Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan
(1881 - 1983)
Mordecai Kaplan was born in
Lithuania in 1881, just as the big wave of immigration to America was
getting underway. He received a traditional Jewish education in Vilna and immigrated along with his
family to America in 1889. His family and personal practices continued to
be traditional, but as time went on, Kaplan became increasingly
disenchanted with orthodox theology
and increasingly interested in non-orthodox approaches to Judaism. He graduated from City College
of New York, was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary (of the Conservative Movement) and received a
master's degree from Columbia University. He served as associate rabbi of
Kehillath Jeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue in New York.
In 1909, at the age of 28, Kaplan
began to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary, first heading the
Teachers' Institute, then becoming a professor of homiletics and the
philosophy of religion.
He helped to create the Young Israel Modern Orthodox movement with Rabbi Israel
Friedlander. Due to Kaplan's evolving position on Jewish theology, he
was later condemned as a heretic by Young Israel and the rest of Orthodox
Judaism, and his name is no longer mentioned in official publications
as being one of the movement's founders.
Kaplan was profoundly influenced
by the new social science of sociology and recent progress in the physical
sciences. He came to see Judaism not as a religion, but as a civilization,
characterized not only by beliefs and practices, but by language, culture,
literature, ethics, art, history, social organization, symbols, and
customs. He promoted the notion of a synagogue-center which offered
not only religious prayer services, but study programs, drama, dance,
song, sports and exercise.
In 1935, Kaplan wrote Judaism as a
Civilization, a book which became the foundation of the new Reconstructionist Movement, and which is
still published in paperback. Kaplan taught that we need a reconstruction
of the religious foundations of Judaism in light of our understanding that
Judaism is a religious civilization. He promoted democracy in the synagogue
community and advocated voluntary membership, elected leadership, and
respect for the religious opinions of individuals.
Kaplan is also well known for
having instituted Bat Mitzvah,
when he called his eldest daughter to read the Haftarah on the Shabbat following her 12th birthday. Kaplan
continued to study and teach throughout his life until his death in
1983 at the age of 102. His influence is felt far beyond the confines
of the Reconstructionist Movement; his ideas found fertile soil in modern,
America Jews living in a secular society in the 20th century.
Some key aspects of Kaplan's
Judaism is an evolving religious civilization.
While our dispersion throughout the world has resulted in some cultural
differences, by and large we are united by a common religious civilization
and must work toward transcending the differences which would divide
us. Our common history is the source of our covenant and what motivates
and "commands" us to live Jewishly.
Kaplan did not understand God as a supernatural
force in the universe, but rather as the power which makes possible
personal salvation, which Kaplan understand as the "worthwhileness
of life." "God is the sum of all the animating organizing
forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of
chaos," Kaplan wrote. God cannot abridge the laws of nature
for God is synonymous with natural law.
Prayer is necessary because it helps us become conscious of our conscience,
the force within which mediates our relationships and our ability
to realize salvation. Moreover, prayer with the community focuses
our attention on the community and its needs. And finally, worship
offers a release of emotion that can orient us in a positive psychological
Kaplan rejected several
traditional Jewish categories, most notably Chosenness. He felt that the term
was misunderstood and too often taken as a sign of Jewish superiority, when
instead it was conceived as an expression of Jewish obligation to God and
humanity. So, too, Kaplan rejected the idea of a personal messiah (that is,
that God will send a messiah in the form of a human being). He wrote the
"Sabbath Prayer Book" in which he expunged both notions from the
prayers. Some Reconstructionist synagogues employ a different version of
the Torah blessings to this day, avoiding the phrase "...asher bachar
banu mi-kol ha-amim..." (...Who chose us from all the peoples...).