Were he alive today, Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism, would be dismayed by some of the directions taken by his movement and by the rest of American Judaism.
Or so his daughter, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, 85, and her husband, Ira Eisenstein, 88, believe.
The couple reflected to Kaplan during an interview here last week at the annual convention of the Reconstructionist movement.
They have traveled from their home in upstate New York to attend every convention since the first one 40 years ago.
At the meeting – too small, really, to be called a convention – five Reconstructionist Jews from four congregations met at Congregation Beth Am Shalom in White Plains, N.Y., recalled Ira Eisenstein.
Eisenstein became Kaplan’s chief disciple while studying under him at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. He met the Theologian’s daughter while working as Kaplan’s assistant at the congregation he founded in Manhattan, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.
“It was destiny that we would marry,” laughed Kaplan Eisenstein, who was the first girl to have a Bat Mitzvah, in a ceremony instituted by her father more than 70 years ago.
Her husband went on to transform Kaplan’s views from a theology into a movement by founding the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1968.
Kaplan was a rationalist, said Eisenstein, who brought to his theology an approach to Judaism which demystified it.
“He would have been upset about the whole retreat from reason” which is attracting contemporary Jews who are searching for spiritual answers, Eisenstein said in an interview here.
“He would have been puzzled and annoyed at the resurrection of Chasidism as a force, at the mysticism which claims another source of knowledge. As far as he was concerned, you judge truth by its consequences, not its origins,” Eisenstein said.
Kaplan would have been dismayed by the intense focus on spirituality emphasized by contemporary Jews, including those in the Reconstructionist movement, he said.
“The spirituality was implicit,” said Eisenstein. Focusing on it as a goal “has shifted the weight from concern with the welfare of the Jewish people to personal concern. We were much more involved with Jewish communal issues” in Kaplan’s day, he said.
Despite the fact that he championed the integration of contemporary ethics into Jewish practice, Kaplan “would have been shocked” by the stand on homosexuality taken by the Reconstructionist movement, said Eisenstein.
The movement in 1992 issued a report articulating a philosophy of non- discrimination against gays and lesbians, one which permits rabbis to conduct commitment ceremonies affirming homosexual relationships in a Jewish context.
“He was very conventional, almost Victorian, on issues of sexuality,” said Eisenstein. “He would have been shocked by the idea of legitimizing homosexual marriage.”