On March 18, 1922, standing at the front of the recently established Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), 12-year-old Judith Kaplan became the first bat mitzvah. Reconstructionists have long insisted that this event immediately established our movement as egalitarian and that it inaugurated unstoppable changes in the North American Jewish community. Yet decades later, in a mini-memoir, that young girl, later known as Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, reflected, “No thunder sounded, no lightning struck.” So which version of history is true?
In fact, both are true. The ubiquity of the bat mitzvah ceremony today confirms that Judith’s ritual was a broadly significant event. On the other hand, historical records suggest that full egalitarian commitments were slow to emerge and were sometimes subordinated to other values, even within the Reconstructionist movement.
For sure, in the first few decades after that unprecedented simhah 100 years ago, Judith’s assessment was more true. History is both interpretation of, and storytelling about, the past. However, when we engage in this kind of retrospection, we tend to straighten out the zigs and the zags. We flatten out the steps forward and back, and we all too easily impose current interpretations and experiences onto the past. So when they hear that Mordecai Kaplan’s eldest daughter became bat mitzvah in 1922, most people make a whole set of presumptions.
They presume that the SAJ was founded in 1922 as a fully egalitarian institution. They presume that Judith’s ceremony was exactly the same as a boy’s bar mitzvah of that time. They presume that Kaplan and his circle were immediately and fully committed to egalitarianism from the earliest days of the movement and that, as an expression of this commitment, all girls at the SAJ became bat mitzvah.
In fact, none of these presumptions are true. The SAJ was founded with women as full voting members — this was, after all, just two years after women had received the right to vote in America. But there was no religious equality. Kaplan and his followers had broken away from the Jewish Center, where he had been the founding rabbi and which was Orthodox. In fact, in the earliest years, they continued the practice of separate seating, and Judith later reported that the most challenging part of the day was not chanting a portion of the Torah that her father had just assigned to her the evening before. That was easy. She was well-trained and accomplished both Judaically and musically. Much harder was leaving the comfort of the women’s section to stand in front of the whole congregation.
And Judith’s ceremony bore little resemblance to a bar mitzvah. Kaplan, not Judith, ascended the bimah for the maftir aliyah and chanted the haftarah, both of which would have been done by a boy becoming a bar mitzvah. Only after the Torah was totally covered did Judith go forward to stand in front of the bimah (not on it) and chant from the humash (a book containing the Five Books of Moses and not the Torah scroll). It’s hard to trace the precise journey of how the ritual of bat mitzvah at the SAJ changed, but we know that by 1945, the ceremony for girls had achieved parity with boys: Girls were climbing up onto the bimah and receiving an aliyah, but only on that occasion. The scholar Regina Stein writes,
There was no assumption that, as with the bar mitzvah boy, the occasion marked the first of many aliyot to the Torah. For the bat mitzvah girl, it was literally a once-in-a-lifetime event that signaled the end rather than the beginning of her inclusion in the synagogue service.[i]
All four of Kaplan’s daughters became b’not mitzvah and so did a handful of other girls in the congregation, but most did not. The universal ceremony at the SAJ was confirmation, a Reform invention for both boys and girls, instituted at the SAJ in 1930 over Kaplan’s objections because the kids wanted it.
And there is evidence that the early Reconstructionist commitment to egalitarianism was somewhat negotiable. At the height of the Depression, a delegation from the Jewish Center, the Orthodox synagogue from which the SAJ had broken away, held a secret meeting with SAJ leaders, including Kaplan, about the possibility of mending fences and re-merging. The Jewish Center folks insisted that mixed seating would need to be abolished … and this was NOT a deal-breaker for Kaplan. He was willing to compromise on this and other matters “for the sake of [Jewish] unity and cooperation,” which were very important values for him. Negotiations quickly fell apart for other reasons, not least because Kaplan’s successor at the Jewish Center pulled the plug. This episode shows that egalitarianism had not fully crystallized as a non-negotiable value for Kaplan and that Jewish unity could eclipse it.
This changed. In 1936, Kaplan published a stirring essay in an early issue of The Reconstructionist, “The Status of the Jewish Woman,”[ii] in support of full religious egalitarianism. The SAJ’s commitment to full egalitarianism was concretely and, I believe, permanently enshrined in late 1950. A sabbatical rabbi was filling in and taught a class on Reconstructionist ideology, and in class discussion the question was raised: Why was it the SAJ’s practice that girls could be called to the Torah for an aliyah on the occasion of their bat mitzvah but, unlike even the most uneducated males, never again. They discussed it again at the membership meeting in May 1950, and there were strong arguments in favor of religious equality and a handful against. Kaplan was incensed by the opposition. I gathered an oral history from Judge Bill Mehlman, who joined the SAJ after reading about the burning of the prayer book in The New York Times and went on to become instrumental in the establishment of most of the institutions of the Reconstructionist movement. Bill remembered Kaplan thundering at the gathered group: “The name of this organization is the Society for the ADVANCEMENT of Judaism. You are responsible for the REGRESSION of Judaism.”
They waited until Ira Eisenstein, the full-time rabbi, returned from sabbatical and scheduled a special congregational meeting in November to discuss the matter. The topic got expanded from aliyot to the broader issue of “Equality of Women.” In addition to discussing whether women should be called to the Torah, they also wanted to talk about what to do about the weekday morning minyan, where only men could be counted and which they had long struggled to maintain. The proposal that was ultimately put forward called for women to receive aliyot at any time, regardless of their level of education or whether they had become bat mitzvah, and to be counted in a minyan. A hugely important moment occurred at that meeting, when a young mother who had previously been vehemently opposed to the change, reported in tears that her 5-year-old daughter had asked her why women were inferior at the synagogue … and her heartbreak converted her to the cause. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor and they immediately inaugurated the changes. By 1953, women regularly ascended the SAJ bimah—brides came with grooms for the aufruf aliyah before their wedding; mothers received aliyot at the bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies of their children; new mothers would have an aliyah to bless their newborn sons and name their daughters; women would receive an aliyah when they were observing a yahrzeit in memory of deceased relatives. And from this point, the congregation began to implement more and more religious equality, and also social equality. The first woman board member not representing the SAJ’s formidable Women’s Division joined the board in 1953, and many others followed, and the first woman president was elected in the late 1970s.
I assess the 1950 vote as an incredibly important moment in the history of the Reconstructionist movement, an essential moment of distinction. Kaplan was strongly tied to the Conservative movement, in spite of controversies. He was on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary and was a leading figure in the Rabbinical Assembly and in United Synagogue, the congregational arm of the Conservative movement. The Conservative movement insisted that halakhah (Jewish law) was binding and that change had to be mediated through rabbinic authorities. And here the SAJ made a definitive break with that practice. They totally set aside halakhah as a means for tikkun (correcting injustice), to attend to a situation that they ultimately concluded was unjust by contemporary standards. Instead of deferring to the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Law and Standards, comprised solely of rabbis, who, at that time, were all male, they took action by democratic means — the members of the congregation, male and female, voted at the insistence of their rabbis. To this day, democratic decision-making for religious practice flies in the face of the Conservative movement’s approach. The communal nature of this Reconstructionist methodology also marks it as different from the Reform movement, which was founded on the commitment to individual autonomy.
In addition to the egalitarian implications of the 1922 bat mitzvah, we also should focus on pragmatism and democracy. If you view the actions of the earliest Reconstructionists through these lenses of pragmatism and democracy, we see how Reconstructionist experimentation beginning with the bat mitzvah — and continuing on in so many different ways — has been profoundly impactful and transformative within our movement and across North America and the wider world. That’s where the revolution happened and continues to unfold.
The SAJ was founded as a laboratory for experimentation, a site for Kaplan and the circle gathered around him to move from theorizing about Judaism as a civilization to experimenting and demonstrating it. Reconstructionism has been, from the very beginning, about expanding the boundaries of the Jewish community without watering down what it means to be Jewish. It has, from the beginning, been about trusting the wisdom and creativity of the Jewish people to adapt in new and generative ways to changing circumstances. Reconstructionism has always been about looking forthrightly at challenges and believing in the resilience of the Jewish people and the Jewish civilization to respond to these challenges and to turn them into opportunities.
Pragmatism is ultimately interested in functionality and usefulness and consequences. Louis Menand explains that “[Pragmatism is] a process … of making our way as best we can in a universe shot through with contingency.”[iii] Experimentation is a key expression of pragmatism, and I’m framing the bat mitzvah as a Reconstructionist experiment — and a very successful one at that, if we judge it by its widespread adoption. It’s important to mention pragmatism because that’s where the name “Reconstructionism” comes from — this klutzy, too long, confusing name. Kaplan was deeply influenced by pragmatism, and he came to it by way of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, and most especially, John Dewey, who is the source of the name.[iv] Dewey’s view of education was that it “must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience, that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.” In 1919, he gave a series of influential lectures in New York City, on the Upper West Side, that were gathered into a book published in 1920 titled Reconstruction in Philosophy. Kaplan’s first effort to articulate his methodology was also published in 1920, titled “A Program for the Reconstruction of Judaism.” For Dewey, and for Kaplan, education was an essential path towards individual agency. And for Dewey and also Kaplan, democracy — that is, “cooperation with others on a basis of tolerance and equality” — was an essential partner of pragmatism. Both together would lead to ever increasing justice.
The early Reconstructionist commitment to egalitarianism was an expression of the broader notion of democracy. Kaplan and the circle gathered around him embraced the principle and practice of democracy as both a key strategy and an ultimate truth. To the rabbis and educators who founded the Reconstructionist movement, democracy was many things, all of which could be applied to Jewish life in order to strengthen it and make it relevant in the modern era and compelling to American Jews.
- Democracy is a political theory based upon principles of liberty, fraternity and equality that enshrines a set of freedoms that are equally extended to minorities and that prescribes representative government while eschewing authoritarian controls.
- Democracy is a civic theory that fosters voluntarism and neighborliness across political, social, economic and religious lines, promoting diversity instead of elevating one group at the expense of others, and nurturing self-reliance, self-respect and overall cultural vitality.
- Especially during the New Deal era and maybe now, democracy was an economic theory promoting greater access to wealth for all people just as the political theory promotes access to the ballot.
Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah was deeply expressive of these animating principles of democracy and pragmatism applied to the Jewish civilization, trusting the Jewish people. It was, essentially, a first bold experiment in this new approach to Judaism that was followed by many others.
Some of this experimentation has been on the level of ideas and ideology, which is where Mordecai Kaplan, who was something of a utopianist, lived most comfortably. These ideas include rhetoric, the metaphors of “civilization,” borrowed from academic thought, and “peoplehood,” formulated by Reconstructionist thinkers. This is language that moved beyond such partial terms as “religion,” “ethnicity,” “nationality” and even “culture,” and have helped the Jewish community writ large and individual Jews understand themselves and their community more completely.
Kaplan and others articulated non-supernatural religious thinking that has long helped Jews harmonize religion and rationalism. These writings drew on process theology and helped further it, and they laid the groundwork for feminist theology and liturgy. There are two expressions that I think are especially important. The first is the articulation of predicate theology by Harold Schulweis.[v] Schulweis proposed that we shift our focus from the subject of God to the predicates that are often used to describe God. Instead of proposing that God (Subject) is Merciful (predicate), he taught that when we see mercy — or justice or healing, all those predicates attributed to the Divine — when we see these qualities, then we can know that godliness, the quality of the Divine, is present. Schulweis put relationship at the center of this understanding of godliness. He encouraged us to ask not “Where is God?” but “When is God?” and suggested that the answer was almost always in our interactions with each other, most especially when those interactions contribute to the collective good.
The second theological innovation is the Reconstructionist rejection of chosenness, articulated by Kaplan[vi] and expressed in our liturgy. This change represents our grappling with the role of Jewish particularism in a globalized world; it offers us a pathway to champion a robust Judaism that at once repudiates chauvinism and pursues individual justice. Rejecting chosenness is about getting down to the hard work of being one of the many peoples of the world jostling with one another on the path towards the Divine, rather than holding ourselves separate and nurturing a belief in God-given superiority.
And Reconstructionists have consistently created innovative and influential religious texts, including the very first creative Haggadah in 1941[vii] that paved the way for the many variations available to us; two prayer-book series that have been widely emulated; and, 20 years ago, the establishment of Ritualwell.org, which is the premier address for curated rituals to navigate our complex 21st-century lives.
And some of our bold experimentation has been on the level of institutions and practice, which was much more the realm of Rabbi Ira Eisenstein and other leaders. I’ve already traced a direct line from that first bat mitzvah in 1922 to women’s full religious equality in 1950, which was shortly followed by women’s social and institutional equality at the SAJ, and in the emerging institutions of the Reconstructionist movement. Women regularly served as board members and officers at the SAJ and other Reconstructionist synagogues long before this became de rigueur. We were the first movement to elect a woman as the volunteer head of our movement when Lillian Kaplan became president of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot in 1984. RRC was founded as an egalitarian institution in 1968, and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso graduated in 1974 as the first female Reconstructionist rabbi and the second from any movement. But here is a powerful example of pragmatism: Ira Eisenstein, the founding president, asked Sandy to wait one year before applying to protect the fledgling institution from attack and to make it more likely to succeed.
There is a similar trajectory around patrilineal descent. In 1968, a solid 15 years before the Reform movement acted, the membership of the Reconstructionist movement adopted a “Resolution Regarding Children of Mixed Marriages,” affirming the principle that a child born to one Jewish parent — either mother OR father — who was raised as a Jew would be recognized as a Jew by the Reconstructionist movement without requiring conversion. At its core, going back more than 50 years, this is a recognition that a Jew marrying a non-Jew was not, is not, co-equal with a decision to leave the Jewish community. This is widely recognized now; it was not then.
And we see this arc again in the Reconstructionist movement’s stance towards openly gay and lesbian Jews, beginning with RRC’s decision in 1984 to admit openly gay and lesbian students and followed by the work of the Reconstructionist Commission on Homosexuality, comprised of lay people and rabbis, which issued a groundbreaking report in 1992, and is an outstanding example of the signature Reconstructionist approach of values-based decision-making. It lists the key Jewish values (human dignity, equality, variety of family forms, good sex, children and many others) as the basis for full religious and civil equality for gay men and lesbians. In keeping with the Reconstructionist value of giving the past “a vote but not a veto,” the document balances current social science and traditional texts, and enumerates guidelines for full inclusion and education, including endorsing same-sex wedding ceremonies.
More recently, I have made a similar argument around RRC’s decision five years ago to admit and graduate students who are partnered with non-Jews — a policy that is currently under consideration at other liberal seminaries. And I have and will most forcefully make the case that the Reconstructionist movement’s commitment to racial justice, affirmed in Reconstructing Judaism’s new strategic plan, codified in a set of commitments generated by our Jews of Color and Allies Advisory Group, adopted by our board of governors, and most fully brought to life by the widespread interest and actions in Reconstructionist communities across the country, is the most current and most contemporarily urgent example of this values-based exploration.
The first part of this essay grew out of my academic background and drew on my dissertation research. When I turned to more recent developments, my scholarship undoubtedly took on a tinge of boosterism, though I firmly believe that the facts back up my interpretation. I’m going to close by moving squarely into my role as rabbi and leader of the Reconstructionist movement.
The Reconstructionist movement has consistently been small, in spite of and perhaps even because of our outsized influence. Our insistence that every generation is entitled, even obligated, to reconstruct Judaism to ensure its relevance has felt like a rewarding challenge to all of us gathered here, and too demanding to many others. Reconstructionist innovations have been widely adopted—from the bat mitzvah, to the concept of Jewish peoplehood, to the understanding that Jews who marry non-Jews do not intend to exit the Jewish community, to an embrace of LGBTQ Jews as community members and leaders. I have spent most of my time articulating how and why we came to these positions and far less on the frequently fierce opposition they initially generated — mostly externally, and also internally. All of these and other commitments were originally received as controversial and disruptive even as they are ultimately embraced. Being on a “cutting edge” has meant generating new ideas on a shoe-string budget, encountering furious criticism at their introduction, and receiving inadequate recognition once those ideas become mainstream. Our principled and affirmative approach, and the extraordinary people who are drawn to it, demonstrate how Jewish life and the Jewish people can flourish in an open society. We are the speedboat scouting out what is ahead, and then figuring out how to marry the richness of Jewish wisdom and teaching with the realities and potential of contemporary life so that we can be at once deeply rooted and boldly relevant. We take this work on for our own sakes, and we need only so much recognition that we can gain the stature and gather the support to continue do this groundbreaking work.
Today, we remain at the cutting edge in our insistence on abiding relationship across difference, especially around Israel and Palestine; in our commitment to centering the voices and experiences of Jews of color; in our exploration of emergent communities and of how to make the richest possible connection between communal life “online” and “onland”; in our repudiation of chosenness and the demonstration of how to champion Jewish particularism without embracing chauvinism; in our robust commitment to democratic practice and in the very structure of our organization. We will continue to model an ever-evolving progressive approach to religion as a shofar blast in this time of rising populism and authoritarianism.
The Reconstructionist movement is poised to carve the future of the Jewish community. We will do this through the application of our methodology, which draws deeply on our past and yet looks bravely towards the future. We will theorize and experiment to test those theories out — in our rabbinical program, at our camp, in our communities, online. We will share our learnings out with the wider community, and will try to get credit, and will keep going even when we don’t. From the first bat mitzvah and beyond, the Reconstructionist movement has already had an exponential impact on the North American Jewish community. We can continue to do so as we move towards post-pandemic times. We are so lucky to be heirs to a millennia-old enterprise of Jewish continuity and change. We reconstruct to build the Jewish community we want to live in and that we want our children — biological or chosen — to live in. It is hard work, it is holy work, it is a joy to do it together.
Based on an address to the Greater Pittsburgh Community on behalf of Congregation Dor Hadash and In celebration of the centennial of the first bat mitzvah, March 20, 2022.
[i] Regina Stein, “The Road to Bat Mitzvah in America.” In Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, edited by Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan D. Sarna. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2001, pp. 223-234.
[ii] Now included in the volume, The Future of the American Jew, 1949.
[vi] See the chapter “The Chosen People Idea an Anachronism” in the volume, The Future of the American Jew, 1949.
[vii] The New Haggadah. Reconstructionist Press, 1941.