Reconstructionist Judaism was born in the United States. It makes sense, then, that Reconstructionist rabbis would want to bring democracy and Judaism together. A new exhibit in Elkins Park, opening this week in conjunction with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College's commencement exercises, highlights such efforts.
While both Judaism and democracy champion inspiring ideals, Jews and Americans often fail to live up to their own highest standards. During the Great Depression, when Reconstructionism appeared on the scene, many Americans lost faith in democracy, and many Jews abandoned Judaism for secular ideologies.
Yet Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, whose philosophy of Reconstructionism created the movement, persisted. He pursued his vision of an American Judaism that expressed the best of American democracy.
One of his most ambitious projects was to produce The New Haggadah for the Passover seder. In 1941, Kaplan, together with Rabbis Eugene Kohn and Ira Eisenstein, published this guide to the ritual family meal. Its first run of 3,000 copies sold out within 10 days, and it has remained continuously in print ever since.
The spring of 1941 was hardly an auspicious time to publish a Jewish test celebrating freedom. World War II had been raging since September 1939; Nazi Germany occupied almost all of Western Europe. Polish Jews had been herded into ghettos where starvation and disease killed thousands. The Holocaust was under way. Indeed, the foreword to The New Haggadah obliquely refers to growing conflagrations that were part of "an age-old struggle between those who cherish freedom and those who would deny it to their fellow men."
But perhaps it was exactly at such a dark moment that a new Haggadah was needed. Jews, the three editors explained, had "a great stake in the ultimate victory of the cause of freedom." Whereas earlier generations might have sustained their faith in freedom through Judaism — and especially the story of the exodus from Egypt that the Passover holiday celebrates — "times have changed."
The times demanded revisions that "go straight to the minds and hearts of the men and women of today." This phrase might go unnoticed now, but in 1941, it signaled the editors' commitment to include women in Jewish life. Women were always important to the seder because they cooked the elaborate meal around which the Haggadah was read. But rabbis had never thought of them as participants in the seder ritual.
The New Haggadah announces its effort to connect democracy and Judaism with an invocation: "Behold this cup of wine! Let it be a symbol of our joy tonight as we celebrate the festival of Pesach." These sentences explain why the first of four glasses of wine will be drunk, whereas the traditional Haggadah begins with a Hebrew blessing over the wine.
It continues: "On this night, long years ago, our forefathers hearkened to the call of freedom. Tonight, that call rings out again, sounding its glorious challenge, commanding us to champion the cause of all the oppressed and the downtrodden, summoning all the peoples throughout the world to arise and be free." By the fourth sentence, the universal, democratic challenge of freedom has joined the traditional Jewish observance of Passover.
Writing during wartime, the editors acknowledged American Jews' good fortune to be safe in the United States. "Let us raise our cups in gratitude to God," they write, "that this call can still be heard in the land." In other words, that Jews are free to practice their religion.
"Let us give thanks," they continue, "that the love of freedom still burns in the hearts of our fellow men." Jews are not alone in the United States. They dwell among others who share their devotion to democratic freedoms. Finally, they write: "Let us pray that the time be not distant when all the world will be liberated from cruelty, tyranny, oppression and war."
If The New Haggadah reflected its historic moment, it also transcended that era. It inspired other Jews to rewrite the Haggadah to expand the ideal of emancipation within a democratic society.
Deborah Dash Moore, director of the Jewish studies department at the University of Michigan, will speak on Sunday, June 7, prior to the RRC commencement.