Cohen translated as “today is pregnant with eternity.” Today is a day when we dare look beyond the horizon of our vision. And today, more than any other Rosh Hashanah in my life and I imagine in yours, our dreams, our hopes, our plans seem stillborn. Ninety years after the Great Depression, COVID-19 has inflicted unspeakable suffering on our world, our country, our Jewish community, and ourselves. We look at the year gone by and we mourn the loss of loved ones. We have been humbled by a pandemic that has laid bare our physical vulnerabilities, exposed our economic fears, and frayed the very fabric of civil democratic society. The psalm of the season asks but one thing – to return to God’s sanctuary – a request that cannot be fulfilled this year. It is not good, the book of Genesis counsels, to be alone; yet this year we are more alone than ever – physically distant from friends, family and community – in a social recession whose effects are beyond measure and as yet not fully understood. A loss of any kind is hard, but our present loss is made more difficult by our awareness that it proceeds apace, into a future with more unknowns than knowns. We remain very much in the midst of the valley of the shadow. There is very little to laugh at, and there is no one here to laugh if there were. I am reminded of the difference between an optimist and a pessimist. The pessimist says, “Things can’t possibly get any worse.” The optimist says, “Cheer up, of course they can.” After what we have been through, with what we are going through, who could fault any of us for being that optimist of the worst kind?
Pastorally speaking, pointing out historic hurts tends not to alleviate the pain a person feels. The discovery that someone, somewhere, sometime once mourned a loved one, went through a painful divorce, or suffered an economic setback, rarely, if ever, diminishes one’s own sorrow. Nevertheless, the story of Kaplan remains instructive, but not because his circumstances were the same as ours, nor because his prescriptive steps recommend themselves for us today. Kaplan is a model for us because he demonstrated the will and the vision to reconstruct Judaism and Jewish life – the heroic hallmark of our people since the very beginning. Abraham first modeled it for us when, struck by the insight that there is one God, he smashed the idols in his father’s workshop. Moses, having just received the law at Mount Sinai, transformed ancient Israel’s religious life by way of the mishkan, a mobile desert tabernacle to house God’s presence. In the seventh century BCE, King Josiah centralized Israel’s worship, and then in the sixth century, Ezra upended the working definition of who was and was not a Jew. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who was literally (and figuratively) spirited out of a ruined Jerusalem in a coffin, asked Vespasian to “Give me Yavne and its sages,” and transformed Judaism from a Temple-based religion of sacrifice to a Rabbinic-based religion of prayer, study, and mitzvot. Kabbalah arose in the wake of the expulsion of Spanish Jewry; Mendelsohn, the rise of denominations and even Hasidism, in the wake of the Enlightenment and Emancipation. Each one of these moments, Kaplan’s included, reflects a time when Jews, faced with unprecedented circumstances, honestly assessed their situation, recognized that a commitment to the Jewish past demands bold thinking about the Jewish future, appropriated the best ideas of the day, and were willing to break an egg or two in order to make an omelet. And in most of these cases, these new beginnings took place in times of physical and spiritual deprivation. Intellectual historians often draw a line connecting Kaplan’s language of reconstruction and that of the philosopher John Dewey. I think we do Kaplan a disservice if we miss the more obvious meaning of the word “reconstruction” in its Depression context: that which has been rebuilt after being damaged or destroyed. Kaplan was just doing what Jews have always done.
Whatever your walk of life, whatever the challenge you face in these dark days, it is incumbent upon us all to muster a willingness to think anew about the future. It has been our core muscle from the very beginning. Lest we forget, the opening verses of Genesis place the act of creation on the foundation of tohu va-vohu, that which is unformed and void. All of the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings and Haftarot – Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Ishmael, Hannah, Rachel – describe moments of physical and spiritual deprivation. All of us are hurting right now, all of us have been kicked off the merry-go-round. There is not one person whose life has not been diminished. And while we could, if we so chose, spend our time measuring whose hurt is more, and we should, if we are human, respond to each other’s pain with generosity of spirit and deed, it strikes me that the calling of today demands something more. In Kaplan’s words, today “we are neither anesthetized by the shallow optimism of a Pollyanna, nor for that matter the moral suicide of helplessness.” Rosh Hashanah is an “act of regeneration by direct human agency.” Today we adopt “a state of mind in which both idealism and realism are equally represented.” (The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, p. 132). Today we have hope. We have hope and we leverage that hope towards reconstructing our future.
I spend most of my waking hours thinking, worrying, working, and praying for the Jewish people, specifically, the members of this congregation. Long before today, you have heard me say that we have an obligation to confront the tough questions facing American Jewry and lead the way in formulating the answers. And now . . . here we are. The other week, as I was writing this sermon, my teenage son walked into the room and began to flip through the new book of last year’s sermons, the one you received in the mail that is usually on the seats. He asked me if I knew the name of the final sermon I gave before COVID hit in early March. “No,” I replied, “What was it?
He looked at the page and read (and you can see for yourself), “Let There Be Disruption.” Then he paused two beats and said, “So how do you feel now, Dad?” Snarky teenager aside, the exchange proves the point. Long before COVID, we all knew that if Jewish institutions are to avoid the fate of RCA, Blockbuster Video, and Kodak, we must have honest and open conversations. No different than any industry, COVID has been a disruptor and accelerator for American Jewry laying bare questions that have been around for some time. It is just that now the toothpaste is out of the tube, and if we love the Jewish people and we are invested in the Jewish future, then there is no better time than now to think boldly about what that Jewish future will look like.
I don’t have all the answers or for that matter an adjusted-for-inflation Rosenwald. But we have to begin somewhere, and Kaplan’s categories – belonging, behaving and believing – are as good a place as any.
Number One: Belonging
What does it actually mean to belong to the Jewish community? I am more aware than ever that the words I am speaking right now are being heard by members and nonmembers of PAS alike. If you are a synagogue member – thank you. If you are not – why not? What would an online membership look like? We are living through an information revolution, where the rules around content – be it music, movies, news, or anything else – are all being rewritten. Why should we think religious content is any different? What can synagogues learn from Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon? How are we the same? How are we different? I know you want community, I read your emails from Iowa and elsewhere telling me: “Nice sermon, Rabbi, but I think it is time for a haircut.” As long as human beings are human, we will thirst for community, but how we go about getting it is not a given. These are questions, to be sure, that long preceded this moment, but COVID, as evidenced by today’s service, has made them unavoidable. How are communities formed, defined, and funded? It is a complex conversation with lots of moving parts, but it is one we must have and one we must lead.
Digging deeper, we know that the question of belonging is not only about membership but about a profound transformation at the core of our being. In Kaplan’s day there were internal and external forces at play asserting if you were born a Jew, then you lived as a Jew and you died as a Jew. Today the Jewish community is far more porous; it is a time when seventy percent of non-Orthodox Jews will marry someone not born of the Jewish faith, if they marry at all. We seek to be as inclusive as possible, but if a community has no boundaries, then at what point does it stop being a community? Kaplan never had to deal with BDS, intersectionality, Black Lives Matter, or an Israeli government whose policies were at odds with many American Jews but in sync with an American president. Tribalism is clearly not going away soon, but Kaplan’s language of “Peoplehood,” is insufficient for the complexities of our time. Our language of belonging must be different.
Number Two: Behaving
Last Yom Kippur I implored you to consider the importance of performing mitzvot – positive acts of Jewish self-identification. Kaplan, influenced as he was by religious anthropologists, articulated a language of mitzvot that avoided God. For him, mitzvot were the folkways, behaviors, and regimens that marked a conscious community – or as Kaplan coined it, “Judaism as a Civilization.” Here, my objection to Kaplan is not that he was wrong; it is just that I want – and I think American Jewry wants – more.
First, we need a language of mitzvot that bonds the Jewish community both to itself and to the needs of our shared humanity. We need to elevate, operationalize, and make sacred a communal expectation that Jews – as Jews – are visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, helping the stranger, and working to mend the social and environmental ills that afflict all of humanity. Friends, there are so many in pain right now; we must be responsive and we must make justice work part of our communal expectation. If the last six months have taught us anything, it is that we are all interrelated. As Dr. King taught, we are all “tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Second, sympathetic as I may be to Kaplan’s anthropological approach to mitzvot, I think it undersells the spiritual strivings of American Jewry. It certainly undersells mine. I believe mitzvot to be opportunities to act in accordance with the divine will, an expression of a sacred relationship, a place where heaven and earth meet, predicated on the belief that there actually is something that the Lord requires of me. And having served American Jewry all these years, I believe that you believe in such a belief.
Third, I think that while the language of mitzvot is a language that people thirst for, it is a language that is inaccessible to the vast majority of American Jews. Kaplan’s Jews knew what to do; they just didn’t believe in it. Our Jews believe; we just don’t know what to do. How to say Kiddush, how to put on tefillin, how to open up a siddur. The language of Jewish ritual is a closed book to so many. What we need is a Mitzvah Recovery Act. There is no reason, in this world of podcasts, Pelotons, and Isaac Boots on Instagram Live, that the Jewish community can’t figure out a way to deliver content that strengthens individual and communal identity. How to chant Torah, how to hang a mezuzah, how to study a Jewish text. Again, we should be doing it anyway. Being in quarantine for six months has only put an exclamation point on the urgency of thinking anew about Jewish education.
Third and finally: Believing
Kaplan’s God, as you may surmise, was a natural one. His very choice of words – “God-idea” – indicates that for him “God” was not an active consciousness but a word used to give voice to our highest hopes and aspirations. Call me old-fashioned, but my God is a bit more involved in my life. I believe in a God that preceded my arrival in this world and who will care for my soul when my time has come. I believe in a God who has a relationship with this earth, with the Jewish people, and with all humanity. I believe that when I pray, I am praying to the God of Abraham and Sarah, and that when I study Torah, I am listening to God as mediated through text and teacher. I believe that there is far more about God that I don’t know than I ever will, and I believe that if you ever hear someone claim to know the unmediated will of God, you should run the other way. I believe that God gave us a head so that we spend our lives seeking to interpret, debate, and refine our understanding of God’s will, and a heart so that we can seek to enact God’s will as we understand it.
Most of all, I believe that right now people are asking more, not less questions of God. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was Kaplan’s colleague, wrote that “Philosophy cannot be the same after Auschwitz and Hiroshima.” I think theology cannot be the same after COVID. After the pain, the sorrow, and the loss of these months, God has a lot of explaining to do and this synagogue should be the central address where we voice our struggles. God bless UJA, JDC, AIPAC, ADL, AJC and HIAS. They all have their missions; our mission is different – this is a house of God. It is here, in the synagogue, that we establish a covenanted community, covenanted with God, with each other, and with the people of Israel, through prayer, study, and mitzvot.
Belonging, Behaving, and Believing. Three categories that Kaplan was willing to reconstruct in his day, and now we must do so in ours. In Kaplan’s words, “The Jew will have to save Judaism before Judaism will be in a position to save the Jew.” Not a change in mission. As long as I am here, this synagogue will remain a house of prayer, study, and community – where we inspire educate and support our membership towards living passion-filled Jewish lives. But how we accomplish that mission – that can change and must change. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the greatest tribute our generation can extend to Kaplan and the last ninety years of American Jewish life is to engage in the selfsame act of reconstruction as he did in his time.
In addition to everything else Kaplan did, he taught homiletics – the art of preaching – at JTS. One of his former students, the late Arthur Hertzberg, recalled how on a Monday Kaplan would model a sermon on the weekly Torah reading and then on Wednesday a student would do the same. Kaplan was notorious for tearing into his students’ sermons, instilling so much fear that when Hertzberg’s turn came, he delivered word-for-word the remarks that Kaplan had shared just two days before. When Hertzberg finished, Kaplan proceeded to tear Hertzberg’s sermon apart. “But Dr. Kaplan,” Hertzberg pleaded, “I’m only saying what you said the other day!” “Ah, but Arthur,” came the reply, “I have evolved since then.”
Our world, our community, we ourselves need to evolve. I have no idea how long this moment will last, but it will pass, and when it does, we have to be different on the other end than when we entered. The fact that things are difficult cannot be an excuse. On the contrary, it is the prompt that summons us to address the questions that have been there all along. God has opened the Book of Life, but the real work is ours. We need to write our own book. May we all fill the blank pages sitting before us, turning them together, writing the next bold volume of our people’s history.