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Mordecai Menahem Kaplan


Mordecai Menahem Kaplan was a rabbi, philosopher, educator, activist, and founder of the Reconstructionist school of thought. Kaplan was born in Svencian, Lithuania. His father, Israel Kaplan, was a talmudic scholar who immigrated to the United States in 1888, where he was joined a year later by his wife, Anna, and their two children, Sophie and Mordecai. Kaplan's early education was strictly Orthodox, but by the time he reached secondary school, he had been attracted to heterodox opinions, particularly regarding the critical approach to the Bible. After his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, he became the minister and superintendent of education of Kehilath Jeshurun, a noted Orthodox synagogue in New York City. It was only in 1908, when he was granted traditional ordination by Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, that the synagogue was prepared to honor the title of rabbi that had been conferred upon him by the Seminary. Meanwhile Kaplan had become uncomfortable at Kehilath Jeshurun, because by then he realized that he could no longer serve an Orthodox congregation in good conscience.

In 1909, Solomon Schechter invited Kaplan to become the principal of the newly established Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Shortly thereafter, he also began to teach homiletics as well as Midrash in the Seminary's rabbinical department. Later on, he began to teach philosophies of religion as well. For over 50 years, Kaplan influenced the thinking of Conservative rabbis. He spoke to their existential spiritual problems in light of contemporary philosophical and sociological developments and, in his view, the breakdown of traditional theology. Even those who disagreed with his views appreciated his direct approach. They were impressed by his emphasis on intellectual honesty in confronting the challenges posed by modern thought to traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. In his approach to Midrash and philosophies of religion, Kaplan combined scientific scholarship with creative application of the texts to contemporary problems. Kaplan's Reconstructionist philosophy influenced not only his own immediate students, but through them and through his extensive writings and public lectures over several decades, the American Jewish community at large. Many of his ideas, such as Judaism as a civilization (and not merely a religion or nationality), bat mitzvah, egalitarian involvement of women in synagogue and communal life, the synagogue as a Jewish center and not merely a place of worship, and living as Jews in a multicultural society, eventually came to be accepted as commonplace and implemented in all but strictly Orthodox segments of the community.

Kaplan was undoubtedly a product of his times. But he was also a cultural innovator. All advances in human thought are generated by seminal minds working on the knowledge they have acquired from equally creative thinkers. Early in his career, Kaplan became a devotee of the scientific and historical study of the Bible. He was the leading educator to confront rabbis, teachers, and laity with the changes in Jewish thought that had become necessary once the Bible had been exposed to modern techniques of examination and interpretation. But far from denigrating the genius of the biblical text, Kaplan taught his students to regard it as an indispensable source for an understanding of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish civilization.

Kaplan was a voracious reader. References in his published writings and in his Diaries are a veritable catalogue of the outstanding thinkers of ancient, medieval and modern times. Nonetheless, it can be said that for the most part, Kaplan's ideas were part of the Zeitgeist but not carbon copies of the thought of the men and women he quoted.

Kaplan did not live in an ivory tower. Although he produced studies on M.H. Luzzatto and Hermann Cohen, he was not primarily interested in academic scholarship. Instead, he focused on teaching future rabbis and educators to reinterpret Judaism and to make Jewish identity meaningful under modern circumstances. This was also the focus of many of his sermons and cross-continental lectures. He was heavily involved in communal efforts to improve Jewish education and was one of the founders of the New York Kehillah. He became the first rabbi of the Jewish Center, when it opened in 1918. Due to ideological conflicts with the Center's lay leadership, he resigned his position and, in 1922, organized the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. In 1935, he and his colleagues published the first issue of The Reconstructionist. A few years later, he participated in the founding of the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation.

Kaplan was frequently called upon to participate in Zionist affairs. In 1925, when the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was officially opened, the American Zionist Organization sent Kaplan to Jerusalem as its official representative. His associations with Weizmann, Brandeis, Magnes, Ben-Gurion and other prominent figures constitute interesting chapters in Zionist history. In addition, Kaplan was very active in various aspects of Jewish social work and communal organization. He traveled the length and breadth of America to spread his ideas.

Kaplan's Philosophy of Judaism

In formulating his philosophy of Judaism, Kaplan drew upon classic rabbinic sources, as well as Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers, including the thinkers of the Haskalah, and the findings of the physical and human sciences. He defined Judaism as an "evolving religious civilization," attempting thereby to aid in the adjustment of world Jewry to the social and intellectual conditions of the 20th century. He maintained that as a civilization, the Jewish people possesses all the characteristics of land, language, political structure, culture, and other characteristics associated with that designation.

While Kaplan was always an ardent Zionist, he was equally convinced that the creative survival of the Jewish people in the free Diaspora was both possible and necessary. Although Jews had been forced for many centuries to live in exile, they had become a transterritorial people by choice. As long as Jews are free, they will live wherever they choose. And so, Kaplan thought, it is highly unlikely that the ingathering of the exiles will ever be fully implemented. Therefore, he never ceased to prod his people to formulate a new covenant, which would proclaim the centrality of Ereẓ Israel in their transterritorial identity and state the historical and cultural elements of their unity and identity.

Jewish civilization, Kaplan argued, expresses its genius best in its historical religion. Religion entails clarifying the purposes and values of human existence, wrestling with God, whom Kaplan conceived in impersonal terms, and maintaining the vitality of the rituals of home, synagogue, and community. However, because Judaism is a civilization, the secular elements of culture are as essential as Jewish religion. These elements curb the frequent tendency of religion to foster rigidity, uniformity, and excessive worship of the past. For Kaplan, Jewish religion should embrace all that pertains to the Jewish people's search for a meaningful existence for itself.

By evolving, Kaplan means that Judaism should be considered from a pragmatic, historical point of view, rather than a metaphysical or revelational one. All concepts and rituals should be measured by their usefulness in sustaining individual and communal growth. The focus of Jewish life has to be the Jewish people, its needs and its response to challenge, rather than reliance on revealed texts or metaphysical constructions. Kaplan argued that the Jewish people will not and should not rely on a static theory of Judaism. After responsible study, each Jew must contribute his own understanding to solving the perplexities of life. Tradition must guide but not dictate. Kaplan fully embraced the pluralism inherent in his conception. He understood that his own naturalistic approach can be only an option. Henceforth, Jews will have to learn the art of compromise and how to orchestrate their differences with mutual respect.

Kaplan developed a concept of sancta by which he meant that civilizations differ from one another not so much ideationally in their ideas and values, which they claim are universally applicable, as they do existentially in the particular ways they express those ideas and values. For example, Kaplan designated as sancta texts, ritual and folk practices, festivals, or symbols which are regarded as sacred, namely as of special significance and as evoking respect and awe. The sancta of a civilization are continually subject to revaluation, by which they are given new meaning, much as the term democracy was differently understood in ancient Athens from the way it is currently interpreted in the United States, or in totalitarian people's democratic republics. Similarly, God and Torah were valued in different ways by Moses, Ezra, Hillel, and Maimonides. The ancient sancta of Judaism need to be subject to functional interpretation, by which Kaplan meant that we must understand how concepts and practices functioned in the lives of Jews over the centuries and how they might function today. Specifically, with regard to God, Kaplan argued that a functional interpretation of the theistic belief leads to an impersonal concept of God as cosmic process and not as a personal being. Like such nouns as parent, teacher, or president, God denotes function and not substance.

The most controversial aspect of Kaplan's thought is this pragmatic theology. Early in his career, he rejected the traditional notion of a personal God who intervenes in human affairs. Kaplan chose to emphasize the divine aspects of the universe and the creative forces that are embodied in our attempt to become fully human. His theology is complex and multilayered. He explicitly rejected the terms naturalism and humanism to characterize his thought but rather looked to what he called transnaturalism, a realm beyond but not apart from the natural, where we find the reality of the divine.

In arguing that ideas of God are correlatives of ideas of man and the cosmos and therefore bear an organic relationship to man's understanding of himself and the world, Kaplan has been criticized for what is claimed to be his excessive reliance on human reason as expressed in the latest scientific theories of his day.

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that some of the criticisms of Kaplan have only heightened the cogency of much of his thought. In defense of his theology, he exemplified intellectual modesty by pointing out that pluralism in this discipline was an ineluctable outcome of the uncertainties that seem to inhere in all efforts to plumb the depths of cosmic reality.

Kaplan was a strong supporter of the equality of women in Jewish life. He inaugurated the first bat mitzvah ceremony in 1922, when he called his daughter, Judith (Eisenstein), to read from the Torah. He publicly advocated that Jewish rituals be reconstructed to include greater equality for women. Though his ideas were advanced for his time, he never attempted to revise the liturgy to be gender sensitive. But his call for reading the Bible as an inspired but man-made document, his demand for the equality of women, his insistence on adjusting liturgy to contemporary beliefs – these and other hallmarks of his philosophy are now generally accepted in all but strictly Orthodox ranks. One persistent criticism has related to what is mistakenly held to be Kaplan's failure to appreciate the primacy of emotion in worship. Kaplan, however, argued that emotion is purer when worshippers believe in the truth of the content of their prayers.

No understanding of Kaplan can be complete without reference to his Diaries, which are contained in 27 volumes of 300 handwritten pages each. The Diaries are an unmatched collection of autobiographical data, historical source material, philosophical reflection, literary criticism, sketches of innumerable persons, and reflections on life. The originals are housed in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

On Denominationalism

For many years, Mordecai Kaplan sought to keep his philosophy of Judaism within the bounds of a school of thought. He resisted the pressure of some of his supporters to leave the Jewish Theological Seminary and accept the invitation of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise to join the faculty of the Jewish Institute of Religion (founded in 1922), a move which might well have been the precursor of a new Jewish denomination. In 1927, Kaplan finally did resign his JTS position and accepted Wise's proposal. Although some of Kaplan's Seminary colleagues might have been pleased with this step, many students and alumni were not. Kaplan bowed to their pressure, withdrew his resignation, and remained at the Seminary until he retired in 1963. Despite his dissatisfaction with the Seminary, Kaplan believed that a new denomination would further fragment the American Jewish community. He advocated that Reconstructionism be conceived as a school of thought that could operate within all the streams in the American Jewish community. By the late 1940s, however, a number of laymen in synagogues throughout the United States decided to organize an independent federation of Reconstructionist synagogues. Kaplan was unable to forestall this development.

Meanwhile, some of Kaplan's primary supporters, including Rabbis Ira Eisenstein (his son-in-law), Solomon Goldman, Max Kadushin, Milton Steinberg, Joshua Loth Liebman, and Edward Israel urged him at various times to establish a new rabbinical school. In 1963, Kaplan retired from the Seminary at the age of 82. Within a short time, his supporters, led by Eisenstein, set up the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which is now located in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. Kaplan taught willingly at the College for a year or so. In addition to the slow growth of the Reconstructionist movement, which by the beginning of the 21st century included over a 100 congregations and havurot, increasing numbers of graduates of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a successful summer camp, Kaplan's school of thought continues to permeate and to challenge other Jewish movements, especially the Reform, Conservative and modern Orthodox.

Literary Output

Although he began to publish books at what might be considered an advanced age, Kaplan was a prolific writer. His first and major work, Judaism as a Civilization, was first published in 1934, when Kaplan was 53. Other writings include A New Approach to the Jewish Problem (1924); the translation and editing of Mesillat Yesharim, by Moses Ḥayyim Luzzatto (1937); The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1937); The New Haggadah for the Pesah Seder (1941); The Faith of America (ed. with Paul Williams, 1951); Ha-Emunah ve-ha-Musar (1954); The Future of the American Jew (1949); A New Zionism (1955); Questions Jews Ask (1956); Judaism Without Supernaturalism (1958); The Greater Judaism in the Making (1960); Higher Jewish Learning (1963); The Purpose and Meaning of Jewish Existence (1964); Not So Random Thoughts (1966); The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (1970); If Not Now, When? (with Arthur A. Cohen, 1973). Over the years, Kaplan was also the dominant figure in the production of the siddurim, maḥzorim, and other liturgical material of the Reconstructionist movement. Three of the above volumes have been translated into Hebrew: The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, A New Zionism, and The Religion of Ethical Nationhood. Ha-Emunah ve-ha-Musar appeared only in Hebrew. A full bibliography of over 400 items can be found in The American Judaism of Mordecai Kaplan, ed. by Emanuel S. Goldsmith, Mel Scult, and Robert Seltzer (1990).


E.S. Goldsmith and M. Scult (eds.), Dynamic Judaism: The Essential Writings of Mordecai M. Kaplan (1985); E.S. Goldsmith, M.Scult and R.M. Seltzer (eds.), The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan (1990); M. Scult, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan (1993); D. Breslauer, Mordecai Kaplan's Thought in a Post-Modern Age (1994); J.S. Gurock and J.J. Schacter, A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community (1997); J.J. Cohen, Guides for an Age of Confusion (1998); M. Scult (ed.), Communings of the Spirit: The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan [1913–1934] (2001).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.