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Kaplan's approach to Prayer appreciated and challenged.


Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983), the ideological founder of Recon-structionist Judaism, is an important figure in the development of American Jewish liturgy. Kaplan and his closest followers--Eugene Kohn and Ira Eisenstein among others--coedited the New Haggadah (1941), the Sabbath Prayer Book (1945), the High Holiday Prayer Book (1948), the Festival Prayer Book (1958), and the Daily Prayer Book (1963). Prior to the publication of these works, Kaplan oversaw the publication of two collections of readings to be used to enrich prayer services.

How can we account for Mordecai Kaplan's obvious interest in liturgy? The most common way of responding to this question is to point to Kaplan's famous desire for intellectual honesty in prayer. Kaplan believed that "In religion, as in everything else, we must not say what we do not mean."1 Having concluded that it is no longer possible to believe, among other things, that the Bible was revealed, that God will send a personal messiah, and that the dead will be physically resurrected in the future, he could no longer pray the traditional liturgy and believed that many contemporary Jews were in a similar position. This explained, he thought, why so many stayed away from the synagogue. Kaplan's liturgical efforts were definitely motivated by his desire to put into congregants' hands a text that reflected modern belief and thereby made prayer more possible for them.

But the desire for intellectual honesty only partially explains Kaplan's liturgical efforts. It does not explain, for example, why over half of Kaplan's prayer books were devoted to supplementary readings, the majority of which do not serve as a counter voice to prayers that Kaplan found theologically troubling. It also does not provide any insight into why Kaplan was so concerned, in the first place, that Jews continue to pray. After all, he could have responded to the empty pews of his time by seeing the death of communal prayer as simply another stage in the natural evolution of Jewish practice. Sacrifices, too, were once an essential component of Jewish ritual life but ceased after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE. Not every component of Jewish tradition that dies needs to be revived. Mordecai Kaplan, however, could not stand idly by while Jews abandoned traditional prayer because he believed that prayer was essential to the realization of religion's primary purpose: motivating people to strive for a more just world order. And it is this belief in the importance of prayer that provides the most comprehensive explanation for Kaplan's liturgical creativity.

For Mordecai Kaplan, "The problem of serious-minded religionists is not: how can we get people to become religious? But, How can we get religion to make people better?"2 Kaplan wanted religion to serve both as a catalyst for individual moral growth and for inspiring collective progress in the "struggle against poverty, disease, ignorance, oppression and war."3 He recognized that achieving progress in these areas was not easy and believed that to persevere in the task an individual needed to have strong faith that the world and its people could indeed be perfected. Fostering that faith is an essential function of religion. It requires the cultivation in people of two complementary states of mind: appreciation of the world's blessings--for if the world already has good within it there is reason to believe that this good can be expanded--and the conviction that there exists a Force in the universe (God) that supports the human quest to achieve a better world and thus makes this goal attainable. As Kaplan explains,
  Every experience of success in overcoming the misery of cowardice,
  envy, hate and greed is an experience of God. Faith in God is faith
  in the possibility of such achievements, without which we inevitably
  sink into moral defeatism. That is why religious belief,
  in the sense of faith in the Power that makes for salvation, is
  indispensable to modem man no less than it was to his forefathers,
  as reinforcement for ethical living. (4)

The purpose of prayer

For Kaplan, engaging in prayer is of great help in cultivating appreciation and faith in God. The Jewish prayer book (siddur) includes statements of thanksgiving. In the morning service, for example, congregants thank God for their souls, bodies, the natural world, the gift of Torah, and generally for "the miracles which are with us every day." The very act of praying in community engenders feelings of gratitude because humans are social animals who value and crave contact with others. Indeed, it is the experience of being in community that is partially responsible for our experience of God in prayer.
  The presence of the multitude in public worship creates an atmosphere
  that profoundly influences the individual participant. It stirs in
  him emotions of gratitude that he could not experience in isolation.
  He knows his life to be part of a larger life, a wave of an ocean of
  being. This is the first-hand experience of the larger life which is
  God. (5)

This quote makes clear how closely related thanksgiving and faith are in Kaplan's thought and how both of these are cultivated through prayer. The religious person sees life positively. Faith in God is the belief that there exists in the universe a Force that supports human strivings and thus insures that our positive posture toward life is not self-deception. Therefore, "When we are gratefully appreciative of the good in life, both the realized good and the hoped for good, we are experiencing the reality of God and communing with Him." (6) The more we sense the presence of this Force, the more we are convinced that the world can indeed be perfected. And hearing fellow congregants voice prayers that express the same values that we hold dear individually further strengthens this conviction. We are thereby reminded that we can rely on the cooperation of others as we strive to improve our world and ourselves.

Prayer as inspiration

Kaplan believed that the siddur in its traditional form did not articulate sufficiently all of the notions that had to be encountered in prayer if worship was to realize fully its potential for motivating the pursuit of social justice. He believed that the prayer book was unnecessarily repetitive, was too focused on petition considering that most moderns--including himself--no longer believed in a God who hears prayer or intervenes in history, and contained much "verbose adoration." There was a need to discuss more directly the difficult global and local realities that can undermine faith in personal and collective improvement, to augment the expressions of thanksgiving in the text, and to supplement the siddur's dream of a time when God establishes His reign of peace with calls for people to work actively toward the realization of this dream. (7) Because Kaplan believed that there were both religious and historical-communal reasons to continue to pray--with minor changes to the texts--selections from the traditional siddur, he relied heavily on supplementary readings to render synagogue services more effective. (8)

Accordingly, in Kaplan's Sabbath liturgy, for example, 60% of the book is devoted to supplementary readings. These include interpretive versions of inherited prayers, meditations prior to traditional rituals and prayers, interpretive psalms (cowritten with Ira Eisenstein), and anthologies of biblical and rabbinic quotations (some of which are likely the work of Eugene Kohn). (9) The remainder of this article presents excerpts from these pieces. They provide a concrete picture of how Kaplan used supplementary readings to increase the likelihood that Jews who participate in communal prayer will attain that positive perspective on life that motivates individual and communal acts of tikkun olam (world betterment).

Prayer in response to adversity

Without a doubt, the persistence of both natural disasters, disease--especially ailments that strike people below the age of sixty--and the various manifestations of human-made evil, collectively serves to challenge the view that the world is good and likely to become even better. It is thus not surprising that many of the Sabbath Prayer Book's readings address evil. For example, Kaplan inserted a meditation prior to the Shema affirming that
  The God of mankind is the God of nature. True, there is much in
  nature which endangers human life--floods, fire, wild beasts,
  diseases. But the more we discover of nature's laws, the more we
  learn how to make its powers minister to human needs. We therefore
  have faith that nothing in nature can defeat God's purpose of
  enabling mankind to achieve ever fuller, freer and more harmonious
  life. (10)

A similarly positive view of the natural world is articulated in Kaplan's interpretive version of the Yotzer, which asserts that "this world contains all that man needs for the achievement of his happiness, and puts at his service power beyond measure ... All things in heaven and earth are (God's) servants ... All of them offer help to man when he builds (God's) kingdom of righteousness." (11) Whereas it might seem at times that human welfare and nature are at odds, this is fundamentally not the case. By remembering our ability to harness the power of nature for our benefit and to use science to solve natural evil, we can counter the sense of despair that this form of evil can engender. We then realize that the cosmos does, indeed, support the human quest for improvement.

Many of the Sabbath Prayer Book's supplementary pieces were written during the reign of Adolf Hitler. Suffering caused by dictators is therefore the category of human generated evil that is of greatest concern to Kaplan and his coeditors. Here, too, they see cause for maintaining an optimistic view of the world. Although God cannot intervene in history and eradicate evil, they assert that human history teaches that dictators cannot prevail. As they explain in the interpretive Geulah,
  Whenever a human tyrant usurps divine authority, and lords it over
  his fellow-men to their hurt, the hardening of his heart proves his
  own undoing; his overweening arrogance writes his doom. Therefore
  we will never be discouraged nor dismayed, when unrighteous powers
  rise up to destroy us. (12)

A similar thought is expressed in the reading, "God Reveals Himself as Redeemer."
  They who enslave their fellowmen, who exact endless toil and lawless
  tribute, who cheapen the worth of human life, and crush out its
  latent glories, are driven by their arrogance to self-avenging crime,
  and in their mad race for power, they plunge into the abyss. (13)

Kaplan did not wish the various manifestations of evil to cause people to despair of the world's essential goodness but he also did not want evil to be ignored. After all, recognizing the suffering that exists in our world is key to feeling the need to address it, and religion, as we have seen, must cultivate an activist stance. Accordingly, Kaplan reminds worshipers in the reading, "Life is what we make it," that
  The faith in life's goodness is not the complacency of the
  self-contented, of him who finds the world good, because he prospers
  in all he does. True faith does not avert its eyes from the want and
  the misery that mar man's world ... Faint is the voice that bears
  gladsome tidings, small the measure of happiness in the world ...
  -Despite that, Israel's faith refuses to pronounce the life of man
  beyond the reach of hope and betterment ... It commands us to bring
  forth the best that resides in all things ... This is true religion's
  call to repentance and redemption. (14)

Prayer as thanksgiving

The voicing of thanks for the pleasures of the world helps create a positive view of life by sensitizing us to the good that we already enjoy which, in turn, engenders confidence that more good can be obtained. This confidence is especially important when we face personal and communal crises. As Kaplan explains in The Future of the American Jew: "If, at the same time that we face the evil we fear, we are also aware of our resources, if we are inspired by a certain self-confidence and trust in God, based on past achievement ... we do not encounter our problem in a defeatist mood, and our chances of success are immeasurably enhanced." (15)

It is thus not surprising that Kaplan chose to include in his siddur a number of readings that express or foster feelings of thanksgiving. Before the Friday night Qiddush, for example, Kaplan inserted a passage that calls on worshipers to use the Sabbath to cultivate a sense of appreciation. "Let us gratefully hallow the Sabbath by banishing care and anxiety from our hearts, and filling them with thanks for the immeasurable blessings that He has lavished upon us."16 In a similar vein, meditations are provided within the Torah service to thank God for the joy of worship, the "wonderful and beautiful world" in which we have been placed, "dear ones whose love is our stay and treasure," and to voice the desire that God enable us to see the good of the world, "so that whatever our trials, we may still hold fast to our faith in Thee." (17) Indeed, because awareness and gratitude for the world's good is the foundation of seeing life positively, for Kaplan, the failure to see the beauty in life is a sin. A prayer is included in which the worshiper reflects with regret on a time when he or she "Saw only the shadows which now and again darken the way [and] forgot the sunbeams which so often illumine it ... that the world in which Thou hast placed us is beautiful." It concludes with the hope that God "Pardon this my sin." (18)

Prayer as a call to action

Whereas expressions of thanksgiving and the faith in a Power that makes individual and communal betterment possible are indispensable to sustaining a socially engaged life, they do not, on their own, guarantee that a person will live that life. If worship is to realize its central goal--to "impel one to the service of man" (19)--it needs to be more forthright in its call for such service. The Sabbath Prayer Book includes a number of passages that do just that. The Qabbalat Shabbat service consists primarily of psalms that envision God establishing His rule over the world and ushering in a time of justice and peace. Kaplan prefaces these psalms with a meditation expressing the hope that reciting them will "fill us with joy and trustfulness and strengthen in us the purpose to hasten the coming of the Sabbath era of human history." (20) "Righteousness must be Lived," an interpretive version of the opening two chapters of the book of the prophet Habakkuk, speaks forcefully of the need to translate our lofty religious principles into concrete actions that make for a better world.
  Swearing allegiance to God and to His law cannot suffice; professing
  unswerving faith in the truth and the right is not enough.
  Men must live their allegiance, and weave their faith into the
  pattern of all they strive for. Justice and love dare not remain mere
  iridescent dreams for the spirit to indulge in on Sabbaths and
  other solemn days. The Kingdom of God cannot be defended by those of
  mere passive faith, by those who are persuaded that God causes
  righteousness to triumph, regardless of what men do. Only that faith
  which impels us to live in mutual helpfulness can enable us to
  overcome the deadly enemies of God and man. God is a Lord of hosts.
  To be numbered among those hosts we must engage in unyielding
  struggle to make this world safe for all who want to be free and fair
  and kind. (21)

In the Festival Prayer Book, the Torah reading for the first day of Passover is prefaced with an editors' note asserting that the festival should not only be a celebration of Jewish freedom. Jews should use it to "deepen their understanding of freedom and work ceaselessly for the redemption of all mankind." (22)

Prayer as expression of universalism

Although Kaplan's desire that worship contribute to the realization of a more just world mostly impacted the supplementary readings included in the siddur, this desire also determined a few of the changes made to the wordings of the inherited Hebrew prayer texts. Primary among these is Kaplan's complete excising of all references to Jewish chosenness. Thus, for example, Kaplan's Qiddush for festivals speaks of God as having "brought us [the Jews] nigh to Thy service" (23) instead of the traditional assertion that God "has chosen and exalted us [the Jews] above all nations." From a theological perspective, Kaplan's God--the non-supernatural Power that makes for salvation--acts upon all people equally. This God cannot consciously select one group to serve a more important role in the world. To continue to refer to God as having done this would be a violation of the demand for forthrightness in prayer. And yet, Kaplan's approach to Jewish chosenness is more shaped by ethical-political concerns than theological ones.

For Kaplan, "Chosenness always means the superiority of the chosen over the rejected, from the viewpoint of the chooser" (i.e., God).24 The idea that God would view one people more favorably than another is morally repugnant. Moreover, Kaplan believed that such views undermined religion's ability to contribute to the realization of world peace. This consideration is strongly evident in the Future of the American Jew, written in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. That war caused millions of deaths and great destruction. It was caused, in large part, by the German and Japanese perceptions of themselves as superior nations that should rule over "inferior" ones. With the creation of the atom bomb, such imperialist wars threaten to "destroy human civilization and, perhaps, the human race." To be relevant, religion must help humanity abandon the idea that one nation is better than another. "Unless [religions] play an important role in ushering in the one world which has become indispensable to mankind, they will be reduced to a state of obsolescence." But to make this contribution, religions must first rid themselves of the "imperialism" that lurks within them; they must give up all pretensions to being chosen, superior, or of having exclusive possession of the keys to salvation. Jews "must accordingly advocate the elimination from our liturgy of all references to the doctrine of Israel as the chosen people." Only when we have done so will we be able to demand of other religions that they make similar changes and thereby move humanity closer to a world where all people are viewed lovingly as brothers and sisters. (25)


The principle that public worship should inspire people to work to improve themselves and their world is clearly a worthy one. There is no doubt that encountering in prayer texts of the type that Kaplan included in his liturgies--expressing gratitude for the world's blessings, promoting faith that society can be improved by human action, calling for social justice work, addressing the challenges to faith posed by natural and human-made evil, and reminding us that other nations and religions share many of our core values and are of equal importance to us--can serve as a catalyst for acts of personal and collective growth. The traditional siddur only emphasizes the first of these five themes. Kaplan and his coeditors made a valuable contribution to Jewish liturgy by pointing out the need to focus worship on additional religious principles and concerns.

There is room to question, however, whether Kaplan's God has enough power to guarantee, as Kaplan asserts, (26) that the world can indeed be perfected. This is an essential point because part of the constructive power of prayer, in Kaplan's view, is that it reminds us of the existence of a Force in the universe that supports and insures the ultimate success--over time--of our efforts to improve society. For Kaplan, atheism's inability to make such a claim undermines its attempts to motivate social justice work. As he writes in the Meaning of God,
  No social idealism that does not reckon with the cosmos as divine is
  an adequate remedy. How can a social idealist ask men to deny
  themselves immediate satisfactions for the sake of a future good that
  they may never see in their lifetime, when he leaves them without any
  definite conviction that the universe will fulfill the hopes that
  have inspired their sacrifice, or is even able to fulfill them? (27)

As Mitchell Silver points out in his book, A Plausible God, (28) a comparison of the basic tenets of atheism and non-supernatural theologies, there is indeed enough good in the world to imagine that good is possible, but to insist that goodness will triumph is to overstep the boundaries of naturalism. For how can a non-supernatural Process guarantee the ultimate victory of goodness over evil? In the end, even Kaplan is forced to admit that this belief is rooted "in our need for faith in the possibility of achieving salvation, or the worthwhile life" and not in "demonstrable" fact. Accordingly, readings in Kaplan's liturgies that speak of the ultimate triumph of the good, while soothing, cannot be defended theologically.

Ultimately, if public worship is to foster social activism, it will have to move beyond the important calls for such behavior that Kaplan included in his siddurim. Week after week people encounter liturgies that express lofty goals and ideals yet the majority of us still do fairly little to address the social, political, economic, and environmental challenges that our cities and countries face. Our synagogues must become activist congregations and our services should include discussions aimed at evaluating our social justice work and committing to new collective projects. Only such services stand a real chance of attaining "the right spirit": the one that "impels (us) to the service of man."


(1.) Mordecai M. Kaplan, 1948, The Future of the American Jew, New York: Reconstructionist Press, p. 226.

(2.) Mordecai M. Kaplan, 1960, The Greater Judaism in the Making, New York: The Reconstruc-tionist Press, p. 489.

(3.) The Future of the American Jew, p. 54.

(4.) Ibid., p. 202.

(5.) Mordecai M. Kaplan, 1937, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, New York: The Reconstructionist Press, p. 249.

(6.) The Future of the American Jew, p. 304.

(7.) See, in this regard, Mordecai M. Kaplan, 1970, The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, New York: Macmillan, p. 54; Mordecai M. Kaplan, 1956, Questions Jews Ask, New York: The Reconstructionist Press, p. 461.

(8.) Kaplan also believed that the rabbi's sermon could contribute significantly to the effectiveness of synagogue services as motivators of social justice work. Sabbath services at Kaplan's congregation. The Society for the Advancement of Judaism, included a sixty-minute sermon (Ira Eisenstein, telephone interview, January 28, 1997).

(9.) It is often impossible to determine which of the editors wrote each of the supplementary readings. Whenever authorship can be established it will be noted in the footnotes. The ascription of the interpretive psalms to Eisenstein and Kaplan is based on Ira Eisenstein, 1986, Reconstructing Judaism: an Autobiography, New York: The Reconstructionist Press, p. 161.

(10.) Mordecai M. Kaplan, Eugene Kohn, Ira Eisenstein and Milton Steinberg, eds., 1945, Sabbath Prayer Book, New York: The Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, p. 34.

(11.) Ibid., pp. 114-115. For Kaplan's belief that nature supports the human quest for growth, see The Future of the American Jew, p. 307.

(12.) Sabbath Prayer Book, pp. 39-40.

(13.) Ibid., p. 457. Ascribed to Kaplan in the footnotes to the book. A similar expression of faith in the inevitable downfall of tyrants is found in The Meaning of God, pp. 293-294.

(14.) Sabbath Prayer Book, pp. 426-27. Ascribed to Kaplan in the footnotes to the book.

(15.) Future of the American Jew, p. 305. It is thus not surprising that Kaplan includes "Thankfulness" in the book's discussion of the nine "Basic Values in Jewish Religion."

(16.) Sabbath Prayer Book, p. 56.

(17.) Ibid., pp. 176-179. All three meditations are taken from the Prayer Book of the West London Synagogue.

(18.) Ibid., pp. 251-253. This, too, is taken from the Prayer Book of the West London Synagogue.

(19.) Mordecai M. Kaplan, 2010, Judaism as a Civilization, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, p. 504.

(20.) Sabbath Prayer Book, p. 8.

(21.) Ibid., p. 431.

(22.) Mordecai M. Kaplan, Eugene Kohn, Jack J. Cohen, and Ludwig Nadelmann, eds., 1958, Festival Prayer Book, New York: The Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, Inc., p. 161.

(23.) Ibid., p. 39.

(24.) Questions Jews Ask, p. 205.

(25.) Future of the American Jew, pp. 79, 153-154.

(26.) Meaning of God, p. 29.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Mitchell Silver, 2006, A Plausible God, New York: Fordham University Press.
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Author:Caplan, Eric
Publication:Cross Currents
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Date:Mar 1, 2012
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