M.M. Kaplan, Going Forward

From the Rabbi, The Scroll, March 2014 

By the time this Scroll arrives, the rich and rewarding exploration of Mordecai Kaplan’s life and legacy will be behind us (thanks again to Cheryl Silver to a fabulous team effort coordinating the Shabbaton). Now is the time for each of us to decide: Was it just a fun weekend, and a feather in our cap of Jewish learning? Or did it call us to ongoing action and further reflection? I very much hope it’s the latter — and toward that end, here are some suggestions (the arrangement may be familiar, it’s the three things on which the world stands, Mishnah Avot 1:2).

1. Torah, as an evolving object of study: If there’s one ritual command implicit in Kaplan’s system, it’s that we must grapple with Torah. But first, we have to know what we’re grappling with! To “reconstruct,” we must know what we’re reconstructing. Kaplan’s approach, like most liberal theologies, has a most authentic and serious theory behind it — but in practice, it all depends on the seriousness of its practitioners. Do we hold Jewish study as a true obligation, per Kaplan; or does our American identity so overshadow our Jewish one that Torah study feels optional, and low on our list?

2. Torah, as blueprint for action: Many traditional mitzvot/commandments remain in force, according to Kaplan. Core teachings such as “love your neighbor as yourself,” “open your hand to the needy,” and “protect the stranger/immigrant” never go out of fashion. Here too, our Jewish and American selves diverge: tzedakah is either voluntary charity or required commandment. Do we feel bound, as Kaplan and tradition both expect of us, to the central calls of Torah?

3. Avodah as service (to others and community): Adat Shalom has striven over the years to live out Kaplanian principles, in part through our drafting of communal guidelines. One of them is on “Avodah” (literally work or labor or service), by which we mean the obligation of serving the community. We remain unique for our oneg duty rotation, which serves a communitarian end (more than the food, it’s about the schmoozing and fellowship it enables) via community-building means (oneg duty as our great connector and equalizer). We speak of, but don’t “require,” service beyond that. Do we generally step forward, help out, and do what must be done? How much do we act upon our stated values of service?

4. Avodah, as services (i.e. worship): With Ofer Beit-Halachmi bringing the latest progressive Israeli liturgy to our bimah, and Eric Caplan helping us appreciate Kaplanian (and post-Kaplanian) approaches to prayer, we have new insights and experiences to draw on. Kaplan’s legacy of prayer includes simultaneous commitments to shake it up, and to keep it real. For those who love our sanctuary time, how ready are we for the Kaplanian shake, accepting of change? And for those whose Shabbat mornings tend to be elsewhere, do we have open-minded grappling with this key piece of our heritage, trying it on for size?

5. Gemilut Hasadim (acts of loving-kindness), micro: Kaplan knew Martin Buber and appreciated his I-Thou insight, which comported with the social science he imbibed. For both thinkers, relationship is key. How far do we extend ourselves for “the other”? The letter gimel, of “gemilut /extending,” is shaped like a person taking a step toward the person on his/her left. How reluctant, or ready, are we to take that step?

6. Gemilut Hasadim (acts of loving-kindness), macro: also known as tikkun olam or “repairing whatever of the world’s brokenness we can.” This might be another name for #2 above, “Torah as action plan.” But it’s so essential for Kaplan and for us, it bears repeating. As he wrote, “a theology which is not a plan of social action is merely a way of preaching and praying. It is a menu without the dinner.” Without ensuring that others are well- and sustainably fed, we don’t get to eat. What kind of diner are we?

Simeon the Righteous, who coined the “three things on which the world stands,” lived within intense and intentional community; he also lived in Israel. That’s why neither “connect with community” nor “connect with Israel” made his short list — but they do make ours. So in concluding our suggestions for post-Kaplan Shabbaton engagement, remember that the global center of Jewry —and our radiant local center too— deserve our attention. Fresh from our recent re-immersion in the life and legacy of the Reconstructionist founder, may we be yet more connected with each other, with our movement, with our people, and with the world.

• Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Rabbi