The New Reform Judaism: Challenges and Reflections. By Dana Evan Kaplan. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 2013. 384 pp.
Author of numerous books and articles on contemporary Reform Judaism in America, Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan combines his scholarly pedigree and experience as a practicing Reform rabbi in Kingston, Jamaica, in a new work promising a "successful postmodern strategy for building community" (315). According to Kaplan, Reform Jews should rally around a central idea, namely, ethical monotheism, rather than reduce Reform Judaism to almost limitless pluralism. Kaplan defends this position by discussing Jewish history, theology, and recent developments in Reform Judaism. While his thesis is compelling, I did not find Kaplan's presentation especially satisfying. Nevertheless, the book should be of great interest to historians seeking to understand the current state of Reform Judaism.
The book is divided into eight chapters with an introduction and conclusion. In "Introduction: Understanding the New Reform Judaism," Kaplan defines Reform Judaism as a movement that actively harmonizes religious practices and beliefs within the context of a polythetic under standing of Judaism and modern culture of pluralism. The first chapter traces the early attempts to define the essence of Judaism to modern Reform Jews who eschewed such essentialization. In Chapter Two the author provides a competent, annalistic history of Reform Judaism from its origins in Germany through its flowering in America under the leadership of various rabbis of the two major Reform institutions, the Union of American of Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUCJIR). The survey makes no attempt at an overarching analysis, but one constant principle defining the history of Reform Judaism does emerge: Reform Judaism needed to change "in order to keep American Jews in the pews" (81). In Chapter Three, Kaplan traces the Reform Judaism's early negative view of ritual to its more recent positive embrace through the examples of kashrut, Shabbat, and marriage and divorce. This is where Kaplan is at his best, showing that an apparent return to tradition may in fact be an expression of contemporary ethical sensibilities.
The fourth chapter discusses three major breaks from Classical Reform: the 1999 Pittsburgh Statement of Principles; the new Reform Prayerbook, Mishkan TefUlah-, and the emergence of...