Kaplan, Mordecai (1881-1993), Rabbi, Activist

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Kaplan, Mordecai
(1881-1993), rabbi, activist.

Mordecai Kaplan, an American rabbi, an ideologue, and the founder of Reconstructionism, sought to integrate Judaism with the fundamental values of American civilization. Liberal yet Zionist, Kaplan believed that Judaism had to change so it could function in a democratic society. He was born in Lithuania, was educated in New York City, and lived most of his life in the United States. He was passionately Jewish and passionately American.

The traditional education he received mostly from his father gave Kaplan a solid grounding in classical rabbinic texts. His own graduate studies at Columbia University, where he concentrated on sociology, led him to formulate a religious ideology that emphasized the link between religion and experience. Although the perfection of the individual might be the aim of religion, Kaplan believed that this goal could be achieved only within the context of a community. He held that for Judaism to survive in the secular culture of the modern era, Jews must have more in common than their religion. Throughout the ages Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people bound them together into a vital organic entity. A vigorous Jewish life in America could be brouight into being, he maintained, only with the creation of new institutions appropriate to a democratic, technologically advanced society. Kaplan had a vision of the expanded synagogue as the vehicle for the survival of Jewish civilization.

Kaplan became a major force in American life through his training of rabbis and teachers from 1909 to 1963 at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the center of Conservative Judaism in America. In 1922 he established the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) in New York City to implement his ideology. In 1934 he published Judaism as a Civilization, in which he set the Jewish people, their past experience, and their present welfare at the center of his conception of Judaism. The Torah (Hebrew scriptures), revelation, and God were all explained in terms relating to Jewish peoplehood. Kaplan's openness to ritual experimentation lead to the first bat mitzvah (female confirmation) when his daughter Judith turned 12½ in 1922.

Kaplan's productivity was overwhelming when we consider that many of his books were written when he was in his seventies and eighties. In addition to his published works, he was a prodigious diarist, having produced a journal amounting to twenty-seven volumes. An intense workaholic with a very full schedule, he included among his activities teaching rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writing, lecturing throughout the country at synagogues and colleges, and functioning as rabbi of the SAJ.

Kaplan was criticized by many groups throughout his career. Traditional Jews considered him heretical because he altered the liturgy and rejected belief in a supernatural deity who performed miracles and intervened in the historical process. Secular universalists saw his nationalism (Zionism) as regressive, and some liberal religious thinkers believed that he reduced Jewish life to community values, completely omitting the spiritual element of Jewish civilization.

It is true that Kaplan rejected traditional theism in favor of process theology. Nevertheless, he affirmed the belief that the divine is experienced in the positive forces of the universe that aid human beings individually and collectively in their search for salvation (e.g., life abundant). Kaplan was no atheist, and the quest for the divine was invariably part of his religious life. His belief in group life as the vehicle for the spiritual quest eventually lead to the establishment, in 1968, of Reconstructionism as a Jewish denomination, with a rabbinical school of its own in Wyncote, Pennsylvania.

Mordecai Kaplan was vigorous and productive well into his nineties. The fact that he died in 1983 at age 102 means that in a literal sense he lived through virtually the whole saga of the American Jew in the twentieth century though he moved to Israel shortly before his death. He will be remembered primarily as the principal theologian of cultural integration within the American Jewish community and as the founder of Reconstructionism.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Heresy; Jewish Identity; Judaism; Process Theology; Rabbinate;Religious Communities; Religious Studies; Sociology of Religion; Zionism.


Kaplan, Mordecai. The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan. 1990.

Kaplan, Mordecai. The Future of the American Jew. 1948.

Kaplan, Mordecai. The Greater Judaism in the Making. 1960.

Kaplan, Mordecai. The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. 1937, 1962, 1994.

Kaplan, Mordecai. A New Zionism. 1955.

Scult, Mel. Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan. 1993.

Mel Scult