Kaplan, Mordecai

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KAPLAN, MORDECAI (18811983), American rabbi, author, and religious leader, was the creator of the theory of Reconstructionist Judaism and the founder of the Reconstructionist movement. The son of Rabbi Israel Kaplan, a Talmudic scholar, Mordecai Menahem Kaplan was born in Svenciony, Lithuania, on June 11, 1881. The family left eastern Europe in 1888 and reached the United States in June 1889. Kaplan was instructed in traditional Jewish subjects by private tutors while attending public schools in New York City. He received degrees from the City College of New York (1900) and Columbia University (1902) and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1902). In 1909, following a tenure as minister and rabbi of Kehillath Jeshurun, an Orthodox congregation in New York City, Kaplan returned to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he served for more than fifty years, first as principal (later dean) of the Teachers Institute until 1945, then as professor of homiletics and philosophies of religion until his formal retirement in 1963.

Beyond his roles as a leader within the Conservative rabbinate and the Zionist movement, and as an important contributor within the field of Jewish education, Kaplan's major achievement remains his formulation of Reconstructionism. He presented Reconstructionism to the public through a series of lectures and publications, chiefly Judaism as a Civilization (1934). Kaplan developed his theories in response to his own loss of faith in the traditional concept of revelation (known as Torah mi-Sinai, "the Law from Sinai"), one result of his studies with the iconoclastic Bible scholar Arnold Ehrlich. Attempting to rebuild a personal cosmology, Kaplan drew from Western philosophers and social scientists as well as Jewish sources, using the sociological findings of Émile Durkheim (18581917), the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey (18591952) and William James (18421910), and the theological insights of Matthew Arnold (18221888) in combination with the Spiritual Zionism of Aad ha-ʿAm (Asher Ginzberg, 18561927).

Kaplan considered Durkheim "the most significant influence" on his conception of religion (Libowitz, 1983). Durkheim maintained that religions did not arise as individual phenomena that spread to a group but out of a societal matrix, representing collective representations of collective realities. Religion was a vital phenomenon shared by members of a group, who came together for more than religion. For Kaplan this theory refuted the Reform (and general Western) definition of Judaism as a religion and Jewry as the members of a church, membership in which was the only link between Jews in different lands. The Durkheimian understanding meant that any solution to Judaism's problems required a program that transcended religion. Kaplan began to study the earliest known forms of Judaism, noting the onset of innovations through the centuries, some of which were accepted and absorbed into the mainstream of Jewish society whereas others died away or separated from Judaism.

The search for a general philosophic guideline directing his experiments and proposals for Judaism led Kaplan to pragmatism, as expounded by James and Dewey. He accepted James's understanding of pragmatism as an approach combining the best of both empiricist and rationalist philosophy, without being limited by abstraction or fixed principles. This included rejection of the notion of absolute truth(s), while seeking understanding through concreteness, facts, and action. He disagreed with James's focus upon the individual, however, believing that religion is primarily "a group consciousness" (Libowitz, 1983), and he sought to combine James's method of evaluation with Durkheim's group-centered understanding of religious development.

Dewey provided Kaplan a guide in this endeavor. Dewey argued that society developed as humans sought practical solutions to specific problems. Knowledge grew from experience, in matters of ethics and morality just as in science. Intelligence would direct improvements upon experience. This intelligence was never finite but in constant evolution. Kaplan applied Dewey's theories to religion, replacing traditional claims to truth with a collective search for truth based upon the actual experiences of the Jewish people. This led him to understand Judaism "functionally" rather than as "pure" philosophy or theology. This synthesis of resources made Kaplan unique among twentieth-century Jewish thinkers as a redactor who sought to combine modern science with an affirmation of Judaism.

At the heart of Kaplan's thought is his definition of Judaism as an "evolving religious civilization." Opposing those who sought the maintenance of Jewish life solely through preservation of the religion, he argued that a Jewish civilizationincluding within it a land, language and literature, mores, laws and folkways, arts, and a social structuretranscended religion. Kaplan also presented a radical change in the God idea. Preferring to use the term divinity, he rejected notions of an anthropomorphic and personal God active in human history, favoring instead a functional understanding of God as the creative source within the universe, the power that engenders a salvation to which the Jewish people have long been particularly responsive. These conceptual shifts infuriated Orthodox Jewry, creating a division exacerbated further by Kaplan's efforts to transfer the center of concern and authority from divinely revealed text to the Jewish people itself, as well as by his justification of the transcendence of Jewish law (halakhah) and custom (minhag) when those sources no longer met the needs of the Jewish people. Kaplan differed from his Conservative colleagues in his use of extratraditional resources; his approach remained distinct from that of Reform Judaism through his efforts to retain traditional forms while providing new content.

Kaplan also sought to modernize Jewish organizational structure. Realizing the superior strength of the Diaspora cultures, he argued that emancipated Jews lived within two civilizations and that, on most occasions, the general (Gentile) culture exerted the primary hold upon the individual. In an effort to counterbalance the impetus toward total assimilation, Kaplan called for maximal development of opportunities for the individual to function within a Jewish environment. The locus of those activities was to be the synagogue, which Kaplan sought to transform from a simple prayer room to a modern institution, the focus for worship, study, and recreation. Attracting supporters for these theories, Kaplan supervised the creation of the first such community and synagogue center, the Jewish Center on Manhattan's West Side, in 1918. The commitment of the lay leadership to Orthodox Jewish practice, as well as Kaplan's own temper, soon led to difficulties, however, resulting in his resignation from the center in 1922. Kaplan next established the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, which served thereafter as the living laboratory for his experiments with Jewish worship, such as the inclusion of women within the minyan (prayer quorum) and the creation of bat mitzvah as a young woman's rite of passage equivalent to the bar mitzvah.

When editing the Sabbath Prayer Book (1945), Kaplan retained the traditional service structure but replaced statements regarding resurrection of the dead with declarations that God remembered the living. In a similar manner, prayers for restoration of the Temple and the coming of the Messiah were removed in favor of recollections of the faith of those who had worshiped in the Temple and prayers for a messianic age, to be achieved through human efforts. Perhaps most controversial, because it was most readily apparent, was Kaplan's replacement of the phrase "who has chosen us from all the nations" in the benediction prior to reading from the Torah with "who has brought us near in His service." Copies of the prayer book were burned at a rally of Orthodox Jews in New York City in 1945, and a ban (issur) was pronounced against Kaplan.

Kaplan's followers included the Conservative rabbis Eugene Kohn (18871977), Ira Eisenstein (19062001), and Milton Steinberg (19031950), as well as laypeople throughout the country. Kaplan resisted their desire to establish Reconstructionism as a fourth movement within American Judaism, and Reconstructionism thus remained identified as the "left wing" of Conservative Judaism until the 1960s. Only upon his retirement from the Jewish Theological Seminary did Kaplan devote himself to the establishment of a distinct Reconstructionist movement; by then many of his concepts and practices had diffused and become accepted within Reform and Conservative Judaism. As a result, although the influence of Kaplan's ideas has been broad, the Reconstructionist movement has remained small.

See Also

Reconstructionist Judaism.


Works by Kaplan not mentioned above include The Future of the American Jew (New York, 1948; reprint, New York, 1967), which examines the needs of Jews and Judaism following the creation of the State of Israel. For an examination of religion and the concept of God as it functions within the Jewish civilization, there is The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (New York, 1937; reprint, New York, 1994). The Greater Judaism in the Making (New York, 1960; reprint, New York, 1967) studies the modern evolution of Judaism, and The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (New York, 1970) is an advocacy of the idea of ethical nationhood as the only means of avoiding world disaster. Studies of the life and works of Kaplan include Richard Libowitz, Mordecai M. Kaplan and the Development of Reconstructionism (New York, 1983), an intellectual biography drawing upon Kaplan's personal papers. Other biographical studies include Emanuel S. Goldsmith, Mel Scult, and Robert M. Seltzer, eds., The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan (New York, 1990); and Scult, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan (Detroit, Mich., 1993). Analyses of Kaplan's thought and his place in the Reconstructionist movement include Gilbert S. Rosenthal, Four Paths to One God (New York, 1973); Ira Eisenstein, Reconstructing Judaism: An Autobiography (New York, 1986), by Kaplan's son-in-law and successor as leader of the Reconstructionist movement; S. Daniel Breslauer, Mordecai Kaplan's Thought in a Postmodern Age (Atlanta, 1994); and Jack J. Cohen, Guides for an Age of Confusion: Studies in the Thinking of Avraham Y. Kook and Mordecai M. Kaplan (New York, 1999), by a leading voice in Reconstructionism for more than half a century. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, 1961) was a valuable source for Kaplan's understanding of religion and its role in society.

Richard L. Libowitz (1987 and 2005)