“The Civilizational Approach”

Well finals week is somehow finally over and after spending four or five hours alone in a dark room I’m beginning to feel somewhat more human again. And I find that what I feel like doing to celebrate (other than sharing a stiff drink with a few friends) is…write another post about Reconstructionism!!! There’s something wrong with me, I know. What I wanted to tackle is an important aspect both of Mordecai Kaplan’s work and of the structure of the curriculum here at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, so this may be helpful to those of you who, like me last year, were trying to decide if the RRC is the right place for you to do your rabbinical training. I am, of course, talking about the “civilizational approach” to Judaism.

In 1934 (thank you Wikipedia, you were missed), Mordecai Kaplan published a book intended to present in systematic form some of his thinking about the future of Judaism in America and abroad. That book was called Judaism As A Civilization, and it is probably his best-known work by a large margin. In it he examined the various models for understanding what kind of a thing Judaism is that existed at the time and criticized them for being too narrow in scope. Judaism, he argued, cannot be understood simply as a religion, because it incorporates aspects of identity and behavior outside of what we normally include under the rubric of “religion,” including language, ethnic identity, art, literature, food and a host of other things. At the same time, it can’t be considered a nationality, because nationality presumes definition based on defined geographical borders and, as important as Eretz Yisrael is to the self-definition of many Jews, a purely national understanding of Judaism would tend to invalidate large chunks of Jewish experience past and present due to the experience of diaspora and the flowering of Jewish culture in various places throughout the world. Furthermore, many (in Kaplan’s time, most) Jews are simultaneously Jewish and citizens of non-Jewish states, and do not regard their American-ness, for example, to interfere in any way with their Jewishness.

The term Kaplan ultimately chose, obviously, was “civilization,” with all the vagueness and complexity this word implies. By choosing to regard Judaism as a civilization, Kaplan was saying a number of very important things about what it meant to be Jewish, among them:

  1. That cultural, linguistic and historical factors can be just as determinative for your sense of identification with the Jewish people as religious factors.
  2. That the many forms of Jewish social organization existing outside the synagogue–such as the Zionist movement, Jewish community centers, associations for political and social action, etc.–were extremely important and needed to be strengthened and supported as well as connected and reconciled with Jewish religious practice.
  3. That, like all civilizations, Judaism is in a constant process of evolution; the Judaism of centuries of past was different from the Judaism of today, and this difference is a natural result of the continuing historical experience of Jews in many communities throughout the world and should not be understood as decay or lessening but as growth.

This last point is extremely important and had a huge impact on the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism. In many respects, it represents a natural development of the “positive-historical Judaism” of Zecharias Frankel, which had such a great influence on the development of Conservative Judaism. Throughout his work Kaplan argues that Jewish civilization, including its religious aspects, has evolved significantly throughout the thousands of years of its existence. The tendency of earlier generations had been to downplay this evolution by means of a kind of retro-historical projection that presented innovation, sometimes radical innovation, as an expression of tradition. An example of this process in action was the rabbis of the Talmud, who attempt to justify their re-working of the Jewish tradition to meet the needs of the radically different circumstances after the destruction of the second Temple with reference to an oral tradition of legal interpretation extending all the way back to Moses at Mount Sinai. Kaplan’s point was that while it may have been possible for Jewish thinkers of those times to present their innovations in such a way, the advent of modernity, with its more advanced tools of historical inquiry and stricter rules of evidence, did not permit us to do likewise. What was necessary for our own time was a more self-conscious “reconstruction” of Jewish traditions to adapt them to the needs and concerns of our own day–a process that had been going on since the beginning, but in an unconscious way.

The first requirement of such a self-conscious reworking of the tradition was that we really understand our own history and the resources it provides for our task. The reconstruction of Judaism does not imply the rejection of history, but rather the refusal to take our own attitudes and understanding of the world and project them into the past. Part of this approach involves making use of the best historical and archaeological resources we have at our disposal to develop as accurate a picture as possible of what life was really like in the various periods of our history. Another aspect is the need of regarding Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, as historical records written by people living in a certain place and time and reflecting the knowledge and concerns of the day.

The way this all works at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School can be seen in the educational model known as “the civilizational approach.” According to this model, the five years of the program are divided up by “civilization,” beginning with Biblical Civilization and ending up with Contemporary Civilization, with the curriculum in each year focusing on the texts and historical experience of that stage of the Jewish historical experience. What this means is that while I am in Biblical year (which I am), I study biblical texts alongside the works of historians and archaeologists attempting to develop as clear a picture as possible of what life in ancient Israel was actually like. Rabbinic materials interpreting the biblical text are saved for next year, when we will be studying Rabbinic civilization. So in other words, I spend a lot of time reading Exodus in Hebrew in Biblical Text class while also reading works like William Dever’s Who Were the Ancient Israelites and Where Did They Come From? in Biblical Civilization (for an interesting and well-done take on some of this stuff, you could do much worse than to check out the NOVA documentary The Bible’s Buried Secrets, which you can watch for free on the PBS website). For people used to dealing with the Biblical text in a more traditional way, filtered through the lens of rabbinic interpretation (I’ll include myself in this category), this can sometimes be extremely jarring, especially when studying, for example, the archaeological evidence that points to the ancient Israelites originating indigenously in Canaan rather than invading from the outside. At the same time, it can be extremely liberating, opening the door to new understandings of the text that have the potential for new approaches to Jewish life. As an example of this, one of the projects assigned to us in Biblical Civilization this year was to design an alternative second-night Seder incorporating one of the alternate understandings of Israelite origins we’d studied in class. I found this incredibly challenging, but also rewarding in ways I wasn’t expecting, and I’d definitely like to try out some of my classmates’ rituals!

So that’s my take on “the civilizational approach” on one foot. This may be my last post in the “What is Reconstructionism” series for a while, unless I get a request from anyone to tackle something specific. I do, however, hope to keep up the frequency of new posts, now that I’m back in the habit. So stay tuned, folks!

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