As its title implies, “Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life” reflects Kaplan’s effort to redefine how modern American Jewry thinks of itself. Judaism is not only a religion, Kaplan stated; it is a people with its own history, identity, culture and civilization. Moreover, like any civilization, to remain vital it must continue to evolve to meet and adapt to the challenges and needs of each new generation. It must be reconstructed, so to speak””or else risk losing its purpose.
Kaplan practiced what he preached at Sabbath and holiday services at his synagogue, SAJ (where I am an active member and am teaching a course on Kaplan’s thought this winter). Seeking to reinvest traditional ritual and liturgy with relevance to contemporary Jews, he emphasized modern interpretations while also revising or discarding prayers (like the traditional prayer for rain) he thought incompatible with the progressive, rational-minded, science-oriented world of 20th-century America.
A believer in gender equality long before the term political correctness became a clichÃ©, Kapan in 1922 “invented” the modern-day bat mitzvah””in which 12-year-old girls (like their male counterparts, 13-year-old boys, at their bar mitzvahs) symbolically accept the religious responsibilities of adulthood””when, at Sabbath services one Saturday morning, he called his oldest daughter to the pulpit and had her read from the Torah scroll. Since then, of course, this then-unheard-of custom has become an accepted, even expected rite-of-passage among Jews in all but the Orthodox branch of the faith.
Indeed, Kaplan held the goals and ethics of democracy and equality so high that he declared anachronistic the idea of Jews being the Chosen people””and changed or deleted the wording of traditional prayers that implied that belief from his 1945 Sabbath Prayer Book.